Learning to Adapt: The Cinematic Explosion of Young Adult Books

Feature Dan Hajducky 4/2/2014 at 9:48AM

Whether it's Divergent, The Hunger Games, or Harry Potter, the YA genre yields big box-office bucks, except when it doesn't.

Before Divergent's $54 million opening weekend, there was much uncertainty about how the adaptation of the first book in Veronica Roth’s blockbuster Young Adult series would fare in theaters. With its similarities to Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games, and a budget close to $100 million at a bad time for YA novel film adaptations not starring a character named Katniss, there was mostly only hope for success.

With so many YA book series being turned into films, one must wonder: What determines whether a hit YA novel will have success when it’s adapted into movie form, and why are there such disparities between the successes and the failures? To understand where we are now with YA film adaptations, we have to go back to move forward.

More than 1,000 bookstores closed nationwide from 2000-2007. Though most people would have you believe that books are failing, the climate of the publishing industry—in recent memory—is surprisingly solid, partly due to the rise of e-books. From 2008 to 2012 there was an increase of 1.7 billion dollars in trade book publishing revenue (from $13.17 billion in 2008 to $14.97 billion 2012) including a boost in nearly 150 million e-books sold from 2011-2012.

A big reason for this upswing was the booming popularity of YA novels. Authors like John Green (The Fault in our Stars, Looking for Alaska), Suzanne Collins (The Hunger Games trilogy), and Stephenie Meyer (the Twilight series) sold and continue to sell millions of books at a time when the publishing industry was supposed to be in freefall. Not only that, but the success of the fledgling genre even led to a reclassification of some classic novels; The Catcher in the Rye (now considered the original YA novel), Fahrenheit 451, the Lord of the Rings series, and To Kill a Mockingbird all graced NPR’s 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels. The YA genre played a hand in steadying the publishing industry...while simultaneously lending a helping hand to the film industry.

We’ve seen almost unprecedented monetary success with the Hunger Games films and the Twilight franchise. Even the Percy Jackson and Princess Diaries movies performed quite well. However, there have also been instances recently where plans for film franchises were scrapped when first installments like Ender’s Game, Beautiful Creatures, and Vampire Academy failed. Later this year, we will see film adaptations of blockbuster YA books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars, Lois Lowry’s The Giver, James Dashner’s The Maze Runner, and Part 1 of Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay.

Let’s take a look at what factors can affect a film series’ chances for success.

Given that there have been nearly 500 million copies of the Harry Potter books sold—a book that is considered to be middle reader and not YA—it would be hard to imagine a world in which the films would have failed. Though Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson have gone on to become household names, those names didn’t guarantee success at the time. This is also the case with Twilight. Though Kristen Stewart is—due to the success of Twilight—one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood (at $20 million per film according to Forbes) her starring-roles outside Twilight haven't been all that profitable, with the exception of Snow White and the Huntsman. Rob Pattinson’s post-Harry Potter and Twilight box office gross (outside of Water for Elephants) has been sub-par and the same can be said for Taylor Lautner. While Jennifer Lawrence was a critical darling pre-Katniss—and has scored big fan points for her recent turn as Mystique in the X-Men franchise—her role as Suzanne Collins’s heroine has led her to become one of the biggest celebrities on the planet.

While there are times when a big name attached to adaptations can guarantee success, there are examples of films that failed monetarily that had big names attached, too.

Beautiful Creatures had Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons, The Host had Saoirse Ronan and William Hurt, and though it wasn’t necessarily a failure, The Lovely Bones couldn’t turn its huge book audience into box office success...even with Peter Jackson in the director's chair and a cast comprised of Mark Wahlberg, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Rachel Weisz, and Saoirse Ronan. But this could have been due to its subject matter, and confusion over who the market audience was.

Which brings us to the next possibility: Could confusion over who in fact is reading these books be part of the issue? Though Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games are all beloved middle reader/YA novels, it’s an open secret in the publishing industry that a vast section of their reading audiences are adults. Knowing one’s intended audience is far more important in the film industry than in the book industry. Could this be what holds some of these films back?

