POPCORN CINEMA 45: The Chocolate War

When I watch a movie, it’s like there are two of me in the same seat. There’s that regular movie-going guy who likes blood and boobs and things that explode, the kind of movies we call POPCORN MOVIES. But there’s another fellow who accompanies him. This guy likes some of the same things as his friend, but he is a seeker and connoisseur of SERIOUS CINEMA. This guy doesn’t just want to see a movie, he wants it to change his life. It goes without saying that these guys don’t always see eye to eye

POPCORN: That’s a lotta chocolate, dude. Does somebody need a hug?

CINEMA: No, get away from me. Don’t you know there’s a virus about?

POPCORN: Yeah, I heard somethin’ about that. You just stocking up, or . . . 

CINEMA: My daughter was here. Her school is making all the students participate in a fundraiser. Well, they were. She doesn’t want to sell them, or didn’t, and her mother wasn’t being very supportive, so –

POPCORN: So she came to see her crazy-ass liberal dad who wants to protest everything.  

CINEMA: Not everything, but sometimes you just need to take a stand. To force these kids to do something that only benefits a dubious school administration is simply wrong. Naturally, they spin it to sound like she’s not supporting the student body, but the reality is that none of them are going to see a dime of that money –

POPCORN: Just preppin’ her for life, man.

CINEMA: Maybe, but I still want her to have hope that she can make a change. The cinema is populated by stories of people who don’t have a chance in hell of winning, yet they persist . . . and are sometimes even victorious.

POPCORN: Oh, I see what you’re leadin’ up to here.

CINEMA: This week’s film is 1988’s THE CHOCOLATE WAR –

POPCORN: You clever bastard.

CINEMA: – based on the 1974 novel by Robert Cormier. He was essentially one of the founding fathers of modern young adult literature, with I Am the Cheese, Fade, and The Bumblebee Flies Anyway. His books demonstrated a kind of cynicism rare for someone who wrote for so-called children. This one, however, was almost nihilistic in its depiction of peer pressure and the abuses committed by those in power.

POPCORN: Yeah, it was pretty intense.

CINEMA: The book has consistently been banned from numerous schools and libraries, due mostly to its violence and a few brief masturbation scenes –

POPCORN: Yeah, cuz no teenagers ever done that.

CINEMA: – and, I suspect, the rather bleak ending. It depends on how you look at it, I suppose, but this probably wasn’t one of those inspirational hero-makes-good stories.

POPCORN: I dunno, dude. The movie kinda changed it up.

CINEMA: But did it, though? Because I think it might have made it worse. We’ll get to that in a moment . . . wait, you’ve actually seen the movie and read the book?

POPCORN: Had to do something when I was in detention.

CINEMA: The novel and the film both begin the same way. The boys who attend Trinity Catholic High School come from all walks of life. It’s not so much a private school for the rich, though there is definitely a kind of hierarchy within its walls. Each year, all who attend are strongly encouraged to sell chocolate to raise money for the school –

POPCORN: (opening up chocolate bar) Uh-huh.

CINEMA: Hey, what – (Popcorn pulls a few crinkled bills from his pocket, then Cinema waves him off) – oh, whatever. It’s the end of the world anyway, have some goddamn chocolate. That’s what Trinity basically told their students . . . Jerry Renault is the new kid at school . . .

POPCORN: That was the same dude that played Wyatt in Weird Science, right? 

CINEMA:  Ilan Mitchell-Smith, yeah. Brother Leon, played by John Glover –

POPCORN: Lex Luthor’s dad in Smallville?

CINEMA: Right, and much more. He’s a veteran character actor, going all the way back to the role of a kidnapper in the soap opera Search For Tomorrow . . . there were a variety of other television appearances, and roles in different movies . . . Scrooged, In the Mouth of Madness, 52 Pick-Up, even a moment in Annie Hall . . . he’s often cast as a villain, which is what he is here. Brother Leon is trying really hard to become head of Trinity, and, at least in his mind, it all comes down to achieving an unprecedented quota for the annual chocolate sale –

POPCORN: (hands Cinema a chocolate bar, which Cinema accepts with a shrug)

CINEMA: . . . so the boys will have to sell twice as many chocolates at double the price. Meanwhile, there’s a not-so-secret society in the school called the Vigils. As the film begins, two of the club’s officers – Archie (played by Wally Ward) and Obie (Doug Hutchinson) – are sitting in the bleachers above the football field, picking boys for Vigil “assignments” . . . these tests of loyalty to the club . . .

POPCORN: Archie is such a douche.

CINEMA: Yes and no. As the story progressed, both on the screen and in the book, I realized that even Archie was a kind of prisoner to the social hierarchy, that he could no more do what he wanted than Brother Leon or Jerry . . . though Jerry did do what he wanted . . .  

