Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Animorphs

A quick plot summary, for the unfortunate among you who don't already know: Animorphs is a series about five young teenagers who suddenly stumble upon a dying alien (an andalite named Elfangor) who tells them about the greatest-ever threat to humanity: the yeerks. Yeerks are brain-dwelling parasites that take control of a host's mind and are able to fully control the body they inhabit as well as access memories. It is in this way that the yeerks can slowly conquer a planet from the inside out and enslave an entire race before anyone even knows a war is being fought. In an attempt to give humanity a fighting chance, Elfangor gives these five youths the ability to acquire animal DNA and morph into any animal of their choosing. It is with this small advantage that Jake, Rachel, Cassie, Tobias and Marco spy on and fight the yeerk presence on Earth in secret for three years.

I think it's going to be pretty much impossible to explain just how incredible K.A. Applegate's Animporphs series really is, but I guess it's about time I tried.

Let my opinion of the series stand very clear from the beginning of this blog: I think Animorphs is the greatest collective work of fiction ever produced. Through a series of 54 shorter books and 8 companion books that reached the length of typical novels, the sheer scope of the series alone is enough to boggle the mind. In short, this epic story is told in no less than 10,000 pages total. A number which Stephen King's lengthy magnum opus The Dark Tower series doesn't even come close to. It doesn't even cut it in half.
Now, I sense some of you are immediately doubting my claim that Animorphs is the best thing ever. "But Jordan," you whine, "that series was about kids turning into animals. It's written for ten-year-olds. How could it be greater than Star Wars or Lord of the Rings? Length isn't enough to make something great."
First, let me say that I'm surprised you would leave yourself so wide open for a "that's what she said" in your retort. In the interest of taking the high road, I'm going to let that one slide.
Secondly, I'm the first to admit that on the surface this series looks pretty stupid. Especially if you look at some of the absolutely ridiculous covers. Like this one:

But you can't judge a book by its cover, dammit!
In actuality, the grave seriousness of Animorphs is what stands out most in my memories. This isn't 10,000 pages of kids turning into butterflies. It's a 10,000 page chronicling of war, and the central themes of the series are appropriately aligned with that subject matter. Once you've suspended your disbelief and firmly settled yourself into the bizarre sci-fi nature of the material, what you've got is five teenagers who struggle with things like dehumanization, the responsibility or leadership, sanity, insanity and morality. It is told with the horror of actual war, where the battle is not only physical, but mental as well. Is it right to kill unarmed enemies? Is it right to ask a team member and friend to carry out a dangerous mission? Is it right to retreat, to continue, to do anything?
Horrible things happen with surprising frequency in this series. Characters you've grown attached to have mental break-downs, crumble under the pressure, cease to be heroes. In fact, a lot of this series serves to debunk childish notions of battle and war as being something magnificent and heroic. The battles that are fought are not great feats or victories, but rather a series of jumbled, confusing actions that leave regret and sickness in the hearts of those who fought. Each decision, whether in the heat of battle or for the greater good, comes later to haunt the character who made it, and they forever feel the weight of their actions and their own short-comings.
And not just the war itself tortures the minds of the five protagonists, but the effects of the war as well. The life of one of the main characters is completely ruined in the very first book when he is trapped, permanently, in the form of a hawk. And this series doesn't come to you with all the gentle and convenient packaging that seems to characterize children's fiction. There is no easy way out of this. For the greater part of the series, which spans over three years, this young man is trapped as a fucking hawk. He can't pursue the girl he loves, he can't live his life without fear of the elements, and he has to learn to hunt and kill mice in order to eat. Through the alternating first person telling of the series, which serves to so quickly break down any barriers between you and the fiction, the reader is immediately struck by the notion "What if that happened to someone I know? What if that happened to me?" It seems so ridiculous and so easy to furrow your brow at, but if such a thing were to actually happen it would be completely devastating, and the writing fully captures that emotion.

Beyond the ass-kicking tragedy and depth of the series, the story itself is timeless in nature. All the great elements of an epic story are there.
  • All of the main characters are memorable and specific. Their relationships are real, charming, and memorable. Alone they are readily accessible to the reader and so incredibly human that they can't help but be identified with. Before your eyes they grow and change as the nature of their burden becomes more serious, more important, and more terrifying. The leader of the group, Jake, is as memorable a hero as has ever been written.
  • The threat of the book is ultimate evil. The yeerks spread through the galaxy as an uncompromising virus, obliterating their enemies and subjecting their captured to a fate worse than death: making them a prisoner in their own mind and body. Visser Three, the leading antagonist of the series, is a straight-forward villain up in the ranks of Sephiroth and Darth Vader.
  • BUT just as Sephiroth spirals into madness because of confusion and hurt, and Darth Vader returns to the light side at the end of Return of the Jedi, these ultimates must be pushed and questioned. Sympathy for yeerks, whose natural state is blindness and powerlessness, is established. Also, our great heroes must run the risk of evil themselves when the gains of immoral actions seemingly outweigh one's own soul.
  • The loss or gain of the war is total. Either humanity is enslaved or it is not. The war is for the entire planet. The stakes are high and the story is so damn epic.
In the end it just makes me sad that I seem to be the only one who feels this way. I mean, I can't even buy an Animorphs shirt online. Because of the length, which is part of what makes this series so massively epic in the first place, no movie interpretation could ever do the series justice, and I fear the astounding story will never reach a mass audience.
My suggestion to you is to read this series. Maybe not all of it, maybe not most of it, but some of it. Your refusal to do so is unsurprising, but if you've never read and loved the Animorphs, to me you're no different than those freaks who have never seen Star Wars.

