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A Recipe for Adapting the Young Adult Novel

Transferring the image in the reader’s mind to the big screen is a complex process– one wrong decision can determine whether the film is a hit or a flop. The latest attempt at adapting the young adult fiction book was the recent opening of the “Insurgentmovie, the second installment in the “Divergent trilogy. Unfortunately, “Insurgentfailed at resonating with the critics. Rolling Stone movie critic Peter Travers mentions in his review that the filmhas a “draggy tempo” and overall “stubbornly fails to surge.”

However, “Insurgentis not the only young adult adaption that missed the mark. “Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief”has several issues transferring from the page to the screen. Moira Macdonald, movie critic for the Seattle Times, expresses her disappointment of the film adaptation, describing the book as, “a witty first-person tale of a 12-year-old who learns he is a demigod…and goes on a series of adventures to find a stolen lightning bolt” while “on screen, the kid is 17, the wit is pretty much gone and many of the adventures are different… fans of the book may not recognize this movie.” “The Golden Compass”cost over $180 million to produce generated only $70 million in ticket sales in 2007. “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” an adaptation of the series’ first three books, barely broke even domestically, making $118,627,120 from a $100 million production budget.

Several factors need to be considered when bringing a young adult book to life that can determine the fate of the film. With time and research, the proper ingredients have been gathered to make a recipe for a young adult film adaption that succeeds in every aspect.

3 cups of  Talented Cast Members: The cast determines whether the reader will love their favorite characters on the big screen as much as they did in the book. A successful young adult adaptation can be done with an Oscar nominated cast, such as in “The Hunger Games” (Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci) or with fresh faces, such as in “Harry Potter.” What’s crucial is that the actors skillfully and accurately portray the characters. However, even with an Oscar-winning cast, that cannot be what the film relies on the most. Kate Winslet alone cannot save the ratings of the “Divergent”movies.

4 cups of Plot Detail: Deciding on what parts of the book to include in a film and what parts to leave out is very difficult. This is the basis for how the reader will feel about the film. Critics praised the adaptation of “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”for this reason, among others, while films such as “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones,” left out key plot points. In her New York Times movie review Jeanette Castoulis said, the film’s plot “sacrifices clarity for density, and emotional resonance for flirty one-liners.”

2 ounces of Character Detail: In a book the author describes the physical traits as well as the personality of their characters, which gives the reader an overall image of what a character looks and acts like. If the film leaves out character details, even a simple hair color inconsistency, that can have the potential to make the reader feel disconnected from the film. The portrayal of the main character Lena in “Beautiful Creatureshad many readers disappointed.  In her blog on, Anouska Stahlmann explains she was upset by Lena’s appearance on screen since the character is supposed to have long, curly black hair and green eyes, neither of which the film’s version has. According to Stahlman, Lena’s “eyes are very important and they completely screwed that up.” In Stahlman’s words, “I don’t think this book was done justice at all.”

1 pinch of Dystopian Realism: Dystopian societies are inevitably depressing. We see this in “Hunger Games”and “Divergent.” However, a dystopian society provides great visuals for the reader and brings up questions about today’s society. It is of utter importance for the filmmaker to incorporate visuals and achieve an overall idea of what this society is like if it did exist. In his movie review for The Boston Globe, Ty Burr describes “Catching Fire as “a muscular, engrossing, unexpectedly bleak epic of oppression and insurrection, directed with dramatic urgency and a skilled eye by Francis Lawrence.” He compares the futuristic setting of the film and the idea that a mass audience would watch a spectacle such as The Hunger Games to today’s society, where we feed off reality shows and watching other people suffer. In the movie adaptation of “The Giver,” however, the dystopian society lacked depth. In John Anderson’s review for TheWall Street Journal, he describes the film as being “melancholic” and that for most of the film “viewers will be asking themselves where the conflict is” as well as the drama.

2 tablespoons of On-Screen Chemistry : Vampires, werewolves and zombies…oh my! If a filmmaker is going to adapt a young adult book, there almost always to be some sort of hindered romance involved to bring in the dollar signs. One of the characters could be dying, (“If I Stay,” “The Fault in Our Stars) or maybe it’s just the strain of separation, either way, the conflict needs to be as emphasized on screen just as it is on the page. Essential to emphasizing conflict is on-screen chemistry. The viewer has to experience the conflicting emotions of the characters without being in their heads, which is an arduous task, to say the least. There has to be a connection between the depicted lovers. In a Rolling Stone review Peter Travers mentions how Shailene Woodley and her “Divergent” co-star, Theo James “needed to generate a sizzling chemistry on screen.”

1 dash of Comedic Relief: Who doesn’t like a good laugh every once in a while? In “Twilight,Bella’s human friends are needed to provide a comedic relief and give the audience a break from Bella and Edward’s constant lip-biting and drawn out eye contact. Just as the saying goes: laughter is the best medicine. And what better way to heal a struggling young adult fiction adaptation than with a few chuckles?

2 dollops of Author Input: Having the author help with the writing process of the film is the best way to go. He or she can facilitate converting the book into a film. Stephen Chbosky, author of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” wrote the screenplay, which definitely contributed to the film’s success.

1 teaspoonof a Killer Soundtrack: A great soundtrack can do wonders for promotion. Big artistshelp popularize the name of the film and can draw fans in from unlikely places. “The Hunger Games”soundtracks include widely popular artists such as Taylor Swift, Sia, Maroon 5, Miranda Lambert, Arcade Fire and Kid Cudi. Lorde’s track “Yellow Flicker Beat” was a pop hit and was even remixed by Kanye West.

Blend all of these ingredients together into a smooth, dystopian and action-packed batter. Follow this recipe and your young adult film adaptation is sure to be a success.

Sammi Brennan can be reached at


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