Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 44 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Directed by: Keith Gordon
Written by: Keith Gordon
(based on the novel THE CHOCOLATE WAR by Robert Cormier)
Starring: Ilan Mitchell-Smith, John Glover, Wally Ward, Doug Hutchison & Jenny Wright
Robert Cormier’s THE CHOCOLATE WAR is one of the most controversial young adult novels of all-time. It also basically formed the genre of serious adolescent literature. After reading it for a college class, I was highly surprising to find that the book had been adapted into a forgotten 80’s film. The movie wasn’t a huge hit upon its extremely limited release (11 theaters at the most), but time has buried it even further. CHOCOLATE WAR isn’t the be-all, end-all controversial book adaptation, but it is a disturbing tale of peer pressure that’s well worth checking out.
Jerry Renault is a new student at Trinity (an all-boys Catholic school with rigorous structures among teachers and students). Participating in the annual chocolate school fundraiser is expected of each and every boy attending Trinity. For the sake of not seeming like they’re exploiting students for personal gain, selling the chocolates is technically voluntary. Jerry refuses to participate and incites the rage of a secret society known as the Vigils and the school’s headmaster. As pressure builds on Jerry to conform to the expectations of those around him, the Vigils become more agitated and their measures to gain Jerry’s obedience turn more drastic. The plot plays out like a slightly more civilized version of LORD OF THE FLIES, in the sense that this takes place in a corrupt boarding school as opposed to an island where kids devolve into savagery. The savagery is already inherent in Trinity’s cliques, manipulation, and exploitation of their students.
Seeing as this is an R-rated adaptation of a young adult novel, you might expect really disturbing or shocking material. There’s nothing all-out offensive or graphic though. The concept of how far peer pressure can go and ostracizing someone for staying true to themselves are brought to realistic life. There are a handful of brief violent moments that don’t escalate above the typical schoolyard fights. The main issue I think the MPAA took from this flick was the F-bomb being dropped a couple of times by teenage boys. That it was being attached to an already controversial book may not have benefitted the filmmaker’s plea for a PG-13 either. The acting from nearly everyone is rock solid. The two main standouts are Wallace Langham as Archie and John Glover as Brother Leon. Langham comes off as an early smug carbon copy of Rory Culkin and makes you want to punch the bratty little grin of his smug face. Glover is equally disturbing as the enthusiastic and emotionally manipulative headmaster. Watching this sort of malicious behavior coming from a teenager is one thing. Seeing adults, who know better, picking on a kid for being different makes things that much more frustrating.
I can praise those two performances and throw deserved credit towards almost the entire cast, but Ilan Mitchell-Smith is wooden as Renault. His character is already a blank slate in the book and that was brought to the screen, but Smith doesn’t exactly inject any full-blown personality that may have made this protagonist into a far more likable person. Other problems with the novel find their way into this film version too. The main issue of which is that the story tends to focus far more on the Vigils than Jerry and that’s a pretty big deal. It’s definitely worth rooting against an innocent kid’s life falling apart at the hands of his peers, but focusing more on Jerry might give the viewer more of an emotional connection with him. That’s not to rail against this whole story, because it’s very interesting, upsetting and valuable. The final scenes are also slightly altered from the book. In this case, that’s a huge plus. This conclusion is so much more satisfying and plays out like a more believable ending.
CHOCOLATE WAR is a well-paced adaptation of one of the most controversial pieces of young adult literature ever written. It’s a story of peer pressure, thought-provoking material, and realism brought to the screen with balls. It’s a genuine shame that the film isn’t more well-known or recognized, because it deserves to be. The screenplay seems to focus way more on the villains than the supposed main character (who can be two-dimensional), but the good far outweighs the bad. Robert Cormier’s 1974 book needs to be read in far more classrooms and this film needs to be seen by a far bigger audience.