Young adult films get a dose of reality

Above: Chloe Grace Moretz in “If I Stay.”
Doane Gregory/Warner Bros.
Chloe Grace Moretz in “If I Stay.”

To be fair, it was probably the vampires that helped bring “If I Stay” to the big screen.

The Gayle Forman young adult novel, which revolves around a teen in a coma who must decide whether to live after her family is in a horrific car accident, was optioned for film in 2008 when Stephenie Meyer’s first “Twilight” movie was on its way to becoming a money-making phenomenon. After the success of “Twilight,” studios snatched up a stack of best-selling young adult book titles and Summit Entertainment, the company that released the vampire hit, took on “If I Stay” and attached “Twilight” director Catherine Hardwicke.

But plans for “If I Stay” stalled and during the years that followed the industry focused on adapting all of the dystopian and paranormal young adult bestsellers it could — “The Hunger Games,” “Divergent,” “The Mortal Instruments,” and “Vampire Academy” among them.


But last year the formula began to change and studios started green-lighting movies based on realistic teen fiction, the kind in which teens learn about themselves without the help of factions, fangs, and sparking immortality. The hope was that Hollywood could draw the same young adult audience — made up of young women who had long been ignored by big blockbusters — with less financial risk. The dystopian, action-packed tale “Divergent” required an $85 million budget; Forman’s family drama, “If I Stay” — which opened Friday — was made for just over $10 million.

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Fewer special effects made the realistic teen drama “The Fault in Our Stars,” based on the bestseller by John Green, a relative bargain with a budget of $12 million and a huge box office return of $50 million during its opening weekend in June. Meanwhile the magic faded for the supernatural trend when the adaptation of the fantasy novel “The Mortal Instruments,” which cost $60 million, brought in less than $10 million domestically during its opening weekend.

Jonathan Glickman, president of Motion Picture Group at MGM, which took on Forman’s “If I Stay” with documentary maker R. J. Cutler attached to direct, said budget is just one of the reasons why so many studios are interested in realistic young adult novels right now. “They’re not as expensive to make,” he said. He added that publishers are also acquiring more young adult material that gets to the heart of what people want to see on screen — stories that are high on drama, multi-generational, and explore a turbulent time of life.

“I think that something occurs, especially at the end of high school,” Glickman said. “There’s a period of your life when everything matters. You are dealing with serious issues without the perspective behind it.”

There’s now a long list of realistic young adult novels in the pipeline for adaptation. After sitting on a shelf at Paramount for years, Green’s 2005 bestseller “Looking for Alaska,” a novel about a teen’s experiences at a boarding school, will be directed by Sarah Polley. The team that made “The Fault in Our Stars” is now adapting Green’s “Paper Towns” (2008). E. Lockhart’s May release “We Were Liars” was picked up by Imperative Entertainment in June. And bestseller Rainbow Rowell is working on a screenplay for her beloved 2013 novel “Eleanor & Park.” The author spent Tuesday night tweeting with fans about the script and her dream cast for various roles.


Forman would love to credit the buzz behind the film adaptation of “If I Stay” to the success of “The Fault in Our Stars,” but notes that the movies filmed at the same time; no one knew that Green’s story about two teens with cancer would be such a big-screen hit. Still, the massive success of the film will boost “If I Stay”’s profile.

“It’s just serendipitous that they’re book-ending the summer,” she said of the two movies. “I’m really glad ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ did what it did.”

Its success is also good news for her contemporaries who’ve had realistic YA films in the works, including Jandy Nelson, whose book “The Sky Is Everywhere” had Selena Gomez sign on to star shortly after it was published in 2010.

Literary agent Christopher Schelling, who reps Rowell, said he believes that studios are simply following the lead of the book industry. For years, publishers were releasing packs of paranormal and dystopian novels hoping to recreate the success of “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games.”

“The categories tend to get over-published,” he said.


Then they recommitted to acquiring what he called “the original YA” —pioneered by authors such as Judy Blume. Beverly Horowitz, VP publisher at Delacorte Press, which put out “We Were Liars,” agreed that the film industry follows lessons learned by publishing.

‘We’re back to what’s always been around and what has always been read — daily life ... but daily life, and you up the ante.’

“The shift is away from the dystopian worlds where we lose control and fight for our lives. We’re back to what’s always been around and what has always been read — daily life ... but daily life, and you up the ante,” she said, referring to the car accidents, cancer, and family secrets dominating recent YA blockbusters. “It’s daily life up to the max. It’s that you’re surviving a daily life that you recognize.”

Horowitz also said that modern, realistic young adult novels often include adult characters with depth, which means that the books can become films that appeal to generations. That’s one of the strong points of “We Were Liars,” a film she says studios may not have been so eager to adapt during the vampire/dystopian craze. Horowitz believes the book would have drawn the interest of filmmakers during the “Twilight” years because the story is so strong, but it took this shift in the culture to make it a prime movie property.

“I’m not sure it would have gotten made,” she said.

“If I Stay” trailer:

Take 2: The Fault in Our Stars

More coverage:

- Grown-ups make a comeback in young adult books

- Movie review: The Fault in Our Stars’ works to be earnest

- Movie review: ‘Vampire Academy’ doesn’t cut it

- ‘Mortal Instruments’ is not the next ‘Twilight’

- Movie review: ‘Divergent’ plays to fans of disposable dystopia

- ‘Catching Fire’ soars and skewers at the same time

- Movie review: Sun mercifully sets on ‘Twilight’

Meredith Goldstein can be reached at Meredith.Goldstein