The Chocolate War

September 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

So when I was fourteen I forgot to bring a book for ‘silent reading’ and was therefore forced to take whichever my teacher, Mr. Mitzel–yes I remember his name which is a miracle given my horrendous track record with names–handed to me. He gave me a slim hardbound novel called The Chocolate War, which struck me at the time as the stupidest title for reading in an honours class. (Somehow I had garnered elevated notions of my own intelligence.) I had images of pre-teens hurling chocolate bars at each other for some reason in my head. Instead, I was introduced to a rather somber all-boys private school where a boy in the same grade as me had to battle the exclusive sort-of-secret group called The Vigils through pacifism. Essentially, this group schemes up terrible assignments for random boys to carry out that usually involves some sort of embarrassment for somebody. So when it comes time for the school’s annual chocolate sale fundraiser, the stand-in school headmaster with much enthusiasm and conniving enlists the boys to sell twice last year’s quota. As a joke The Vigils assign one of the students, our hero Jerome, to refuse to participate for ten days, but when he continues after the ten days it becomes direct rebellion. Anyway, at the time I was surprised that a book with such a silly title could be so good.

Robert Cormier published the novel in 1974, and it continues to be a staple of YA reading, and also continues to have terrible covers. See example below.

1986 cover. Doesn't make you want to pick it up, does it?

And almost every year the American Library Association places it somewhere in the top ten, for most often banned books, up there with J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye and pretty much everything by Judy Blume, for some absurd reason. This is probably due to sexual themes, mob mentality and genius satire, but the sexual themes are pretty tame…it’s not like we’re reading Wetlands here. As far as YA novels go, this one delves quite deep into existential questions and works as an allegory for most social and political systems. It does not end happily either. I didn’t get all of this when I first read the book in ninth grade, by the way.

Brother Leon apparently turns a classroom into "Nazi Germany".

In 1988 a film adaptation was made, which has some faults and cheesiness, but it also has a sort of urgency that makes up for all its flaws. A primarily Peter Gabriel soundtrack certainly dates the film, but not in a terrible way. It took probably four views for me to properly like the movie, because at first I was put off by heavy-handedness of the scripting, but the cinematography is good, and it captures the insanity well. I thought the headmaster/teacher, Brother Leon belonged in a different sort of film, compared to the realism of Jerome, the protagonist, but upon further contemplation, I decided that the audience is supposed to relate to Jerome and people the same way as we see them portrayed. A crazy teacher is meant to seem exaggerated in mannerisms. It also helps for satirical value. I’d say that the uncoolness of the movie suits the story just right. The book is kind of anti-cool, and not in that self-consciously ironic, or Spike Lee Do The Right Thing sort of way, but in an honest teenaged manner. I’d say most people spend their teens being socially awkward or screwed up (if not the rest of their lives) and even the popular lot in high school seem pretty demented to everybody older than them, so being uncool makes the most sense. And anyway, who can argue with a film that ends with a Kate Bush song?

I’m oddly reminded of how when I was eight and nine I sold quite a lot of chocolate.

-Stay Gold


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