Thursday, July 21, 2016

Theory Thursday: In Defense of Young Adult Movie Adaptations

Scene from Ascendant
Welcome to a weekly column called Theory Thursdays, which will be released every Thursday and discuss my "controversial opinion" related to something relative to the week of release. Sometimes it will be birthdays while others is current events or a new film release. Whatever the case may be, this is a personal defense for why I disagree with the general opinion and hope to convince you of the same. While I don't expect you to be on my side, I do hope for a rational argument. After all, film is a subjective medium and this is merely just a theory that can be proven either way. 

Subject: Ascendant gets demoted from theatrical release to TV movie.
Theory: Young Adult Movies deserve some love.

Scene from Divergent
This weekend is going to be jam packed with news out of Comic Con. The popular annual event usually draws out the big news for the year to come in pop culture. However, there's one story that seems to be raising eyebrows on the outskirts of Comic Con news: The Divergent series' final movie Ascendant isn't going the way of its three predecessors. No, it is going to end up as a TV movie, as well as a potential TV series. There's a lot that can be read into this from the series' failing financial success to the broader idea that Young Adult (or YA) Movies are losing their appeal. In fact, it wouldn't be entirely abstract to see this demotion in textbooks of how the genre died. There have been examples of movies doing similar runs, but not often for big franchises intended to gross hundreds of millions internationally. Still, I am a little sad if the name Ascendant becomes shorthand for the death knell of YA Movies because I honestly think that they're important to the zeitgeist.

Before you raise your pitchforks and accuse me of my merited grounds, I might as well share my broad overview. I am 27 and far removed from the demographic. I am aware that some of these movies aren't designed in the slightest to impress me. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the first Divergent movie pales in comparison to other franchises that have made the rounds over the past decade. One could turn to Harry Potter as the prime example of YA Movies being effective and successful. There's no doubt that there's some appeal in adapting the popular stories, especially those that can expand into larger series. The truth is also that I don't see them all, so my opinion is in some respects based on naive consensus. However, I have seen enough to understand that while very little of this YA stuff is Oscar-worthy or year-end Top 10 material, it does feel important to keep making these films.

I think that the sting caused by Ascendant's demotion is that I am truthfully someone who wants to see Shailene Woodley succeed. Following a string of great roles that included The Spectacular Now and The Fault in Our Stars - two films that I genuinely really like - she has been a charming presence and the primordial doomed "It" girl of her generation. She seemed to be following a route taken by Jennifer Lawrence (The Hunger Games) where she would use these movies to launch her own career in more serious fare. True, she does have some quality stuff other places (maybe her Snowden role will be worthy of discussion), but the Divergent movies seem to be hurting her career as reviews continue to dwindle and the reception obviously favors going cheaper. It's not a good sign of things to come.

It may be easy to read into the panic of this blunder as the end of an era that hasn't frankly lasted all that long. Sure, film adaptations of books are nothing new. However, the idea of YA movies are likely going to be pinned as a 2010's thing solely because of the influx of films that have been released in such short time, likely to try and capture the success and career defining work that Harry Potter started for Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson. I'm talking about films like Divergent, The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games, and even the "one offs" like Ender's Game and the work of John Green. The only reassurance that is really available is that there will be teenagers always needing that film that captures their imagination and reassures the of their hormonal instincts. 

It may sound ridiculous, but YA has essentially replaced John Hughes as the voice for coming of age teens. I mostly say this because with Hughes, you knew what to expect with every passing film. They had the tropes and the soundtracks that couldn't be done anywhere else. It captured the essence of youth in a timely fashion. It was so perfectly distilled that it spawned imitators and even films like Easy A that paid homage to him. He was the cliche voice of teenagers for every generation since. Even if it's been updated countless times by Mean Girls in the mid-00's and most recently with The DUFF and the impact of technology on social interaction, the idea remains the same. Yes, the 80's featured other movies with teens facing peril, but they only seem vaguely connected to the YA phenomenon that is currently irrupting in cineplexes.

Scene from Twilight
YA Movies essentially evolved to not just be Hughes in the modern age, but Hughes in a postmodern sense. The hormonal drive to overcome oppression is still there, but more central to themes often involving dystopian settings. They're basically what Hughes would be if streamlined through a sci-fi action film or a political thriller where the campus is no longer the high school hallways, but the world that connects us all. It only makes sense, especially with the rise of technology and the devolving sense of privacy. Suddenly the message isn't so much who she will fall in love with, but also how will she save the day. Yes, most of these films - like Twilight - tend to favor romantic angles, but there's always a physical struggle that separates the conflict from the goal.

Most of all, there is one thing that seems ingrained in a way that may seem hacky and ill advised on a story level, but the stories at their core feel like the worst that could come out of them are to make teenagers more socially aware. Even if Harry Potter will forever be considered the cornerstone to this phenomenon, I personally endorse The Hunger Games as the quintessential franchise not only from an aesthetic level, but on a subject level. While many would argue that the films had diminishing returns (I for one like Mockingjay Part 1 the best), they presented a protagonist in Lawrence's Katniss that fought to overthrow corrupt government while fighting through cool looking obstacles. Yes, there was that triad romance. However, it presented a strong, independent teen fighting for freedom, and it feels like a reassuring message for a message intended to reach millions nationwide. Is it the most sound? Not exactly. However, it does provide some clarity as to what works.

As mentioned earlier, I am holding open a broad umbrella to the YA term to also just mean any young adult story adapted to film. I know it corrupts my theory a bit, though there's been some exciting work on the outskirts of YA filmmaking that don't involve uprisings. Woodley has starred in White Bird in a Blizzard, which is a darker, campier, sexier turn for her that showed an admittedly more R-Rated side of this genre. It is edgy in the way that teens love. It's defiant and powerful where it counts, connecting on a perverse and base level. Even last year's excellent The Diary of a Teenage Girl is worthy of viewing despite being extremely sexual and taboo. You may not consider these similar to Divergent or The Hunger Games in anything but actors, but there's definitely a lot that is shown in these films that help young people explore identity in ways that may be revelations of sorts. They may be more untraditional, but they definitely feel like cult titles that will pop up in an up-and-coming filmmaker's list of formative movies in about 10 years.

Scene from The Diary of a Teenage Girl
Why do YA Movies matter? The answer can more broadly be that they appeal to a young audience in need of entertainment. In fact, there's rarely been a better time for teens wanting to see themselves depicted as heroes of sci-fi blockbusters. There's a certain agency that makes it the next step in the Hughes format. In a time where blockbusters like Batman v. Superman embrace grimness, it only makes sense that the YA genre would also have a bit of an emo streak. It's not all sadness, but it's taking the familiar themes to the next level and adding a sense of purpose to be something more. The ideas may not be new, but the approach feels fresh from a studio perspective. It may become as dated as Hughes in 30 years - especially those pop-centric soundtracks - but is that necessarily a bad thing?

I know that films geared at teens will never fade. Maybe my interest or connection to them will, but I still hold out hope that there's something in those Divergent movies that connect with audiences that make them at a base level more creative and active. Where I am likely to judge them subjectively, most are likely turning to them with a new found sense of creativity and passion. The romance and angst isn't new, but very few of these films hold up to people outside those generations. It's important to have those highs and lows. Maybe Ascendant will be bad and maybe Woodley will unfortunately fade into obscurity. However, I don't wish to see this style of film making die, if just because it also can be a backdoor way of getting people to read. So I say that even if I don't like all YA Movies, I don't have any problem with them if they preach a good message. If nothing else, an entertaining movie is an entertaining movie, and that's fine enough by me.

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