Why Are There No More Big-Budget YA Book Adaptations?

As the 21st century began, a new subgenre began to dominate movie theaters. Feature film adaptations of young-adult novels (or YA novels) were becoming a license to print money. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone helped to kick this trend off, with the next 15 years seeing a steady stream of other pieces of literature from this subgenre getting brought to the screen. Today, though, they’ve vanished almost entirely from the landscape of theatrical landscapes. What would’ve sounded impossible circa. 2009 is now a norm in the big-screen marketplace. What happened? What led to the golden age of YA novel adaptations reaching its final chapters?


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The Trailblazers

YA novel adaptations initially showed an admirable ability to evolve and keep ahead of potentially cynical moviegoers. Once The Boy Who Lived became a movie star, theaters were flooded with fantasy adventures about teenage white male protagonists being thrust into grand adventures. Just as the likes of The Seeker: The Dark is Rising were turning this into a cliche, twilight came around to provide a new template for YA novel adaptations to mimic. Similarly, movies like The Host and Beautiful Creatures tried to mimic twilight’s success just as The Hunger Games arrived to take the world by storm. Dystopian adventures were the new go-to mold for these movies, while The Fault in our Stars would spawn a bunch of YA novel adaptations about sick teens falling in love.

This subgenre was so ubiquitous that it was always evolving, there was always a new big hit coming around to reinvent what was considered “the norm” among YA novel adaptations. It’s not like the hallmarks of Harry Potter or twilight didn’t get turned into punchlines, but the barrage of books aimed at teens getting turned into movies ensured those hallmarks wouldn’t get run into the ground so much that audiences would vomit at the sight of a poster for a new YA novel adaptation. Unfortunately, after The Fault in our Starsthere wasn’t suddenly a new trailblazing entry in this subgenre to serve as the new model that others would imitate or that could help these features not feel stale.

A Steep Decline

By 2019, five years after stars debuted, doomed teenage romances grounded in reality were still being imitated in titles like Five Feet Apart or The Sun Is Also a Star. By contrast, it took just over three years after twilight premiered for The Hunger Games to emerge and change the YA novel adaptation game. With the lack of innovation came a new problem that began to plague the genre: box office woes. It’s not like all YA novel adaptations had thrived financially, but previously, when something like The Mortal Instruments: The City of Bones (made in the mold of twilight) flopped, a new title like Diverging (made in the mold of The Hunger Games) could come along and thrive. This would prove that new approaches to the YA novel adaptation could still lure moviegoers to the theater.

With studios not tossing out fresh approaches to these types of adaptations, they’ve grown derivative, less capable of being box office powerhouses, and less important to movie studios. Of course, this entire issue can be traced back to a single pressing issue: the shrinking of the American movie landscape. The last decade has seen a gigantic dwindling in the number of places to go for financing and distribution of movies. Both ilmmakers and moviegoers have fewer choices than ever in terms of who can make films. Not only are studios making fewer movies, but many studios have ceased to exist in the last decade.

This includes several outfits that were committed to YA novel adaptations. Summit Entertainment took a chance on the twilight novels but was absorbed into Lionsgate at the start of 2012. Even more devastating is 20th Century Fox and its Fox 2000 division, which spearheaded The Fault in Our Stars as well as other YA novel adaptations like Love, Simon and The Hate U Give. With these and other studios now either shells of their former selves or erased, there are fewer opportunities for new YA novel adaptations to get made. How can this subgenre innovate on the big screen when studios are no longer even committed to making this genre?

Streamers Save the Day

Of course, there is one outlet all too happy to make YA novel adaptations: streamer services. Netflix got one of its earliest original movie hits with the 2018 feature To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before. While the company has struggled to turn costly action blockbusters like Bright and 6 Underground into ongoing franchises, Before spawned a whole trilogy! Since then, Netflix has released the likes of All the Bright Places and the upcoming The School of Good and Evil on the platform. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Prime Video service has dabbled in the subgenre with projects like Chemical Hearts while Paramount+has On the Come Up on its Fall 2022 slate.

While theatrical movie studios are cautious and pinch pennies, streamers just need “content” to fill up their libraries. Thus, they’re a lot more open to embracing genres that theatrical studios have abandoned, including YA novel adaptations. Plus, the widespread perception that teenagers are heavy users of streaming services makes them especially ideal projects for these companies to house. While many classic movies aimed at teens often built up a lot of their cult following on home video, premiering YA novel adaptations on streaming cuts out the middle man and gets these movies to their target demo right away.

Actors Have Moved On

The dwindling presence of the YA novel adaptation on the big screen can even be seen as a byproduct of new young actors finding alternative ways to get their big break with the public. Now, the classic crop of YA novel adaptation stars actually did fine with securing both success and not being defined solely by their roles as Harry Potter, Edward Cullen, etc. But finding that balance didn’t happen immediately. Robert Pattinson spent many years being written off by people solely because he glistened in the sunlight as a vampire. Shailene Woodleymeanwhile, was shackled to her commitments to the Diverging trilogy just as her career should have been exploding after The Fault in Our Stars.

These cautionary tales may make today’s crop of young actors a little more cautious about embracing these kinds of movies. Instead, the likes of austin butler are headlining music biopics such as Elvis rather than whatever today’s equivalent to twilight es. Timothy Chalametmeanwhile, broke out with intimate dramas before doing a big epic like dunes, with nary a YA novel adaptation in sight. Meanwhile, if actors want to be attached to multi-film commitments, superhero movies are usually seen as the de facto movies to fill that hole rather than a saga based on a bunch of YA novels.

A Comeback Is on the Horizon

The world shifted underneath the feet of YA novel adaptations, with many of those factors (namely the shrinking opportunities in Hollywood) happening far beyond its grasp or control. As a result, a subgenre that once dominated theaters and inspired more knock-offs than early 1990s simpsons merch is now barely existent on the big screen. The dwindling presence of these films also can’t help but feel like another instance of Hollywood giving up on a subgenre that resonates especially deep with women. Just like with any strain of cinema that cultivates a fanbase that isn’t teenage boys, the YA novel adaptation has to fight to be seen as viable.

If there’s any consolation for the YA novel adaptation enthusiasts out there, though, it’s that genres rarely permanently go away in Hollywood. The musical and the Western were once thought of as dead and buried yet have had major 21st-century resurgences. Plus, we’re only a few years away from there being genuine and undoubtedly passionate nostalgia for properties like The Hunger Games or twilight. We’ll doubtlessly get legacy sequels to such properties (even beyond the Hunger Games prequel that’s due in 2023), but perhaps a resurgence of affection for these titles could get the YA novel adaptation back on the big screen. It wouldn’t be the first time this subgenre defined all the odds to dominate movie theaters.

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