Film Adaptations of Young Adult Literature: The Chocolate War

by Robert Cormier

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Last Updated on January 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1898

The Book

Author: Robert Cormier (1925–2000)

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First published: 1974

The Film

Director: Keith Gordon (b. 1961)

Screenplay by: Keith Gordon

Starring: Ilan Mitchell-Smith, John Glover, Wallace Langham

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Context

In the early twenty-first century, film adaptations of young adult novels were often major blockbusters that established long-running series and grossed millions, or even billions, of dollars in income from ticket sales and merchandise. Even many of the films that ultimately did not become blockbusters were initially positioned as such, with film studios choosing which works to adapt based in large part on their potential to launch profitable franchises. However, not all films are major Hollywood affairs, and this was especially true in the decades prior to the twenty-first-century boom in young adult films. The 1988 independent film The Chocolate War, though based on a novel for teenagers, serves as an intriguing counterpoint to the flashy young adult films of later decades. Made for only $700,000, the film is a quieter and more intimate production than many of its later counterparts; nevertheless, the story it tells about society and human nature is at least as significant in meaning as that in any of the popular young adult films of the early twenty-first century.

The Chocolate War is based on the Robert Cormier novel of the same name, published in 1974. The author of numerous novels for young adults, Cormier is known for works such as I Am the Cheese (1977), The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1983), and In the Middle of the Night (1995). The Chocolate War tells the story of teenager Jerry Renault, a freshman at an all-male Catholic school who comes into conflict with the Vigils, a manipulative secret society, and Brother Leon, the school's assistant headmaster. When the annual school chocolate-selling fundraiser begins, the Vigils give Jerry the assignment of refusing to sell the chocolates for ten days, after which he is expected to relent and participate in the fundraiser. However, Jerry continues to refuse to sell the chocolates after his assignment is finished, a decision that threatens the school's harshly enforced hierarchy. Though frequently challenged and even banned from schools and libraries by concerned organizations and individuals, the novel gained critical acclaim and received many awards in the decades after its publication, becoming known as a classic of young adult literature. Cormier followed the novel with the sequel Beyond the Chocolate War (1985), which features many of the same characters as well as some new ones.

The film adaptation of The Chocolate War was the directorial debut of Keith Gordon, who also wrote the screenplay. Originally an actor, having appeared in films such as Dressed to Kill (1980), Gordon received his first screenwriting credit in 1985, for the film Static. After moving into directing with The Chocolate War, he primarily pursued a career in that arena; during the first decades of the twenty-first century, he directed numerous episodes of television shows, including Dexter, Homeland, and Fargo. Starring Ilan Mitchell-Smith as Jerry and John Glover as the cruel Brother Leon, The Chocolate War received a limited release in US theaters beginning in November of 1988. The film was later released on DVD.

Film Analysis

The Chocolate War is in many ways a straightforward adaptation of Cormier's original novel. The film's narrative follows the plot of the novel closely, and numerous scenes and conversations between characters are drawn directly from the text. The beginning of the film, for instance, features a scene in which Archie (Wallace Langham) and Obie (Doug Hutchison), members of a secret society known as the Vigils, are sitting on the bleachers by the football field, watching their schoolmates practice. Archie, the “assigner” of the Vigils, chooses the students to whom he will assign bizarre and often humiliating tasks; the last name added to his list is that of Jerry Renault (Ilan Mitchell-Smith), a freshman whom he spots on the football field. Archie and Obie's conversation concerning Jerry follows the conversation depicted in the novel closely, diverging from it primarily to tighten the dialogue. Other pivotal scenes in the film likewise adhere closely to their novel counterparts; the scene in which Jerry, in accordance with his assignment, refuses to sell chocolates during a school fundraiser similarly follows along with the novel, although some of the dialogue is condensed.

As is often the case with film adaptations of novels, The Chocolate War demonstrates some of the notable challenges and benefits associated with adapting a written work for the screen. First is the challenge of conveying characters' thoughts and motivations. The novel is written in the third-person limited point of view, with the focal character changing from chapter to chapter. This enables the reader to see events through the eyes of various characters: the scene on the bleachers, for instance, is seen from Obie's point of view, and his mingled disgust at and admiration for Archie is palpable, while Jerry's first refusal to sell the chocolates is seen from the point of view of his friend Roland Goubert, known as the Goober, who is shocked by Jerry's defiance. This shifting point of view makes the thoughts and motivations of many of the characters apparent to the reader, even as the other characters are unaware of them, creating a certain degree of dramatic irony. While this is an effective narrative technique in written form, however, it presents some difficulty when it comes to film adaptations, as viewers are no longer privy to the inner workings of the characters. In large part, screenwriter and director Keith Gordon was able to convey the characters' thoughts and feelings through dialogue and the actors' body language. Jerry is in some ways a cipher, but this is perhaps a reflection of his inner turmoil and unclear motivations in the novel. The film likewise demonstrates the ways in which use of the visual medium of film can benefit a narrative. In one memorable scene, the students in one classroom have been tasked by Archie with jumping out of their seats and dancing wildly every time the teacher says the word “environment.” In the novel, this event is described by Obie, who is one of the students in the classroom. In the film, however, this is depicted visually, and the wild flailing of the students is an entertaining and comical image. However, the scene, in all its absurdity, also serves to underscore the power of Archie and the Vigils; students are willing to do anything the group commands, no matter how ridiculous it may make them look.