A December 2009 LA Times article discussing the marketing push of The Lovely Bones posited that Paramount Pictures had originally believed that the film would be aimed at an adult audience (and not coincidentally around award season), but right before the release decided that the film resonated more with teenage girls than any other audience member and changed their strategy. This sort of confusion, literally up until the date of release, is troubling. Twilight, backed by the newly-independent Summit Entertainment, only had a budget of $37 million, which helped Summit become one of the most powerful studios in Hollywood (has since been bought by Lionsgate Entertainment). Lionsgate/Summit are also responsible for the surprise success of the adaptation of Isaac Marion’s Warm Bodies, which was only given a $35 million budget, but pulled in just under $117 million worldwide. Conversely, Hugo was given a production budget in excess of $150 million, Ender’s Game had $110 million, and Beautiful Creatures and Mortal Instruments: City of Bones were both given $60 million—and none of those did “well” monetarily in relation to its budget.

This is really a question that could be expanded over the entire film industry, the mindboggling logic behind so many studios banking on finding the next Iron Man, or Avatar, and overloading a film’s budget hoping to pull in a billion dollars (ahem, World War Z, anyone?). It’s also a question that is especially debatable when it comes to YA book adaptations: How much money is too much, and how are we to tell when a book audience’s fandom will translate to film?

According to the website The Numbers, all of the least profitable movies of all-time have been released since 2006. These movies include Mars Needs Moms, John Carter, Jack the Giant Slayer, Hugo, The Lovely Bones, and Cowboys and Aliens. All in all, nearly half of the list is comprised of movies that were adapted from a children’s or teen’s book/story or (in the case of Cowboys and Aliens) a graphic novel. Is it surprising that all of the aforementioned films have tonal issues (among other problems) that arguably stem from not knowing who will be watching? Due to all of the ways we can see a movie in the current day and age, it feels as if studios know their audiences less now than ever before.

There is no one factor that will determine whether a movie floats or sinks; who produces the movie, who directs it, who stars in it, who writes the script, how much money is put behind it—these things are all important, but none of these is necessarily going to make or break it. Twilight was a terrible script that had the cinematography of a high school video production project...with the worst line in the history of film, no less: “You better hold on tight, spider monkey”— yet it still made nearly $400 million on a $37 million dollar budget under Catherine Hardwicke. And New Moon made over $700 million on a $50 million dollar budget while changing directors, with the same writer (Melissa Rosenberg). But Rosenberg also wrote a good portion of the series Dexter, which most consider to be rather nuanced and brilliant. Yet regardless of director, low budget, script writer, or even film/acting quality, the Twilight franchise is one of the ten most profitable of all-time.

So what can be said of all this, taking everything into consideration? There’s certainly no surefire way to guarantee a film’s success from the studio’s end. They simply must take books that people love, hire a talented (or, at the very least, gorgeous) ensemble, find an able crew/director/screenwriter, put a conservative production behind it, aim it conservatively at a widespread audience, and hope for the best.

However, all of this uncertainty—at least in my opinion—was eased a great deal when Divergent opened to nearly $55 million domestically, and as of this week has topped $100 million worldwide. The success of Divergent is a good sign for the continued bankability of YA novels in the film world, and will absolutely green light adaptations for the remaining two books in Roth’s series. It’s also good news for Oscar-nominated Shailene Woodley, who Sony may now considering rehiring as the Mary Jane Watson to Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man. The success of Divergent may affirm her as the new “it” girl of the moment, with John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars still to come this year. With outstanding performances in The Descendants and The Spectacular Now, it would be justified. The occasional missed opportunity aside, YA adaptations have a history of launching the careers of actors, actresses, writers, and directors into the stratosphere. Maybe that's all the proof we need of their current cultural significance.

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Interesting look at YA to film adaptations. I'm actually surprised the Lovely Bones didn't do better. I thought it was quite a good adaptation, and a unique film because of that.