The Logic of Safety: The YA Adaption Craze
If you were to ask me what my most frequently read book genre is, it would be the young adult (YA). I remember when I was in middle and high school, I found myself hiding in the library, losing myself in fantasy worlds with resilient characters and their impressive arcs. However, this genre is not a foreign one, raking in millions annually by young readers who read it with enthusiasm. Naturally, where the money flows, the movie industry follows.
Book-to-movie adaptions are no stranger to the entertainment industry. Book-to-movie adaptations of Young Adult novels are also only marginally recent. It can be said that it began with Meg Cabot’s series, The Princess Diaries, which was brought to the big screen with two hit movies in 2001 and 2004. A few years later, the world-altering Twilight hit the scene (I remember girls reading this series avidly when I was 10), followed by the Hunger Games four years later. From here, the number of adapted movies released began to rise. Because my head was in a dystopian or fantasy YA book for most of high school, I paid attention to the movie releases of the books me and my friends knew. I was certainly (and sometimes still am) one of those people who criticised the differences between the book and film adaptation. Shortly after The Hunger Games adapted its first book of the eponymous series, Veronica Roth’s Divergent trilogy (2014) was also fully developed into three movies, but to less critical acclaim. This can be attributed to the creative liberties the films took with the plot - especially through changing major details in the last book’s subsequent film. Suddenly, scepticism over film adaptations of this much-loved book genre began to grow.
Remember Percy Jackson? Rick Riordan’s multi-book series about teen demi-gods? The sheer number of books provided plenty of material to chronicle Percy’s story, however, only two films ended up being made, both of which were relatively unsuccessful in the eyes of the book fans. Interestingly, these films were released in 2010 and 2013, in-between the critical releases of Twilight and The Hunger Games. The films grossed over 200 million worldwide, but a third sequel was never released. Some Percy Jackson fans rejoiced in this. Despite this, there are many more titles that require a special mention. The Maze Runner (2014), based on James Dashner’s novels was also adapted into a trilogy, to great success at the time but it is now easily forgotten in the Zeitgeist of popular culture. What some of these examples try to illustrate is a media strategy used to reduce economic loss by re-producing or imitating previous successes in entertainment. Aptly described as following a logic of safety, the successes of the early 2000s adaptations of The Princess Diaries and Twilight meant that more attention was paid to the genre enrapturing the young generation. However, as we are seeing, some success cannot be fully replicated, as sometimes nothing can beat the original book. Or, the adaptation did not do it justice. Furthermore, the constant dominance of the same genre with similar plotlines of run-for-your-life and young teenagers who come into their power can minimise the range of stories told.
Fortunately, the YA genre is not only focused on building dystopian or fantasy worlds. The other half takes on the complexities of adolescence, creating meaning for young people who often feel powerless. The biggest example of this which was also adapted into an award-winning film was The Fault in our Stars (2014) by John Green. The movie’s release demonstrated the other, heart-wrenching facet of the genre to the world. This led to further adaptations of Green’s novels, such as Paper Towns (2015) and Looking for Alaska (developed into a Hulu series in 2019). This, however, also fell to the homogenisation of content, with further adaptations like Love, Simon (2018) and The Sun is Also a Star (2019) also being produced. Of course, most recently, the streaming platform Netflix made its debut with YA, creating an original series based on Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone (2021), demonstrating a pivot back to the YA fantasy genre. It makes me wonder whether, at some point, new authors releasing YA novels will publish with the hopes of becoming adapted. It is not often the case, as, like many artists, authors are gratified by any size of success – big or small.
But it seems that any book that hits critical acclaim is soon picked up by a major film studio. Consequently, what we might end up seeing are authors following the logic of safety. Where we see them publishing a superfluous amount of fantasy, dystopian, and feminist plotlines including female protagonists that are either on the verge of uncovering a conspiracy and fighting for their life or trying to find the family they lost. Or even a combination of these. It has become difficult to find a YA book with an original plot nowadays. It is not impossible, but it is starting to become scarce, and I am concerned that this beloved genre’s transformation into the mainstream is losing the creative spark I originally fell in love with.