The Future Of Film: Novelists Will Be The New Movie Stars

Image for The Future Of Film: Novelists Will Be The New Movie Stars




When it comes to book-to-film adaptations, J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter is the colossus towering above all others, with $7.7 billion over eight movies. Stephenie Meyer's Twilight adaptations, meanwhile, hauled in $3.3 billion, while Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series have $1.5 billion accrued over two movies to date and another motza awaiting the final two. That's not to mention the bosom-heaving behemoth that is Nicholas Sparks and his never-ending circus train of romantic dramas which bound regularly to the screen with hard-to-remember names and pleasingly similar poster art.

Between them, these four writers, largely catering for the hard-to-define and misleading 'Young Adult' audience (see below) have revived the UK film industry, established franchises (and in Nicholas Sparks' case, an entire genre), launched a clutch of youthful movie stars and reliably filled Hollywood coffers for over a decade. They are, it's fair to say, rockstars with keyboards.

These sort of names represent an increasingly common cinematic super-author: a writer whose works are guaranteed movie makeovers as soon as they're thought up, and a Young Adult writer with a teenage and a middle-aged fanbase to match. When it comes to the Young Adult genre, gone are the days of a young star or director that would guarantee young people going to cinemas – sad to say, but the likes of Chloë Grace Moretz can't match a Michael J. Fox, nor can Catherine Hardwicke claim to be the new John Hughes. Now the writer and their intellectual property are king.

Shailene Woodley and Theo James in Divergent - adapted from Veronica Roth's novels.

Such extraordinary successes have encouraged studios to hunt down similar properties. While there have been flops – Beautiful Creatures (2013), Eragon (2006), City Of Ember (2008), The Host (2013), Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant (2009) and Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007) spring (or don't spring) to mind – there have been enough hits to keep the trend going. This year there's Veronica Roth's Divergent series, whose second adaptation, Insurgent, has just wrapped, and The Maze Runner, a dystopian tale by 41 year-old former accountant James Dashner, which recently opened atop the US box office.

Thanks largely to these marquee names and their old-fashioned storytelling chops, the Young Adult adaptation business is booming – much to the relief of publishers and filmmakers alike. As Hollywood struggles with falling ticket sales, competition from streaming services, piracy and more, publishing face equal challenges. Once-invulnerable businesses are seeing their traditional business models threatened on all sides. Self-publishing is cutting out the middle-man and can generate huge sums, as seen with Hugh Howey's dystopian doorstop Wool. It can also launch books like E. L. James' Fifty Shades Of Grey without the need for publishers' promotion. Then there are book-selling giants like Amazon, whose recent price-controlling strongarm tactics further squeezed margins already compressed by the increasingly popular (but less profitable) ebook market. In August, these struggles went public, with French publishing powerhouse Hachette pushing back against the online titan's stranglehold. That's leaving aside the evidence that fewer adults are reading at all.

THE YOUNG ADULT ADAPTATION BUSINESS IS BOOMING – MUCH TO THE RELIEF OF PUBLISHERS AND FILMMAKERS ALIKE.But writer, publisher and film studio are all helping each other, thanks in part to the legacy of Harry Potter. It was that series that got the all-important Millennial generation ready to read as well as to pay** for their entertainment. Thus far, it's the Young Adult world that has capitalised most. This year's biggest Young Adult novel, for example, has been significantly affected by the year's biggest Young Adult novel adaptation to date. The movie version of John Green's The Fault In Our Stars, coincidentally re-pairing Divergent's Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort, increased sales of the novel itself considerably.

"A similar thing happened with (Rick Riordan's) Percy Jackson," says Sharon Cullen of Penguin's Puffin Fiction Division. "We'd published the series for a long time and were passionate about it, but it wasn't until the film happened that the books exploded. It was the same with Fault In Our Stars: a huge bestseller for us last year and already the biggest selling book of the year before the film came out this summer. The film took it to another level."

