The Chocolate War

Director: Keith Gordon  
Ilan Mitchell-Smith, John Glover, Wallace Langham

Ever since I can remember, I have always liked a good story. When I was very young, I started off by hearing fairy tales from my parents. Then when I learned to read, I started off with children's literature, and as the years passed I eventually moved into novels written for a teenage audience, and then soon after moved into novels written for adults. But even when I was very young, I didn't just settle for good stories written for books - there were a lot of times when I was happy to view a cinematic kind of story. Movies, to be more exact. Written stories did have their advantages - it was a lot easier to know what characters were thinking and feeling with writing - but the art of cinema had its own charms and advantages. I feel very fortunate that I was exposed to both books and cinema while I was growing up. Anyway, there were a few times while I was growing up when what I read (or heard read) was translated to the silver screen, and I got the opportunity to see both versions of the same story. Obviously, my first exposure to this was thanks to the Disney company, with movies such as Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and Cinderella. But I think the first non-fairy tale story that I saw a cinematic adaptation of was with The Black Stallion. Several months before the Francis Ford Coppola cinematic production was released to theaters, my second grade teacher had read the Walter Farley novel of the same name to me and my classmates. So when my parents took me and my siblings to the movie, I had a pretty good idea what I was going to see. And I did enjoy the movie, though I was a little puzzled at the time as to why the movie pretty much completely took out the part of the story when the stallion's leg got injured during the climactic race sequence.

That was my first real lesson when it came to the subject of cinema adaptations of novels, with me learning that during such adaptations, not everything in the book will make it to the silver screen. My next lesson came a few years later, when the Don Bluth animated movie The Secret of NIMH was released to theaters. Several months earlier, I and my fellow classmates had to read the source novel (Mrs. Frisby And The Rats Of NIMH) as a class assignment, so I felt pretty prepared for the movie. Imagine my surprise when I found that the movie, in a number of areas, made a number of striking changes to the story, not just limited to changing the name of the main protagonist to "Brisby". I'm not saying that the movie was worse (or better, for that matter) than the book - I'm just saying that it went its own way. Anyway, the lesson that I learned from The Secret Of NIMH was that when it comes to adapting books to the silver screen, sometimes important plot elements will be changed, from little to drastically. Having over the years read a lot of books - and seen a lot of movies - I know that each medium has its strengths and weaknesses, and that often what happens in a book can't happen in a movie for various reasons. Here's another example. When the Bill Paxton movie A Simple Plan came out in the 1990s, I saw and enjoyed it - so much so, that when I came across a used paperback of the original Scott B. Smith novel years later, I sat down to read it. But to my astonishment, I discovered how much darker and disturbing the novel was when compared to the movie, with the central figure in the book committing multiple acts not in the movie that were truly heinous. I can understand why Smith (who wrote the screenplay adaptation of his novel) didn't include these things in the movie, because it would have turned off audiences. The audience for a movie is much different than the audience for a novel, another lesson I have learned about film adaptations over the years.

Now that you know my feelings about cinematic adaptations - at least those that are based on source material I have previously experienced - you have no doubt guessed that the movie I am reviewing here - The Chocolate War - is an adaptation of a novel. And indeed it is - it's based The Chocolate Waron a novel by Robert Cormier, and not only had I read the novel before watching the movie for the first time, I had also read Cromier's little-known sequel to the novel, Beyond The Chocolate War. I first saw the movie when I was a teenager, and I remember liking it but having a major beef with a major change in the story during its translation to the screen. Finding the movie again recently, I decided to give the movie another look to see if my feelings about it would be the same. The events of the movie take place in and around Trinity Catholic High School. Every year, the students are more or less all forced to take part in the annual chocolate sale to raise funds for the school. This year, Brother Leon (Glover, Smallville) wants the school to raise more money than ever, so he contacts a student named Archie (Langham, C.S.I., billed here as "Wally Ward") for help. Archie is a member of the Vigils, a secretive student society that, for their own power as well as amusement, continually manipulates the rest of the students of the school by forcing them to do various deeds or pranks. Archie agrees to help Brother Leon and promises the Vigils will push their fellow students to sell a record amount of chocolate... but they secretly decide to have a little fun along the way. They set their sights on fellow student Jerry (Mitchell-Smith, Weird Science), a loner and newcomer to the school. The Vigils give Jerry an assignment: Refuse to sell any chocolate for ten days. Jerry immediately starts to refuse to sell chocolate for the school, upsetting the administration of the school and amusing the Vigils. However, after the tenth day has passed, Jerry continues to refuse to sell any chocolate, which soon starts to upset the power-hungry Vigils, who feel that this non-conformist could shake up the school and destroy their power in the process. Soon enough, a kind of war starts brewing up, with Archie determined to break the stubborn Jerry one way or another... and Jerry determined to stick to his guns.

