From Page To Screen: Hollywood Targets YA Fiction

Mar 24, 2012
Originally published on March 24, 2012 10:32 pm

Sixteen-year-old Katniss is an accomplished archer in Suzanne Collins' young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games, so it should be no surprise that in her film incarnation, she's hit the box office bulls-eye. This dystopian wonder (for those who've been living in a cave of late, The Hunger Games is a thriller about a totalitarian society that forces teens to participate in a televised fight to the death) appears poised to join the Harry Potter and Twilight movies in the top echelon of teen-oriented page-to-screen blockbusters.

It's a relatively new category — one that didn't really exist before the eight Harry Potter films raked in a precedent-shattering $7.6 billion at box offices worldwide (and billions more in DVD and merchandise sales).

These days, every film studio is scouring bestseller lists for the next teen franchise. But until the Potter films came along, the industry tended to think of adaptations of popular novels mostly in terms of broader demographics — aiming Robert Louis Stevenson's Swiss Family Robinson squarely at family audiences, Peter Benchley's Jaws at the horror crowd, and so forth.

And there weren't really all that many series available. The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew books were optioned for television. Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote plenty of Tarzan novels that were turned into movies, but like most films in the years before the MPAA ratings system began segregating audiences into age groups, they were aimed at general audiences.

It wasn't until the 1950s and '60s, when such stars as James Dean and Annette Funicello began being marketed to younger audiences, that Hollywood thought seriously about the frequent moviegoing habits and distinctive movie tastes of teenagers.

What J.K. Rowling's teen wizard established was that young-adult fiction — otherwise represented on screen primarily in high-school romances (Nick and Norah's Infinite Playlist) and films about rebels with causes (The Outsiders) — could produce more than one-shot hits at the multiplex. With its young audience literally growing up with the characters, the Harry Potter series had box-office "legs" that put it in the rarefied company of the previously unsurpassed James Bond franchise.

The Twilight books, Stephenie Meyer's girl/werewolf/vampire fantasies, were the next mega-hits ($2.6 billion worldwide, with one movie still to come). With studios jockeying for other blockbuster candidates, there've been a few big-screen misfires (Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson and the Olympians, which barely earned back its production costs, but will nonetheless have a sequel) and wanna-bes (Pittacus Lore's Lorian Legacies; the first book, I Am Number Four, spent seven weeks atop bestseller lists, but tanked at the box office).

That may explain why publicists for Lionsgate Pictures had been cagey until this weekend about the possibility of Hunger Games sequels. But with the film selling millions of tickets before prints even shipped to theaters, the studio is now talking about the trilogy becoming — in the tradition of the Potter and Twilight series, each of which split the final novel into two parts — a four-film franchise.

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It's already been a big weekend for a particular type of fiction. If you're the parent of a teenager or a soon-to-be teenager, you're likely well aware that "The Hunger Games" opened in movie theaters across the country this weekend.


DONALD SUTHERLAND: (as President Coriolanus Snow) I'm so it was decreed that each year, the 12 districts of Panem shall offer up in tribute one young man and woman, between the ages of 12 and 18, to be trained in the art of survival and to be prepared to fight to the death.

SULLIVAN: That's Donald Sutherland, the president of a post-apocalyptic country, where teenagers are pitted against one another in mortal combat for the viewing pleasure of the populous. And if recent history is any guide, "The Hunger Games" will be the next huge film franchise to follow a successful series of books targeting a young adult audience. Bob Mondello reviews movies for ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, and he joins me in the studio. Hello, Bob.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: It's good to be here.

SULLIVAN: First of all, for all of us over 30, give us a brief synopsis of "The Hunger Games." And what did you think of it?

MONDELLO: Well, I liked it quite a bit. It's basically reality TV on steroids. This is a dystopic North America after the fall of the United States to a terrible war. And the subservient districts of this place are kept subservient by this awful thing they do with the kids, which is to remind them every year just how subservient they are. And if you're a kid and you're looking at this, it's sort of empowering because the kids are very strong and resist and the adults don't. So, oh, boy, this is the ideal teen picture, right?

SULLIVAN: Absolutely. Now, I mean, kids went nuts for these books. I mean, it's a hugely popular franchise. I was surprised to learn that this is a fairly recent trend, this young adult lit series just exploding at the box office.

MONDELLO: That's fair to say. I - the big one is...


RALPH FIENNES: (as Lord Voldemort) Harry Potter, the boy who lived, come to die.

MONDELLO: It made $7.6 billion with a seven-book, eight-movie franchise. "Twilight" is, I guess, the second biggest, which is about vampires and werewolves...


ROBERT PATTINSON: (as Edward) I, Edward Cullen...

MONDELLO: ...and is a love triangle.


ROBERT PATTISON: (as Edward) ...take you, Bella Swan...

MONDELLO: And that one has made over $2 billion. I mean, these are enormously popular.


KRISTEN STEWART: (as Bella) As long as we both shall live.

MONDELLO: And it's never happened in the past, really, largely because the box office mentality has changed. In the 1960s, people started thinking of young adults as somebody different from children with the James Dean pictures, with "The Outsiders," and suddenly, you aimed things at teenagers. And in 1970 or so, you started getting pictures like "Jaws" and "Star Wars" and things like that, real blockbusters. Prior to that, you had hits, right, and you didn't get pictures that were aimed so definitely at family audiences in the summer, for instance, and they didn't click like this.

SULLIVAN: Would you count "Lord of the Rings" in that, or what about "Narnia"?

MONDELLO: That's - "Narnia" was definitely aimed at kids. I would say that "Lord of the Rings" is aimed at a slightly older age group. It appeals more broadly. I mean, obviously, it appeals to teenagers, too, but it's not sort of aimed at them in the way that these other pictures are.

SULLIVAN: I mean, there were a lot of books that were also extremely popular, had large - there's "Nancy Drew." I grew up reading "Nancy Drew."

MONDELLO: True. And the "Hardy Boys."

SULLIVAN: And the "Hardy Boys."


SULLIVAN: Why did we not see huge "Nancy Drew" or "Hardy Boys" movies?

MONDELLO: Well, you didn't see movies, but you saw them on television. And what happened back then was - I mean, Disney, for instance, made a series of the "Hardy Boys." My guess is that back in the days when there were only three networks, basically, that those series probably played to enormous audiences by comparison with the ones that are out there today. They might, if they had been in theaters, have made the kind of money that these pictures do now. Hollywood learned its lesson, let's say.


SULLIVAN: Bob Mondello reviews movies for this program. Bob, always great to see you.

MONDELLO: It's always a pleasure.


SULLIVAN: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.