The Young Adult genre has never been more popular, with publishers, producers, and writers, all eager to unleash the next Harry Potter, Twilight or Hunger Games onto the page and then the screen.
Sci-fi blog io9 has noticed the trend, beginning an article last month with: “In the wake of The Hunger Games dominating the box office, studios are rushing faster than ever to find more young-adult books to turn into movies.” Producers and execs are panning through the dirt of a thousand similar plots and angst-ridden protagonists, all in the hope that they’ll find that one nugget that they can brush the mud off and show to the world.
So what’s the problem? Everyone wins right?
An author writes a book, people read that book and like it, then a movie studio picks it up, makes a blockbuster film that more people see, which leads to more people reading the book, and the publisher, the studio and the author are rolling in cash while fans are entertained.
That sounds like a win-win scenario. And it sort of is. But this recipe for success is leading to some bad habits, and a lot of practices that you, as a creator and consumer of entertainment, should be worried about.
Young Adults are a consumer group with increasing amounts of disposable income that they don’t have to spend on rent or car repairs or groceries. They can spend it on books, and film adaptations of books. And merchandise that accompanies films and books. It’s a synergist’s dream.
They’re also tech-savvy and tribal, making them the perfect group to incubate and nurture brands. As a demographic they’re the ones that Hollywood panders to because they’re seen as the trend-setters, and the people who, if you can snare early, can be squeezed for every penny they’ve got.
So making a feature film from a popular book is seen on the surface as a financially wise idea. What makes it bad for authors? For one thing, success tends to breed imitation, and imitation stifles innovation. The YA genre has been obsessed with magic and superstition for over a decade now, not simply because the supernatural is an easy allegorical fit for the loneliness and confusion of teenage years, but because authors and publishers have been trying to clone the trends for it started by Harry Potter, and continued with Twilight. In its glittery wake, especially after the films, came a slew of books about teenagers and vampires – Google ‘teen vampire fiction’ to get an idea of just how many.
While some imitators have been exceedingly popular none of them have managed to emulate the billion-dollar ‘book to film’ model for success. But success isn’t really the point here: it’s that trying to copy the success of a handful of massive sellers within Young Adult has led to an homogenisation of the genre, to the point where it’s now seen as a world of strong-but-angsty teens and supernatural powers (just browse your local bookshop’s YA section for proof), when it should be as diverse as the people reading them.
Writers’ and publishers’ desire to imitate the success of a handful of books has led to more original ideas being overlooked.
Book to Film to Book…
The trend for treating YA literature like a cash cow reached it’s most obvious a few years back when the book I am Number Four was released. It was rather popular, and that it spawned a film that performed well at the box office.
If you read the papers at the time you’ll know that it was a book that was practically genetically engineered to be turned into a film. It was created by Full Fathom Five, a publishing company which aims to produce books specifically so that they’ll be marketable: create a series of books, be adapted into movies or TV, and generate revenue through merchandising.
It was widely reported that the film for I am Number Four was already being shot before the book was even finished and published. But that’s not even the most unbelievable part. According to a brilliant article (seriously, read it) in the Wall Street Journal, Dreamworks and the scriptwriters for the film actually asked the book’s writers to change things in the book so they worked and looked better in the film!. Changes included putting in some new weapons that the aliens could use, and changing the book’s finale to a football field rather than the woods, which were seen as not dramatic enough.
If the idea of a book specifically created to be made into a movie and sell merchandise makes you feel sick, you better reach for a bucket. I am Number Four is not the only book written this way.
A Factory for Movies and Merchandise
The idea that the YA market promises untold wealth and cross-media fame needs to disappear, before the genre kills itself. It attracts the wrong kinds of author: ones who think that their book about a teenager who turns into a unicorn and fights crime is just the foundation for a lucrative media empire. Very few books get turned into films, and few of those films are truly successful (for every Potter or Hunger Games there’s a Golden Compass or Inkheart).
To treat YA literature as a breeding ground for movies and merchandise and the ‘Next Big Thing After The Next Big Thing’ not only feels horribly wrong, but its in danger of destroying a vibrant genre full of great writers and wonderful stories. It also does a disservice to its young readers by treating them like idiots and giving them second-rate, half-baked stories. And those young readers need good stories, because they’re the next generation to be writing them.
Over to you, readers and writers. Do you worry that YA literature is being damaged by it’s own success? Or does the prospect of success draw you to write for the genre?
Robert Smedley is a TV Reviewer and Writer. When not staring at moving images or being creative with ink, he can be found at any bar that serves a good martini.