More than twenty years after I first watched The Chocolate War, did I enjoy seeing it a second time? For the most part, yes, enough that I am giving it a recommendation. But as for the problem I found with the movie the first time I watched it, I still found it just as big of a problem all these years later. The big problem I had with the movie comes with what happens in the final few minutes. (Caution: If you are thinking of seeing the movie - or reading the source novel for that matter - you might want to skip the rest of this paragraph, because I am going to reveal some significant spoilers.) When I first read the novel years ago, it had some pretty strong themes that instantly stuck with me. The tragic ending of the novel had two messages, one being that sometimes being a non-conformist can bring unspeakable hardship to the person that acts that way. The other message the ending of the novel had was that life is unfair, and sometimes in life the bad guy wins. Pretty potent messages for a teenager, though these messages were ones I found to sometimes be true after all these years as an adult. But in this movie adaptation, these messages are watered down so much that many people in the audience won't pick them up. Instead, the altered ending of the movie will suggest something else to many members of the audience, that being the message, "If your non-conformist beliefs are being challenged by someone trying to force conformity on you, the best thing you can do is to beat the s**t out of that person." Even as a teenager, I didn't like this message. I knew from personal experience that it often isn't that easy to fight back, and I think many people in the audience will feel that the wrap-up of the protagonist's problems rings false, even if they have not read the novel.

In fairness to Keith Gordon, who directed and wrote the screenplay, he does add a brief scene after the climax that indicate that the protagonist questions what he has just done, and feels that maybe he should have not defied authority in the first place. Also, the very final scene of the movie hints that some things in Jerry's world have not changed, and may in fact have become worse. So some of author Robert Cormier's themes are still present in this adaptation, just not as powerful and obvious as they were in the novel. Anyway, while I wish that Gordon had stuck closer to the book when it came to the ending, I did mention earlier that overall he does make a very good movie. A former youth actor, this directorial debut of his is quite an accomplishment, especially when realizing the extremely low budget (only $500,000) of the entire enterprise. Gordon obviously knew that one of the keys to overcoming a low budget is to give the audience interesting characters and finding the right actors to play the roles. Archie is a character who is very unlikable right from the first scene he appears. But we watch this character with interest throughout, because he is extremely intelligent and we wonder just what calculated statement he will make next. Brother Leon may be responsible for the upkeep of the school and the students, but he's a devious individual who'll do anything to land the prime position of headmaster. He's seen mentally torturing a student in class in order to point out how cruel the other students are, not caring that he is obviously the real cruel one. Jerry is a fascinating figure. It's not blatantly spelled out why he continues to refuse to sell the chocolates, so we keep an eye on him for some clue. His defiance eventually makes sense, so we in the audience are eventually cheering for him to succeed. Mitchell-Smith, Glover, and Langham all give excellent performances in these three roles. In fact, the rest of the players in the largely amateur cast do a fine job as well. There were times when I could almost swear that I was peeking on real adolescents struggling for acceptance as well as power.

Gordon not only makes The Chocolate War interesting with its well-written and well-acted characters. Perhaps because there wasn't a lot of money at stake, as well as the movie being backed by a independent studio, Gordon's direction is not always straight forward. The movie often takes the time to stop and smell the roses, but what some might call padding never becomes boring. Gordon always keeps some interest even when things slow down. There are also times when Gordon takes a surreal look at things, like when Jerry remembers his mother's funeral but pictures it taking place on the school's football field. Some viewers might find strange visuals like that off-putting, but I didn't mind them at all. In fact, they put me a little off-balance, which prevented my interest waning and kept me curious to see what strangeness would happen next. Along with this, Gordon was obviously trying to induce a feeling of discomfort in much of the movie. The Catholic school depicted in this movie has a very unhealthy atmosphere. There are occasionally signs of humor in this bleakness; Bud Cort of Harold And Maude fame has a very funny cameo as a teacher who turns the tables when his students start acting strangely, for example. Though even when there is a laugh, there is always the feeling that at least one person involved is suffering to a degree, so we don't laugh very loud. And there are many other scenes that have absolutely no humor at all and are almost painful to sit through, like whenever the Vigils order helpless students to do their bidding. But while the scenes may be painful, they are alive. This movie is real life, with the cruel edge you often find in anyone's life. That alone makes The Chocolate War worth seeing. But after you watch it, find and read a copy of the novel. I think you'll agree that if the movie had been more faithful to the novel's ending, we would have had a conclusion even more powerful and thought-provoking.

(Posted February 14, 2014)

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See also: High School Hellcats, Pink Nights, The Spikes Gang