Mention YA films – a term most often associated with films adapted from books for young adults – and most people think of sci-fi/fantasy franchises. It’s understandable as they’re the most common and popular examples, with the seventeen highest grossing YA adaptations consisting of films from just three franchises. Keep reading down the list and you’ll find only eight of the top fifty tell real-world stories without genre trappings. (And that’s including The Princess Diaries and its sequel, both of which should probably count as fantasy if we’re being honest.) Non-genre YA titles typically focus on young love, sometimes with a dash of cancer, and while those are perfectly valid topics they’re often no more thought-provoking than that Shailene Woodley franchise where she plays a girl who saves the world by being really good at multitasking.
You’d be forgiven for not knowing it, but there are actually some truly challenging and provocative YA adaptations out there too. They’re just not typically the ones that make a splash at the box-office. From Lord of the Flies (1963, 1990) to The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), smart and stimulating adaptations for developing minds do exist, and one of the absolute best turned thirty years old this month. The Chocolate War is a fantastically affecting film based on a brilliant novel that should still be required reading in schools.
Writer/director Keith Gordon made his filmmaking debut bringing Robert Cormier‘s celebrated novel to the screen, and while he altered the ending (more on that below) the book’s core themes transition to the screen with all their beauty and pain intact. It champions integrity over conformity and values the personal things worth fighting for publicly, but it also recognizes that being right isn’t always enough to leave someone standing at the end of the day.
The story follows a teenager named Jerry Renault (Ilan-Mitchell Smith, Weird Science) whose rough life is about to get a whole lot tougher. His mother recently passed away, his father fights grief with alcohol and avoidance, and his school’s secret student society has just assigned him a troubling task. The Vigils – upperclassmen who harass, prank, and bully students and teachers alike in the guise of tradition and fun – demand that Jerry refuse to sell chocolates for ten days straight in the upcoming annual drive. It’s understood that every student will participate, and after financially committing the school to double the prior year’s sales Brother Leon (John Glover, Scrooged) is furious to see Jerry resisting. The ten days pass, and Jerry takes it upon himself to continue saying no to participating in the sale. Brother Leon, the Vigils, and soon the rest of the student body turns on him, but he stays true to himself no matter the cost.
There’s a sweetly absurd simplicity to the idea that a chocolate sale sits at the center of Jerry’s dramatic rebellion, but it works in part because the contrast feels authentic. Little things can cause big ripples, and for young people in particular weight is easily given to seemingly inconsequential events. It could have been anything that triggered Jerry, but in a world where everything that matters is out of his control – his mom’s death, his father’s emotional absence, school “politics” – this is the one thing he can actually say no to. He’s unable to articulate his own reasoning, but it’s his all the same.
Brother Leon presses the Vigils’ mouthpiece Archie (Wallace Langham, The Larry Sanders Show), the one who doles out the tasks, to force Jerry’s hand, and the pressure to conform grows intensely. The Vigils can’t be ignored or disrespected after all. A student thug orchestrates a beatdown with several little kids pummeling Jerry on his walk home from school, his locker is vandalized with fecal matter, his books stolen, and prank calls come at all hours of the day and night. It’s peer pressure on a grand scale hoping to shame an individual, and the film captures the loneliness of his struggle with beauty and continual gut punches.
Those punches take on literal form when Jerry’s invited publicly to participate in a boxing match with the thug. Archie tells him it’s an opportunity for revenge and reveals too late that the punches will be picked in advance by students buying raffle tickets. They specify the hit type and who gets to do the hitting. An arcane Vigils rule lands Archie in the ring with Jerry instead, and after a few blows make it clear he won’t last long Archie resorts to cheating. Jerry responds by beating the shit out of him as the student crowd cheers, Brother Leon and the Vigils smile in approval having knocked Archie back down to size, and his only friend fails to hide his disappointment. His effort to resist and stand apart instead gave a renewed focus on the chocolate sale helping Brother Leon reach his goal, the fight showed everyone the Vigils still called the shots, and Jerry’s exuberant beatdown of Archie displayed him as entertainment at their command. “I played their game anyway.”
He wins the fight, but he loses the war.
Jerry’s journey is the heart of the film, but its observations on humanity extend throughout this microcosm of the boys’ school. His only real friend makes an attempt at joining the cause but is quickly swallowed up and manipulated by those in power. The students in general – a mob, the general population, the sheep – are easily aimed in any direction the Vigils choose. Even Archie himself isn’t immune as his own theory on what fuels people comes back to bite him. “Greed and cruelty,” are what drive far too many people he says, and he’s not wrong. As the film ends we see he’s been dropped in rank with his previous subordinate, Obie (Doug Hutchison, Punisher: War Zone), now assigning the most puerile and crass of assignments replacing Archie’s artistry with a simple desire to see people suffer.
The ideas at play here are complex, raw, and fascinating, and they invite debate and conversation. As mentioned, Gordon’s script maintains most of the novel’s beats while changing the ending. Cormier’s ending is blunter in its bleakness as Jerry fights the thug, loses, and realizes the futility of it all as a bloodied and bruised heap on the canvas. While Gordon’s ending seems at first glance to let Jerry win his physical victory is every bit of a loss in every other regard. The message is the same as his blood, sweat, and tears have been futile gestures, but there’s an added notion here that the novel lacks. We in the audience cheer for Jerry during this end fight – it’s an impossible impulse to ignore as the underdog overcomes the bully – but as Jerry’s realization sinks in we’re forced to recognize that we’ve been indicted too. We’re no better than the student crowd as we celebrate the violence orchestrated by those in power.
It’s a devastating realization, and Gordon doubles down with continually effective visuals and a score/soundtrack combination that still resonates decades later. Imagined sequences see Jerry’s heartache over his mother manifest in her appearance, and songs by artists like Yaz, Peter Gabriel, and J.S. Bach haunt the space between your ears. The film ends perfectly and beautifully with Kate Bush’s “Running Up That Hill” – Gordon wanted David Bowie’s “Heroes” but the artist wouldn’t take anything less than $100,000 for the rights despite that being one-fifth of the film’s entire budget – and all of the music adds to the tone and atmosphere helping to create a film that feels both one with our teen years and timeless in its themes.
Cormier’s novels refused to talk down to young adults and often faced censorship challenges because of it. A few others of his have been made into movies, most notably I Am the Cheese (1983) and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1999), but The Chocolate War remains a masterpiece both on the page and on the screen. (Now if only some studio would hire Gordon to adapt Cormier’s amazing and somewhat more adult novel Fade.)
Smart, thought-provoking YA literature still exists, but while a few have snuck into theaters in recent years a shift occurred around 2001 that sees no real sign of slowing down. Harry Potter & the Sorcerer’s Stone opened a door that won’t close anytime soon as effects-driven adaptations with large fanbases, multiple sequels, and other marketable aspects became the new norm. It’s not a problem unique to YA adaptations – it’s a Hollywood problem, period – but while adult brains are too far gone our young people are still mentally malleable and can be taught to think about the world in challenging and empathetic ways. They deserve better. Or we can just give them another movie where Shailene Woodley fights evil by rubbing her stomach and patting her head at the same time.
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