Though Fault had been in the top ten for several weeks preceding the film's release, once it was in cinemas it jumped to the number one spot, beating Robert Galbraith (Rowling's nom de plume) and the new Bridget Jones to the top. "When it reaches this point it becomes a crossover," says Cullen, "because you don't get that volume when you've got just teenagers buying it. It's become something for adults, for teens," she continues, "for everyone".

That was just the classic edition. The edition with the movie tie-in cover was number three in the UK bestseller charts at the same time, which means that, if added together, the book would be lightyears above its nearest rival during the film's theatrical run. "The film trailer came out at the end of January and we spiked then as well!" laughs Cullen. "The trailer became the most popular movie trailer in the history of YouTube." At the time of writing, the trailer for The Fault In Our Stars is approaching 30 million views, with only Fifty Shades Of Grey now ahead of it.

Fifty Shades Of Grey
Jamie Dornan in the upcoming Fifty Shades Of Grey movie - the trailer has become the most-viewed in the history of YouTube.

What Does 'Young Adult' Actually Mean?

To some, calling a book or a film 'Young Adult' is an insult to the young, the adult, young adults (also known as teenagers – remember them?), and any hyper-intelligent infants curious enough to read or watch the product in question in either medium. To Box Office Mojo, the final word in how much a movie has made theatrically, these releases are simply "Adaptations of books aimed at 10-17 year-olds." To Shannon Cullen, publisher of Penguin's Puffin Fiction division, "it's just become a sort of terminology, really."

As the publisher behind Meg Rosoff's How I Live Now (adapted by Kevin Macdonald in 2013, starring Saoirse Ronan), Jeff Kinney's Diary Of A Wimpy Kid series (adapted by Thor Freudenthal in 2010, with two sequels over the following two years) and Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson books (adapted by Chris Columbus into Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief in 2010 and then by Thor Freudenthal – him again – for the sequel, Sea Of Monsters, in 2012), Cullen is perfectly placed to clear up the commenter-riling conundrum of what the hell a 'Young Adult' anything is.

"To be honest, I haven't really thought about it too much," she hesitates. "Because we've used it for such a long time. We call it 'Teen' as well, but what's important is that I wouldn't say to a teenager that they were reading children's books. Really, they're just written for people to read and the age doesn't matter."

As pointed out in a 'Down with this sort of thing' article on Slate, a 2012 study revealed that 55 per cent of readers of Young Adult fiction are actually Regular Adults and the same applies to movies like The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, which studio Lionsgate was proud to announce had an audience that was 50% over 25, with the first film skewing older.

More important than the nomenclature is the fact that YA is not, strictly, a genre. It's a description of the ostensible target market for many of these books – given the adult readership, an inaccurate one – and a description of most of the protagonists – who may, however, age to adulthood in the course of their stories. In the end, it's largely a convenient catch-all term for stories with young protagonists, caught at an inherently dramatic moment in their lives, whether those are sci-fi, fantasy or simple drama.

With the combined might of publishing house and studio in lockstep, each film or book essentially gets two marketing departments for the price of one. They also benefit from these writers' often extraordinary, and intimate, reach to their readership, built via the old-fashioned expenditure of shoe leather. John Scalzi, whose sci-fi novels Redshirts and Old Man's War are both mid-adaptation, has recently embarked on a gruelling tour that will cover bookstores, both large and cranny-sized, along the East Coast. "I do several conventions and book fairs a year," he explains of the merits of these often cosy gatherings, "but anecdotally, there's a large number of people who show up to my bookstore events who aren't going to go to something like a Comic-Con." A book tour, he enthuses, can be the difference between accruing casual fans and "lifelong readers of your work" who recommend it to others. Thanks to writers' efforts, studios also reap longer term benefits. Every fan of the book is a potential fan of the movie and, as Scalzi infers, an unofficial marketeer for both. Using film art on new editions of a book keeps the "brand" tied together, helping the DVD campaign in due course. And by marketing tie-in jackets, readers are encouraged to buy hard print copies instead of digital versions, which improves the profits for publishers.

