5 Rules For Making A Successful Young Adult Adaptation

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by Drew Taylor
August 20, 2013 1:07 PM
4 Comments
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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.

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4 Comments

  • JOHN T SHEA | August 20, 2013 9:17 PMReply

    I can think of two billion reasons why that Mormon housewife may not be so insane. Let's see whether 'MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES' comes anywhere close, either as book or movie. Writers should consider Drew Taylor's five 'rules' and then consider doing the exact opposite in each case.

  • Scott Mendelson | August 20, 2013 7:50 PMReply

    I too was in an advance night showing of the last TWILIGHT film. And yes, the moment when "that thing that doesn't happen in the book" happened absolutely brought the house down in every possible way (screams of horror, loud cackling in disbelieving glee, etc.). It was one of the most enjoyable movie going moments I've had in the last several years. Say what you will about TWILIGHT fans, but they are incredibly fun to watch a TWILIGHT movie with.

  • Marko | August 20, 2013 1:43 PMReply

    I think one of the major problems with something like "I am Number Four", was that it was already optioned as potential franchise before the first book was even published. And I think in regards to point 5, I think the more successful entries are ones where the first book in the series wasn't necessarily made with the intention to tell a long spralling saga either.

  • Hmm.. | August 20, 2013 1:42 PMReply

    Typical Playlist race baiting. SMH.

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