POPCORN: Not at first, though. Douchebag sees him out there on the field, and he’s just this scrawny kid gettin’ his ass kicked. They figure the dude is gonna be easy to push around. They put him on the list and drag him in to see the Vigils. They’re all, like, when Brother Leon calls your name to go get your chocolates, you don’t take ’em. So the dude doesn’t take ’em.

CINEMA: When Brother Leon distributes them, yeah. But the orders are to refuse them only until they tell him otherwise. After a week, the Vigils have basically shown their dominance over the will of the school. But when Leon calls Jerry’s name, this time when he’s supposed to take them, and – 

POPCORN: You can shove those chocolate bars up your ass.

CINEMA: Right. To both the school and the Vigils now. Jerry stands strong, a threat to both sides. It’s not long before the Vigils are fighting amongst themselves and with Brother Leon over control of the school. In the middle of all this, there’s Jerry, standing there . . .

POPCORN: Just one stubborn son-of-a-bitch.

CINEMA: Stubborn, maybe apathetic.

POPCORN: Or like he didn’t care.

CINEMA: Uh, yeah.

POPCORN: For real, dude. Cuz, like, his mom died just before the movie. His pops is walkin’ around like a damn zombie, all numb and stuff. Jerry kinda seems like that too. But then he doesn’t take those chocolates, even when Douchebag tells him to, and it’s like that’s the only fight he’s got in him.

CINEMA: I was going to say the same thing, but with bigger words.

POPCORN: Then we get that real fight at the end.

CINEMA: That’s where the film diverges most from the novel. In Cormier’s book, Jerry has to take part in a boxing match against the school bully, which ultimately leads to him getting pummeled. He ends up in the back of an ambulance and basically loses the war. Honestly, I’ve always thought that was where the book got itself banned . . .

POPCORN: No violent ass-beatings in kids’ books?

CINEMA: Not so much that, but that the ass-beating isn’t in the name of an eventual victory. The kid just straight-up gets his ass beat . . . he loses . . . and that’s not the American way. You know, we can lose a thousand or more soldiers in war, as long as someone else surrenders . . . why do you think it took so long for us to get out of Vietnam, or even Afghanistan for that matter? We’re America, and we’re not . . . losers

POPCORN: There we go with the politics.

CINEMA: That’s more like sociology, the way we behave as a nation . . . the way it’s going to be hard for us to just hunker down and do what we’re told until this virus is under control . . . some assholes are going to be defiant in the face of science, or the government, depending on which side they’re on. That part is to some extent political, their reasons why, but it’s all part of our national sense of individualism.

POPCORN: I’m kinda scared, dude. Not gonna lie.

CINEMA: I’m not going to lie either, you’ve got reasons to be. We’re never really prepared for something like this, even in the best of times, and we know these aren’t the best of times.

POPCORN: I had a fever last week.

CINEMA: And I’ve had a cough all morning. It might mean nothing for either of us, yet here we are. They’re telling us to quarantine ourselves, but we’re over here talking about movies, posting funny memes, and going to the goddamn beach . . .

POPCORN: People are stupid, dude.

CINEMA: No argument here.

POPCORN: Dude kicked some ass in the movie, though. And the douchebag got his kicked.

CINEMA: Yeah, but sometimes it’s a Pyrrhic victory . . . and, sometimes, maybe we need to get our ass kicked. Maybe that’s the only way to really learn. Critics of the movie said that it slapped a happy ending on Cormier’s book, but in reality . . . Jerry did nothing more than help the Vigils out, at least the way I see it. There’s even a moment where this . . . look comes over his face . . . like he realized it . . .

POPCORN: Maybe, dude, I dunno. I’d rather see it the other way.

CINEMA: Great soundtrack. There’s songs by Peter Gabriel, Yaz, Joan Armatrading . . . and the director is Keith Gordon –

POPCORN: Hey, that’s the dude from Christine. The one that got his ass beat in that movie . . .

CINEMA: Uh-huh. This was his directorial debut. He went on to do all kinds of television . . . Homicide: Life on the Street, House M.D., Dexter . . . and at least one more truly great film, the wartime movie, A Midnight Clear . . .

POPCORN: Seen that one. That was a good one.

CINEMA: Another one with a kind of bittersweet ending . . .



POPCORN: So I guess your daughter doesn’t have to worry about selling these chocolates, right? Since schools are probably shut down through summer.

CINEMA: No, I think she’s going to be learning some other lessons. I think we all are.

POPCORN: She stayin’ at her mom’s then, while all this is on?


POPCORN: Hey dude, you need some company?

CINEMA: (nods) That’d be nice.

POPCORN: Alright, man. So I guess we’ll be watching some movies, huh?

CINEMA: I guess so. What the hell else is there to do right now?             

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