With the release of the latest teen sensation Divergent starring Shailene Woodley and Theo James this Friday, it seems only fitting to examine the phenomena that is the YA (Young Adult) movie adaptation and why they continue to increase in popularity and box-office success. Whether the setting be fantastical, dystopian, futuristic or magical, there is clearly something entrancing about these literary tales being projected on the silver screen which keeps bringing audiences back for more and more…
Big screen adaptations of beloved young adult novels date back decades; films such as the original Narnia tales, Freaky Friday, The Princess Bride and particularly The Outsiders were huge successes because they were able to teleport readers into a visual representation of the worlds and stories they held so dearly. In modern times however things are a little different. Creatively, cinema is running on empty; the vast majority of releases filling multiplexes are either adaptations (be that novel, comic book, television, video game), remakes or sequels to said adaptations. A feature film with an original screenplay is surprisingly rare – a saddening but all-too-true fact. That being said, the recent surge of YA adaptations has developed through two defining factors: audience request and financial gain.
The true rising of the modern YA movie adaptation clearly starts with J.K. Rowling’s bespectacled wizard Harry Potter which over the course of seven novels and eight feature films became the highest-grossing British film franchise in cinema history. The Harry Potter films were so well received because they recreated and respected the source material, were rich with stunning set designs and awesome cinematography, and importantly they attracted major acting names. By the fourth film – Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - anyone who is anyone in British film had starred in these adaptations. The sheer quantity of on-screen talent drew numerous spectators in; regardless of their opinions on the books. As the epic finale Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2 erupted across the globe, the monumental cast and crew were enjoying untold international fame and fortune with the film topping every major box-office worldwide.
Whilst numerous other YA franchises had started getting the wheels turning throughout Harry’s adventures in Hogwarts, it was Rowling’s adaptations which really enforced on Hollywood studios that these books mean serious bucks. Some have been somewhat unsuccessful compared to the competition (The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Beautiful Creatures, The Host are just the most recent examples), but even the ones which suffer at the box-office still take considerably more than their fellow films opening in that said week – the 2011 teenager superhero flick I Am Number Four which was considered something of a flop still took in excess of $2 million on its opening weekend and raked a total of $149 million – treble the picture’s budget.
The biggest success stories post-Potter however are completely obvious, and they both belong to Lionsgate and Summit Entertainment (who also have Divergent and therfore a monopoly on the YA adaptation market); The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games. The Stephenie Meyer-penned romance tales of Bella; an introverted young woman who falls hopelessly in love with Edward; a cold but caring vampire completely enraptured the world and bought back a level of devoted fandom which could rival and maybe even better Beatlemania. The four Twilight novels adapted into five features has collectively taken in excess of $3.3 billion making it one of the highest grossing franchises in cinema history. The climatic film – Breaking Dawn: Part 2 - earned nearly $830 million from a $120 million budget.
Though the amount of money gained is absolutely staggering, as equally impressive is the sheer resistance of the audience for these adaptations. More and more authors themselves are actually creating franchises in the hope that their works will be adapted to the silver screen – Veronica Roth, author of Divergent - didn’t release her book until 2011; in amidst the rise of the YA adaptation and now she has signed a three-year deal for her trilogy of books to be adapted. It almost seems that every novel released in this format will find its way to a studio executive’s desk, and we can’t quibble with the idea. These are hits; gigantic hits which fill cinemas day in, day out. In a world petrified by piracy, franchises such as Twilight and The Hunger Games are pushing more people back into the cinema allowing for more money in the industry for smaller, independent pictures.
Bella might find herself romantically torn between a vampire and a werewolf, but Katniss Everdeen’s biggest problem is whether the person standing next to her is going to rip her throat out. The adaptations of The Hunger Games (which are still in process – Mockingjay: Part 1 reaches cinemas in November) were installed to replace Bella’s excursions and to an extent Divergent‘s arrival comes in preparation for Katniss’ final showdown. Thus far, the two Hunger Games features (the titular and Catching Fire) bought in an incredible $1.5 billion which means upon completion, it will almost certainly overtake The Twilight Saga. The 2013 sequel was the highest-grossing film of the year in the United States and stands as the tenth highest-earning film of all time. Unlike many other YA adaptations, the ordeals Katniss must undergo are huge critical successes as well as domestic. Twilight made a commercial killing and proved itself to be resilient to a toxic critical reaction, but The Hunger Games relishes the press because much like Potter, it is founded upon quality casting, design and writing.
Examining the sheer quantity of these YA adaptations can be done simply by revisiting those released last year. Over 12 months, there was eight major releases in the sub-genre and a handful of others which could be considered elsewhere (The Spectacular Now for example). 2013 alone gave us Warm Bodies, Ender’s Game, The Seventh Son, Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and others previously mentioned. Currently studios are working on a YA adaptation release every other month; that is how great the popularity and demand is for this content. Arriving this year alongside Divergent and Mockingjay: Part 1 is Vampire Academy, The Fault in Our Stars (also starring Woodley), The Giver and The Maze Runner which looks like a male-centred Hunger Games-styled drama judging from the trailers.
Regardless of your personal opinions on these pictures, the unrelenting rise of the YA adaptation is set to continue and the dollars are going to continue rolling in. Hollywood know just how profitable these movies are and the lengths filmmakers, performers, musicians and crew members will go to for involvement, and whilst they don’t always fair well with every audience member, the odd few spread their wings and ignite the spark…
Divergent opens on wide release in the UK on 4th April.