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5 Rules For Making A Successful Young Adult Adaptation

5 Rules For Making A Successful Young Adult Adaptation

When the “Twilight” franchise wrapped up its five-movie reign of terror last year, it had amassed more than $3 billion in box office receipts, firmly solidifying its place as one of the larger cultural events of the past decade. It also made Hollywood desperate to find the next “Twilight,” with studios searching high and low for a series of young adult novels with the same romantic punch and kicky entertainment value of the Stephanie Meyer books on which the movies are based. Besides the wild success of last year’s “The Hunger Games” (the sequel comes out this fall), the studios are still frantically searching for the next big thing. The latest contestant for a young adult crossover blockbuster is this weekend’s “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” which concerns both demons and angels (and, like “Twilight,” still manages to include vampires and werewolves). But does it have what it takes? 

It still remains to be seen whether or not “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” will be blessed with a robust box office haul, but at our screening earlier this week, we saw teenage girls zipping up and down the aisles adorned with the runic tattoos that the characters in the movie are branded with (it has something to do with spells or something). With “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” being the first in a long line of would-be “Twilights,” we thought it would be a good opportunity to run down what makes for a successful young adult adaptation–both creatively and financially.  

1. Star-Crossed Lovers Are A Must
If there’s one thing that is an absolute must for any young adult adaptation, it’s some kind of unnecessarily complicated romantic entanglement, usually involving some kind of supernatural or otherworldly element, just to make things really difficult. “Twilight” is obviously the benchmark for this kind of thing, with a vampire falling in love with a puny human, but it’s something that’s utilized across the board: in D.J. Caruso‘s “I Am Number Four,” there’s an alien who loves a teenage girl; “The Host” (based on a novel by “Twilight” author Stephanie Meyer) also features extraterrestrial/human romance, while “Warm Bodies” concerns maybe the most unlikely romance of all–between humans and zombies. One of the reasons that “Beautiful Creatures,” an underrated young adult adaptation from earlier this year, is one of the best of the genre is because the star-crossed lovers have a kind of metaphoric resonance. The young girl (Alice Englert) is a witch who weaves a non-magical spell on a small town human boy (Alden Ehrenreich) right before her witchy powers really start to kick in. For any teenage boy, girls possess a kind of spellbinding charm, and for young girls, this is an equally pivotal time–it’s right before they become young adults and, as Buffy can attest, it’s the moment when they can tap into their true power. Other young adult adaptations are harder to hang your hat on because they’re either set in a universe too far removed from our own (something that sometimes cripples the otherwise enjoyable “Hunger Games“) or because the star-crossed relationship is so alien that it’s impossible to find the real world equivalent. It’s hard to walk the fine balance between the feelings of alienation and otherness that accompany young adulthood and the literal otherworldliness that most of these novels and movies rely so heavily on. 

2. Be Faithful But Not Too Faithful
One of the great lessons to be learned from the “Harry Potter” series, which still stands as the towering young adult adaptation achievement and not just because of its universal critical and commercial success, is that you can represent the spirit of the book without being slavishly devoted to every letter. The “Harry Potter” movies, in a key distinction, captured the essence of the J.K. Rowling novels on which they were based; their fidelity was largely a spiritual one. Similarly, “The Hunger Games” omitted or greatly altered key moments in the book, and the movie not only didn’t suffer for it, but was better. When the ending of the last “Twilight” movie strayed from the book’s climax, we were in a theater, at the end of an all-day “Twilight” movie marathon (don’t ask), and heard the gasps of horror and shock as the movie deviated wildly from what the Twi-hards in the audience knew and loved. The very fabric of the theater seemed to be in danger of being torn apart. It was fucking awesome. Of course, director Bill Condon knew that they couldn’t mess with the books too much, so he made the deviation an elaborate fantasy sequence, which served to both make the movie his own and appease the same audience members who let out shrieks of disdain moments earlier. Instead, too many of these movies slavishly hit plot points or include unnecessary characters, to the point that the movies are less feature films and more like visual books on tape.

