Comic book adaptations may get the headlines and the prime summer release slots, but young adult books are rapidly gaining ground on super heroes in Hollywood’s eyes.
This weekend’s theatrical release of the adventure "Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" is exhibit A.
While the translation of popular books to the big screen is certainly not new, the growing emphasis on adapting young adult literature – especially those books with a fantasy/supernatural bent – is a relatively recent development.
“There are dozens and dozens of Young Adult fantasy titles and series out there -- with more coming out every week,” according to Sara Gundell of the Young Adult Lit website Novel Novice.
Gundell says Hollywood is scooping up many titles as soon as they hit the shelves. And just as is happening with comics and graphic novels, many titles’ film rights are being snapped up before a single copy has been printed.
“The movie rights for “Beautiful Creatures” by Kami Garcia & Margaret Stohl were actually signed before the [first] book was released,” she said, adding that the authors of that series have four more installments planned.
Other titles getting ready for their onscreen debut include the werewolf love story “Shiver” by Maggie Stiefvater and the dystopian science-fiction tale “Uglies” by Scott Westerfeld, who also has another hit book, the steampunk period adventure “Leviathan” that has attracted Hollywood attention.
Angels are actually trying to steal market share from vampires, fairies and gods. Winged protagonists are featured prominently in “Fallen,” a love triangle from author Lauren Kate involving a young woman and two fallen angels, which was optioned by Disney last December. As well as in Becca Fitzpatrick’s “Hush Hush” and Cassandra Clare’s “The Mortal Instruments.” Ben Schrank, publisher for Penguin’s Young Readers division, says there are “probably dozens” of other titles being sought by movie producers at the moment.
Why the mad rush? Look no further than the “Twilight” phenomenon. After selling millions of books, the first two movies took in more than a billion dollars and turned Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart into international mega-stars.
Even books that haven’t experienced the success “Twilight” have sparked intense fan devotion. Some creative followers of Penguin’s popular “Vampire Academy” novels by Richelle Mead aren’t waiting for their favorite series to be optioned by a studio. They’ve started creating their own trailers and posting them on You Tube.
“There are tons of these and they are incredibly entertaining,” said Schrank. “The fans are making the movies for us!”
Visions of that kind of dedication and the success that invariably trails it are why studio executives are scouring the young readers section at local bookstores for future blockbusters. Many Young Adult fantasy books tell the same story with a different spin; the coming-of-age tale, where the hero learns his true purpose, or the mercurial, no-chance-of-succeeding love story. What these stories have that make them resonate with their target audience, what heightens the connection with the readers, is that grownups take a backseat. The kids are being asked to save the day.
That’s what happens in “Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief.”
Sharing more in common with the Godfather of the Kid-Lit set, the “Harry Potter” franchise, than the Stephanie Meyer’s teen vamp series, the first “Percy Jackson” novel was actually published several months before the first “Twilight” book.
It tells the story of a New York City teenager who has no idea he’s the offspring of the Greek God Poseidon. Accused of stealing Zeus’s all-powerful lightning bolt, Percy is forced on a quest to save his mother from Hades, clear his name and prevent a war among the Gods that threatens to cause more Earth-bound destruction than a multiplex full of Roland Emmerich movies.
The first in author Rick Riordan’s five-book series, “Percy Jackson” struck a chord with young audiences with its modern twist on Greek mythology. Percy (AKA ‘Perseus’) is alienated and alone, has major issues with his ‘rents, and even suffers from Dyslexia and ADHD.
The ‘New York Times’ awarded “The Lightning Thief” a Notable Book honor in 2005 for its clever blend of education and entertainment. Logan Lerman stars as the titular hero, along with big-name stars such as Pierce Brosnan, Uma Thurman and Sean Bean in supporting roles in a film 20th Century Fox has high hopes for.
Recent history, however, shows that turning a Kid-Lit sensation into a movie star has proven as challenging for studios as getting a handle on teenagers is for parents.
For every “Harry Potter” or “Twilight” there is a “Golden Compass,” “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events” or “Eragon” (another Fox release), films that fell short of expectation and budgetary consideration.
Disney thought it had its own fantasy franchise with “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But the spectacular success of “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe” was diminished by the underwhelming performance of “Prince Caspian” in 2008. Disney dumped the saga, and the third chapter in C.S. Lewis’ series, “Voyage of the Dawn Trader,” was in jeopardy until it was picked up by … wait for it … Fox! It will be released this December.
Given the mixed results of recent adaptations, and with so many projects of similar theme and audience share on the way, overexposure is an obvious concern for the Young Adult fantasy genre. After all, the target audience is the same fickle group that embraces and abandons TV shows such as “Gossip Girl” in the time it takes to send a text message or Twitter update. Will it reach a tipping point?
"As a fan of Young Adult fare, I say, ‘bring it on -- the more, the merrier!’ This is something I love, so why wouldn't I want more of it?,” said Gundell.
“Most fans feel the same way. We can't keep rereading the same books over and over again, and we can't keep watching the same movies over and over again. But we want something with a similar flavor -- so if more books in this genre get the big screen adaptation, it can only be a good thing.”
From the publisher’s perspective, Schrank agrees, saying, “Genres within young adult, vampires, angels, rich kids, mean girls, will come and go but we never fear overexposure.”
The “Twilight” factor has been a blessing and a curse to the Kid-Lit genre.
Comic books, and in turn, comic book movies, suffered from mainstream media slights for many years due to the perception given off by the 60s “Batman” TV series. Today it’s Young Adult books & their cinematic offspring who have to endure broad brush comparisons, but instead of to a campy television show, to the pale, pouty vampires who have become perhaps the signature fictional characters of a generation.
“People have a tendency to compare something new, to something that's already been proven successful -- but those comparisons are rarely (if ever) accurate,” Gundell points out.
“How many times have you heard people call “Twilight” the new “Harry Potter?” The two series are nothing alike!”
That aside, the rising popularity of the Young Adult fantasy genre – in books and film – perhaps can also be a reflection of the current struggles in modern society.
“We think that there's an enormous need for all things fantasy among kids right now,” said Schrank. “The country is in an economically bleak spot and kids feel that. So stories that allow readers to step outside their circumstances are really welcome.”