"We talk to retailers so they can put their Fault In Our Stars T-shirts and DVDs together in the same [store] space with the books," says Cullen. "On top of the poster on the front of the copies, we got 20th Century Fox to sign off stills from the film [to be placed] inside the book. And new things are happening – with The Fault In Our Stars, for example, the book jacket is on the corner of the film poster."

This hand-in-hand approach doesn't end there, with social media also crossing over. "Again, the studio realised with the Wimpy Kid [movies] that we were all talking to the same audience," says Cullen. "Take our Facebook page, which is a sort of fan club for the books – Fox ended up releasing parts of the film information through that. That was when everyone realised that the audience was responding to all of that information in one place. That's how collaborative it can be, and that's part of the future, for both of us. And no, there are no contracts between Fox and Penguin – not at all."

This win/win studio-and-publisher success story is in turn bolstered by the power of the author. John Green is a huge presence on the internet thanks to his YouTube channel VlogBrothers and work for Mental Floss, which combined with a Twitter following of three million plus, makes him the kind of champion that book and filmmakers dream of. Green and authors like him – think Scalzi or Neil Gaiman, both lively online presences – offer a focal point that allows both publishers and studios to measure the fanbase's size, strength, and ability to get people reading and watching. And as anyone who's ever heard a One Direction concert can attest, there are no fans more passionate than teenage fans.

"John Green is such a huge presence around all the activity. I can only think of J.K. Rowling to rival him in that way," says Cullen. "John's really the heart of the movie campaign, as well as the book. So many of the quotes in the film come from the novel and it's just been fantastic from a book point of view, and from John's point of view, to see that the book translated so faithfully."

When the author of the source material is the biggest star of the movie – no offence, Shailene – the book cannot help but stand out where previous Young Adult adaptations, such as, say, Warm Bodies, may not have communicated to its cinema audiences that there was a book to buy at all. What's more, the movie version of The Fault In Our Stars cost just $12 million to make, and earned $294 million in cinemas. Even dystopian sci-fi The Maze Runner was made for around the $30-50 million mark. And with a built-in fanbase that can propel those largely star-free efforts to great financial heights, why not chase that business?

The Maze Runner
The Maze Runner - a built-in fanbase that can propel those largely star-free efforts to great financial heights.

WHEN THE AUTHOR OF THE SOURCE MATERIAL IS THE BIGGEST STAR OF THE MOVIE, THE BOOK CANNOT HELP BUT STAND OUT.While there will be good and bad Young Adult books, and good and bad Young Adult films, this increasing co-operation between studio and publisher is helping both businesses. Together, they are stronger: the book is a publicity tool for the film, and the film a publicity tool for the book. You can watch the film as you wait for the next book to come out, and you can read the book while you wait for the next film to come out. Titanic and Avatar may have boasted fans who saw it 19 times in the cinema and then bought the DVD over and over, but cultish Young Adult franchises like Harry Potter can easily outstrip that number, both in viewings and readings.

And the next few years? Look out for big-screen debuts from Irishman Eoin Colfer (his fantasy novel Artemis Fowl is getting the Disney treatment), Rainbow Rowell (her offbeat coming-of-age novel Eleanor & Park is in DreamWorks' pipeline), R. L. Stine (ditto the Jack Black-starring horror comedy Goosebumps at Sony), as well as established lit stars like Gaiman (Disney's The Graveyard Book), Green (runaway romance Paper Towns) and, of course, J.K. Rowling and her sure-to-be-huge Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them. Expect recent breakout stars like Divergent's Veronica Roth to remain on the radar. "I have so many ideas that fit into that Young Adult category," she promises her army of fans. "I know that's where I want to be. It's a great time to be a YA writer now."

As long as Millennials are the ones still reading, blogging and sharing their enthusiasms, she and her fellow Young Adult scribes will be the quiet stars of Hollywood's future.