3. Keep The Mythology To A Minimum
This goes along with our previous point: these movies are so bogged down with labyrinthine mythology that, especially for someone who hasn’t read the books, they become an incomprehensible slog. “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” will have a lot to cover with audiences—various weapons, what those tattoos that look like runes are for, and why vampires are really bad—and how to translate that information easily is key. Audiences frequently become buried underneath mythology that can be more delicately parsed out in literary form, where a reader has hours and hours to digest the information, instead of the two-hour slam session that a movie provides. Over the course of its eight movies, the “Harry Potter” saga had a similar luxury, but even that got tripped up from time to time on the magical minutia. The worst offenders, like “The Host” from earlier this year, are nothing but esoteric plot points: the movie doesn’t exist outside of expository dialogue about aliens and chrome-plated cars and underground wheat fields. All of these things add color to the narrative, for sure, but when they become the narrative, that’s when things really break down. “Warm Bodies,” the romantic zombie comedy that was also released earlier this year, was a success both critically and financially (over $116 million worldwide) partially because there was so little cumbersome mythology weighing it down. It shaved away even the dangling mythology from Isaac Marion’s book, boiling it down to the most relatable essence. In the book and movie, zombies fall in love and become human. It’s a testament to the filmmaking that instead of explaining “why?” that they let the actors and characters sell it on their own.

4. Don’t Underestimate The Audience
One of the biggest misconceptions about these young adult movies is that, since they skewer to a younger age group, they have to be safer and more cuddly. But these are teenagers we’re talking about here and not only that, but teenagers who have grown up with access to the Internet. Things can be edgy and dark and push into uncomfortable thematic territories and the audience will still stick around. To its credit, “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones” pushes the sexuality envelope that’s pleasantly surprising, especially following the constrictively chaste “Twilight” universe, in which everything exists in an insane, Mormon house wife version of reality where people just hold hands until they’re married. Filmmakers and studios often forget that the tween audience their aiming are a sophisticated and diverse bunch, and can handle material that goes to darker edges thematically, or even does something as simple as present a cast with an array of types, instead of bland, magazine ready pretty faces. Granted, it depends on what you’re working with, but there’s no reason why a YA franchise can’t be both entertaining and smart at the same time.

5. Assume There Will Only Ever Be One
A problematic approach that has already cursed a couple, would-be franchises, is the assumption that there will be future installments. Some of this has to do with the fact that many of these movies are adapted from books that are one in a larger series, but this instinct is a symptom of a larger epidemic in Hollywood wherein every movie of notable size has to serve as the building block of a future series of films. “Harry Potter” was lucky in the sense that the success of the early installments insured that the entire series would get made, just because of the amount of money generated, both from tickets and tangential mediums (home video, merchandise, the wands they sell for $100 a pop at the Universal theme parks). But other potential franchises, like “I Am Number Four,” deliberately teased plot points and characterizations in advance of any guarantee of a followup. By already looking forward, it lessens the impact film that’s happening right now dramatically, instead of functioning as a fully enjoyable, standalone piece of entertainment. At worst, this kind of over-extended world-building, if it doesn’t work organically, plays more like a trailer for future installments—which, given the place of these movies as a small cog in a giant corporate machine, makes sense. But nobody wants to feel that watching the movie.

We’ll have to see how many of these rules are applied to the glut of young adult fare that is about to bombard multiplex screens nationwide. This fall, the highly anticipated (and, thanks to author Orson Scott Card‘s homophobic remarks, outrageously controversial) sci-fi adaptation “Ender’s Game” finally hits screens, while next spring sees the release of both “The Maze Runner” and “Divergent,” starring Shailene Woodley, which both seem vaguely “Hunger Games”-y. The same weekend that “The Maze Runner” comes out next year (Valentine’s Day weekend, of course) will also debut “Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters,” an adaptation of the popular series, and at some unspecified time next year, “The Seventh Son,” based on Joseph Delaney‘s “The Wardstone Chronicles,” will be released by Universal. Oh and in addition to this fall’s “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire,” you can look forward to “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay,” parts 1 and 2, in theaters in 2014 and 2015, respectively. “I Am Legend” filmmaker Francis Lawrence will direct all three sequels with herculean aplomb. We just hope he takes our suggestions.

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