The bulk of the plot of The Chocolate War follows the events of the book closely, eliminating select scenes for the sake of time but nevertheless telling essentially the same story. The film's ending, however, diverges from that of the novel significantly. In the novel, as punishment for Jerry's ongoing defiance, Archie arranges for Jerry to fight bully Emile Janza in front of the other students. Prior to the fight, Archie is presented with a box of marbles and draws two white ones; had he drawn a black marble, he would have had to fight Jerry in Emile's place. The fight commences, and Jerry and Emile's moves are decided by the boys around them. Unable to defend himself, Jerry is pummeled into unconsciousness. He awakens utterly defeated and attempts to express that fact to the Goober: “He had to tell Goober to play ball, to play football, to run, to make the team, to sell the chocolates, to do whatever they wanted you to do. … Don't disturb the universe” (258–89). In the film, however, events take what initially seems to be a more positive turn, leading to a more upbeat conclusion to Jerry's story. When Archie draws from the box of marbles, he draws a black one and is thus required to take Emile's place. Jerry therefore faces off against the boy who was the cause of his pain rather than a proxy. The two fight, and Jerry emerges triumphant. However, as he hears his audience cheering for him and sees their approving expressions and gestures, his own smile fades. He has not truly triumphed; rather, he has merely fallen into the role expected of him. In the decades since the film's theatrical release, this altered ending has been interpreted by some, particularly fans of the original novel, as an attempt at a clichéd positive “Hollywood ending.” That interpretation relies generally on Jerry's apparent defeat of Archie and Archie's subsequent downfall. However, the interpretation of the film's ending as a positive one ignores Jerry's physical response to the cheers of the crowd as well as his final lines in the film: “I should have just sold the chocolates. I played their game, anyway.” With those lines, Jerry makes essentially the same point as his novel counterpart: resistance to the status quo is futile. In a discussion board post on the website IMDb, Gordon supports this interpretation, noting that he used the cliché of the protagonist defeating his enemy to demonstrate that Jerry cannot truly defeat the corrupt system around him. The film's ending, then, is neither the bleak ending of the novel nor the upbeat ending expected of most films.

Significance

As an independent production, The Chocolate War received a very limited US release beginning on November 18, 1988, playing in only eleven theaters, according to the website Box Office Mojo. The film grossed a total of just over $300,000, falling short of its $700,000 budget. Nevertheless, the film was remembered as a strong independent effort and was released on DVD in 2007.

The Chocolate War was received well by critics upon its theatrical release, with reviewers praising the performances of its actors, particularly Glover's menacing performance as Brother Leon, and the film's overall adherence to the events of the novel. A number of critics found the film too slowly paced and disliked its overall tone, while some fans of original novel objected to the few changes Gordon made to the narrative in adapting the film, particularly in regard to the ending. However, the critical response to the film was largely positive in both contemporary and retrospective reviews, a factor that likely contributed to its release on DVD nearly twenty years after its original debut in theaters.

Further Reading

  • Flowers, Mark. “Defending the ‘Hollywood Ending’: Robert Cormier on Film.” Hub. Amer. Lib. Assn., 8 Mar. 2012. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.yalsa.ala.org/thehub/2012/03/08/defending-the-hollywood-ending-robert-cormier-on-film/>.
  • Macpherson, Heather J. “The Story of ‘What If?’” Worcester Rev. 29.1/2 (2008): 36–42. Literary Reference Center. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=lfh&AN=36400971&site=lrc-live>.

Bibliography

  • Benson, Sheila. “Movie Review: Probing the Darkness in ‘The Chocolate War.’” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov. 1988. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/1988-11-23/entertainment/ca-242_1_chocolate-war>.
  • “The Chocolate War.” Box Office Mojo. IMDB.com, 2015. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=chocolatewar.htm>.
  • Goldstein, Patrick. “Dark ‘Chocolate War’ Sweet Debut for Director Gordon.” Los Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 29 Nov. 1988. Web. 7 Dec. 2015. <http://articles.latimes.com/1988-11-29/entertainment/ca-528_1_chocolate-war>.
  • Gordon, Keith. “DVD Finally on the Way!/Comment on Ending.” IMDb. IMDB.com, 6 Feb. 2006. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094869/board/nest/35326871?p=1>.
  • Kipp, Jeremiah. “The Chocolate War.” Slant. Slant, 15 Apr. 2007. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.slantmagazine.com/film/review/the-chocolate-war>.
  • Maslin, Janet. “The Chocolate War (1988).” New York Times. New York Times, 27 Jan. 1989. Web. 30 Nov. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=950DE2D91E3DF934A15752C0A96F948260>.

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