Films based on young adult novels are hot right now--so hot they're breaking box office records. While a cursory look suggests that young adults have a much larger discretionary income and more autonomy in spending it than ever before and that filmmakers are just capitalizing on that opportunity, the audiences filling the theaters for these young adult films represent a surprisingly diverse age demographic. Why? Because both young adult fiction and films have become much more popular with adults in in the past few years thanks in part to better writing, more universal themes, and cross-genre marketing. The result is a sharing of experience between young adults and adults that translates not only to money at the box office and bookstore, but to a common ground between generations that's filled with promise.
Do we hand the credit to J.K. Rowling and say it all started with the Harry Potter books and films? Or did it really start with films like The Lord of the Rings? How do children's stories like the Lorax and The Borrowers or comics like Tintin fit in to the equation?
The Hunger Games is certainly the most recent example of how insanely popular a young adult film can be and the film's momentum from its record-breaking first couple of weekends doesn't seem likely to slow down anytime soon. Of course, the books of the Hunger Games Trilogy have also been hugely popular with both teens and adults for the last several years. The idea of a dystopian world where kids are dropped into the wilderness and pitted against one another in a fight for survival is nothing new (think William Golding's Lord of the Flies way back in 1954), but the powerful way this story is told, both on the page and screen, absolutely captivates both teens and adults.
The Twilight Series of novels by Stephenie Meyer were ravenously devoured by the target young adult female audience, but what was a bit more surprising was how appealing these romance novels about vampires, werewolves, and true love were to adult women. Likewise, the first Twilight film was madly popular with women of all ages, fueled by the popularity of the books and some serious hype about the contemporary fascination with vampires and the promise of a tale of first love like no other. New Moon was equally strong as Bella battled a broken heart and came face to face with the Volturi. Eclipse explored a love triangle between Bella, Edward, and Jacob which, if not completely believable in its presentation, was certainly compelling as was Bella's steadfast determination to give up virtually everything for true love. Filmmakers decided to break the final book into two films and Twilight Breaking Dawn Part One deals with the decidedly mature subject of childbirth gone extreme--suddenly what began as a young adult saga has matured into an adult story that's basically unsuitable for all but the oldest end of the young adult market.
Where does one begin with the eight iconic Harry Potter films that broke box office records and drew huge fans from every conceivable age group? Literally everyone was reading these books--kids, parents, and young adults alike--just as fast as they came off the presses. And how about the block-long lines of people that camped out to see the films at midnight on opening night? Harry Potter was truly a phenomenon unlike any other--one that brought together young and old in a powerful shared experience that created memories that will last a lifetime.
Hugo is another film that bridges the gap between the young adult and adult markets. It's a story of a young orphaned boy struggling to solve a mystery left by his father while simply surviving, but the story transcends the situation into a universally appealing message about hope. Five Oscar awards isn't too shabby for a young adult film!
Tolkien's classic Lord of the Rings Trilogy took on truly epic proportions in the three Lord of the Rings films that absolutely re-defined the role of animation in live-action films. A young adult book series to be sure, but the films are definitely now considered classics in the adult film genre.
The Secret World of Arrietty is a film based on Mary Norton's The Borrowers--a classic book that's captivated the imaginations of generations of young adults. Sure, the film is rated G and is great for kids, but like many of Miyazaki's best films, it's just as appealing to adults.
The Adventures of Tintin is based on the classic comic by Herge, but again, the film transcends age barriers and appeals not only to kids and adults with fond childhood memories of Tintin comics, but animation fans of all ages.
Dr. Seuss' The Lorax may look like a kid's film based on a kid's picture book, but it really deals with the very grown-up subject of environmental preservationism. Of course, the movie throws in a whole new sub-plot about young love as another lure to the young adult market.
Other notable young adult films:
I Am Number Four--A young adult fantasy in which an exile seeks to discover his own heritage and the powers hidden within himself while experiencing his first love.
The Golden Compass--An orphan girl sets out on a perilous journey in search of truth and a lost friend.
The Chronicles of Narnia Series--Adventures of good versus evil that culminate (thus far) in a personal war against the darkness within.
Alice in Wonderland--An adventure tale that celebrates the strength of one young woman.
What's Up Next?
Plenty more young adult novels are coming to the movies in the next year or so including J.R.R. Tolkein's The Hobbit, Lois Lowry's The Giver, Maggie Stiefvater's Shiver, Ally Carter's Heist Society, and Ray Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451. And I hear that Scott Westerfeld's Uglies is also in production!
So what's so important about the rise in popularity of young adult films? Authors of young adult fiction are selling more copies of their books than ever before and filmmakers are breaking records for money grossed at the theaters--that certainly helps the economy. But in my mind, an equally important result is that young adults and adults are finding a common ground through entertainment--their shared experiences reading these books and watching the films are forging a connection between generations and opening avenues of communication that might not otherwise exist. Does that mean that your teen is going to suddenly confide their deepest, darkest secrets and insecurities to you on the drive home from the theater? Or that your newly-on-his-own 20-something will call you up to solicit advice about his personal life? Probably not, but you never know where a conversation about Harry's complicated relationships with his classmates and teachers, Bella's struggle to choose between Edward and Jacob and then live with the far-reaching consequences of her decision, or Katniss' determination to survive without losing her own sense of humanity might lead.