“Allegiant’s” performance has some on Wall Street doubting that Lionsgate has figured out a formula for young adult films — something it seemed to have discovered in the wake of “The Hunger Games” and “Twilight,” its other tween hit.
I’m sorry but Lionsgate never had anything figured out. I understand why Wall Street (and also Hollywood) thought they did – because the movies were making money. But Hollywood has the same blinders on about young adult (YA) material as it had for comic book movies.
Changing Comic Book Films
Despite his faults, Bryan Singer changed the face of comic book movies with the first X-Men in 2000 for one simple reason. He took the material seriously. He made a movie about comic book characters, he didn’t make a comic book movie.
Prior to X-Men, superhero movies were campy; they were often formulated like kids movies (even if they weren’t marketed toward kids) with exaggerated humor, lampoonish villains and amusing quips. Some would argue that Tim Burton, in 1989, took the material seriously with Batman. But it’s still a hyper-stylized film (as most Tim Burton movies are). While Burton may have been taking the material seriously, the studio saw not a serious comic book movie but a successful Tim Burton movie and the sequels bear that out in their outlandish characters, simple (and silly) dialog and absolute disregard to ground the material in any sort of reality. (That being said, Michelle Pfeiffer is my favorite Catwoman ever and no one will be able to pull that character off better.)
Singer grounded his film with real emotions, interesting and dramatic character arcs, serious actors and incorporated the unrealistic elements in practical, organic ways. Because, whether he grew up reading comic books or not, he took the material seriously and approached it as a film with comic book characters rather than a comic book film.
And here we are 15 years later with a slew of superhero/comic book/big franchise movies filled with great actors, directed by some of the best names in the business with huge fanbases. But where are we with YA films?
The Faltering Science of YA Films
YA is hot source material for films because Hollywood has discovered there’s money in it. We’re four major franchises in and you can’t say the filmmakers aren’t taking the material seriously. Studios (mostly) know how to make money at it. Still you get the sense that Hollywood is flying blind with YA.
Twilight was a terrible movie, horribly cast (with a few exceptions) and almost no budget. But it hit two under served demographics in women and teens and carried enough emotion from the book along with a world of hype to be successful. (It also had a pretty great soundtrack.) Plus the movies got better as the series progressed (though they coudln’t undo the bad casting). The Hunger Games was well cast and they improved the directing after the first one. The Maze Runner did pretty decent in its opening film (and granted I haven’t seen the sequel yet).
But Divergent was already a shallow story that faltered in its later books. It was Mission: Impossible to Hunger Games Clear and Present Danger. Because they didn’t understand the material well, they took it too seriously which highlighted all the ways it’s like Hunger Games but not really; Shailene Woodley is no Jennifer Lawrence (though Theo James and Liam Hemsworth make for a decent showdown). And since it was released after the first Hunger Games it just exacerbated the idea that Divergent is recycled material from a worn out dystopian genre.
It’s not the only casualty from Hollywood’s lack of understanding. Each franchise has followed the Harry Potter formula of splitting the last book in two. Because why not make $200M twice from one source?
The problem is, fans are already tired of that formula. It worked in Harry Potter because The Deathly Hallows was a giant book where the narrative split pretty cleanly (and even then there were plenty of complaints that nothing happened in the seventh film). Twilight was also a giant book but with a lot less story. Again, very little happened in the fourth film. But fans of both Harry Potter and Twilight loved those characters, (mostly) loved the on screen versions and were happy to spend more time with them even though it was an obvious ploy to make money.
Hunger Games… not so much. The third book wasn’t large enough to sustain the split, it didn’t have a clean narrative line and audiences who had never read the books had lost interest three years later. Mockingjay Part 2 only made a bit more than half of the first film.
Divergent also doesn’t have the story to sustain a split. On top of that, a lot of fans of Divergent hated the last book. The studio was going to be lucky that fans went to see ONE movie of the third book – presumably out of morbid curiosity and for Theo James (presuming that the movie doesn’t destroy Four’s character the way the book does). But to ask them to see TWO movies based on the third book? Only the most dedicated fans or audiences who’ve never read the books and don’t know what to expect are going to show up for that. Everyone else is going to wait for the fourth installment, watch the third one on Netflix and then go see the fourth. Or wait until the whole series is done and catch up then – again out of curiosity but not a love for the characters the way people love other characters and other stories.
The difference, currently, between comic book and YA movies is that geeks came to power in Hollywood. When they set their sights on comic book source material, Hollwyood quickly figured out there’s a way it’s done and there’s a way it’s not done. Because geekdom can be an unforgiving community. So they hired the geeks to be the directors, to produce the material and before you know it Chuck is showing the world how cool it is to be a geek.
Any genre is going to have better material when the people greenlighting it and creating it understand and respect what they’re working with. Nia Vardalos wrote the most successful indie movie ever because it resonated with the (now somewhat less) ignored female audience. Minority communities send Tyler Perry and Fast and Furious movies blazing through the box office. Some of those voices are more important than the YA one (though YA is at the forefront of diversity in books), but it doesn’t change that Hollywood is lacking directors, writers, producers and even studio execs who are themselves a part of the YA community.
Though I still have hope that David Heyman can to a spectacular job with the Grisha trilogy, if it ever gets made. In my count earlier of major YA franchises I didn’t include Harry Potter. Because it’s a phenomenon unto itself. Harry Potter could have gone wildly wrong if the material wasn’t understood by the filmmakers and taken seriously. In Steven Speilberg’s hands it could have been an animated, Americanized film that combined several books. But that wasn’t the Harry Potter we were given. Presumably in part due to producer Heyman who secured the film rights from JK Rowling and is attached to produce Shadow and Bone for DreamWorks.
Can you imagine a Grisha Trilogy that’s three movies; that’s dark and fun and sexy and magical; that’s brilliantly cast and looks as good as the Harry Potter films?
Can you imagine a Hollywood that understands that YA films aren’t just for teens? When to take the material seriously and how to have fun with it? That respects YA material as much as it respects anything else (which is to say not a lot)?
It paints an enticing picture and still there will be bad movies and flops and good movies that get run over in the box office and are considered failures. That’s par for the course.
But it doesn’t keep us from hoping; from going to each new film looking for something more.
How do you think Hollywood’s handled the YA source material so far? What are you hoping they do with it in the future? And what title are you desperately hoping (and secretly terrified) they’ll adapt next?