In the end, if you don't like this series, we probably don't have anything in common. It is literally the most amazing thing I've ever read.

16 comments:

  1. i completely agree with you! i have been in love with this series since it first came out. i don't understand people who refuse to read it because it is SO DAMN AMAZING! to me, it never seemed like a children's series. the books seemed like really short adult sci fi novels. and i think it is ridiculous that this series seems to have fallen by the wayside. i went into a barnes and noble yesterday and was shocked to find out that they don't even sell Animorphs books there anymore! thankfully, i heard they are rereleasing at least the first 2 books next year in the hopes of gathering a new and bigger audience. if the books sell well, they might continue rereleasing the series or possibly write a new Animorphs series - sorta like Animorphs 2.0! i heard that they will be updating the books in the rerelease to change the references to modern day references and add new technology such as cell phones, etc to make the books more relatable to a new audience.

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  2. I loved the series as well. Followed it since the second book was released all the way through to the end. The first 7~8 books, if I recall correctly, tooks months between their releases. This was an absolutely grueling period of time for me back then, but kind of a fond memory now. I wish KA will come back to this series some day; there's still a huge universe full of stories left to be told.

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  3. I AGREE WITH EVERYTHING YOU SAID.
    and what i love most about this series is the heart, the turmoil, the humor and reality of it all. it's not a fluffy kind of book where everything's all right and everyone lives by the end.

    it's very real, and i just love it.

    i think i cried more for this series than any other ones too.

    i think it also helps that K.A. Applegate is an awesome human being :))

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  4. YES YES YES YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES OH MY GOD.

    Absolutely no other work of fiction has shaped who I am as a person like these books, and it breaks my heart that it's nigh on impossible to communicate that concept to people who've never read them.

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  5. I just found this now, and it is absolutely lovely. I cannot begin to describe how much the Animorphs series has shaped my early childhood. They were really the first novels I read in full, and are pretty much the reason why I love literature as a whole. (And I began reading them at at age 7, which wasn't quite the intended marketbase, but that's neither here nor there.)

    But it's this sort of series that proves definitively that the best children's fiction is really the sort of stuff that is suitable for an older audience as well. YA literature, and children's books as a whole, for that matter, are an art form, are best when treated as such.

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    Replies
    1. DUDE! IT'S YOU!

      So, more than three years after I originally posted this, I'm just going back over my old blog because I'm a narcissist (naturally), and I noticed that this particular entry had a couple few comments on it, and I wanted to check them out. I came to your comment and I was like "hey, that picture looks familiar", so I checked your profile, and you're the fucking Cinnamon Bunzuh guy! That's crazy! Dude I was rereading the Animorphs in early 2012, and I found your site/blog/whatever through Reddit, and I absolutely loved it! You guys cracked me up. I used to have a routine where I would read an Animorphs book in one sitting on one of my days off, then jump right on the computer to see what you guys said about it. Your humor, your insights, your critiques and your shared love of the series was great and I really looked forward to it every time I finish a book. I didn't manage to make it all the way through the series, but I will soon, and I'll be using Cinnamon Bunzuh the whole time.

      Just wanted to say thanks, and I think it's totally crazy that you commented on my blog so long ago. This is a really bizarre, proud, nerdy moment for me.

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  6. "SSSSSSREEEEEEEEAAAAOOOOOOWWWWW"


    that was taxxon for, I AGREE!!


    I have no shame.

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  7. Amazing post! I read Animorphs when I was a teenager and rereading them again as I got older was always surprised by how well they stood up. It's such an underrated series in many ways.

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  8. I think Animorphs might have inspired my own novel more than I initially thought. I might have to reread the series in order to get a better understanding of what I want out of it. Thank you. Your words speak the truth. The books don't talk down to the kids, and it deals with a lot of dark subjects, and I think we became better because of it.

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  9. I read all of these wonderful books as a kid. As a young adult, I saw them in a library, and sat down to read them for nostalgia's sake. I was amazed to spot the foundations for much of my thinking patterns in these masterpieces. A lot of my ideas about morality and perspective and identity all have their seeds in Animorphs. I have since hunted down and acquired all 62 books, and now proudly display them on my bookshelf.

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  10. I had every book up to 52ish with all of the Chronicles and Visser (which is a great work by itself). I donated them to my elementary school's library and wish that I hadn't. Truly great storytelling.

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  11. I've lost my copies of the series, and there was one or two I never got to read (David's return, for instance).

    I cried when the series was over, and was depressed for a week after. Truly, this was my childhood. This series was a masterpiece and I cannot believe how underrated it seems.

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  12. I remember openly weeping on a plane at Animorphs #19 (that's how stinking traumatic that book was for me, that I actually remember which of the 60+ books it was) as an eight-year-old. I was so emotionally attached to those characters and indicative of what a masterpiece the series was, I still am. Good on you for writing this beautiful homage to what will continue to be one of my favourite book series of all time.

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