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12 Going on 16

Arts & Culture | September 6, 2014

When Film Adaptations Grow Up Too Soon

Hollywood is going through puberty: the industry isn’t quite an adult, but it’s certainly not a child any longer. Or at least that’s what seems to be happening to the film adaptations of young adult (YA) novels. The adaptations of books meant for young adults or children are experiencing an expedited process of maturation and sexualization in the film industry. Recent YA films The Giver and Life of Pi have shown the maturation of characters and themes that often stray far from the original youth of the novel. Characters age, plots are romanticized. However, the YA adaptation of The Fault in Our Stars stayed true the original plot of its book. This raises several questions: Why is Hollywood sexualizing YA adaptations? And what allows one film to stay true to the story while others are changed?

Books allow us to connect with and create images of the characters, actions, and settings as the author describes them——a unique and personal experience free from the outside influence of visual stimulation. However, the minute you see the book as a film adaptation, everything that you imagined is different, meticulously constructed and visualized by artists, designers, and directors. Visuals are not necessarily a bad thing, but in a recent attempt to modernize the plots (or target a key demographic of moviegoers), YA film adaptations have been altered more than ever. Characters in these films seem to be more mature and sexualized, with handsome looks and “come-hither” stares.

The protagonists are suddenly real: pre-packaged creations made by someone else. And, along with their characters, the plots of the films have changed, too—: love interests, among other devices, are bolstered in an attempt to create action more appealing to the audience. But are these films only food for the love-hungry tween audience? The plot and the characters are written already, so why not stay true to the book?

A recent example of blatant Hollywood “sexification” is Phillip Noyce’s film adaptation of The Giver. A staple on most middle school reading lists, the award-winning book has sold more than 10 million copies worldwide. Written by Lois Lowry and originally published in 1993, The Giver chronicles the life of Jonas, a 12 year-old boy living in a dystopian “community” devoid of war, death, pain, hunger, love, sex, music, and color. In the film adaptation—with far worse reviews than the book—Jonas is no longer 12; he’s been aged to 16 years-old.

A four-year difference is major, but not surprising. With “love subplot” at the top of most Hollywood agendas, a 12 year-old’s love story doesn’t make the cut. The answer? Make Jonas a teenager. In her review for Slate.com, critic Laura Anderson writes, “The Giver claims to oppose conformity but warps its source material to resemble every other teen-marketed dystopia.” Namely, a romance plot. However, Lowry’s The Giver centers on more than just love. In the novel, a job-assignment event called The Ceremony of Twelves lands Jonas the position of the “Receiver of Memories”—a job assignment that allows Jonas to experience the depth of human emotion and learn through the memories he receives. Thus youth—and naiveté—are a crucial part of Jonas’ character. The fact that he is only 12 years-old and experiencing the weight of human emotion by himself is the compelling impact of the novel. As a 16 year-old in Noyce’s film, the impact falls flat: his maturity demystifies the journey, and the added romantic twist with his peer Fiona serves to confuse and conflict, not sophisticate. And at 25 years-old, doe-eyed actor Brenton Thwaites is twice the age of Lowry’s Jonas.

But The Giver wasn’t the only recent film subject to the mature Hollywood drawing board. In the film version of Life of Pi, screenwriters inserted a love interest for Pi in order to accentuate the loss he feels upon leaving his home in India. This is the only major plot detour from the book, but unlike The Giver, the change was more widely praised. Injecting a love subplot seems necessary nowadays, but as novels, The Giver and Life of Pi carried their own weight without the help of superficial romance. Perhaps this is due to Hollywood’s end goals. Its goal when changing these films is to attract moviegoers aged 14 to 34 years old, an age range that is disproportionately represented in the audience in relation to the national population. This would seem to indicate that the industry feels a need to continue returning to this crutch of sorts in order to sell tickets.

In general, film adaptations rarely adhere to their novels. Adaptations are adaptations after all, and rarely do they earn the same praise as their predecessors. From Harry Potter to Lord of the Rings and beyond, superfans are almost guaranteed a disappointing show. Of all the recent YA releases, the adaptation of John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars followed the book the closest. The overt sexualization that usually takes place in Hollywood cutting rooms already happened at the hands of John Green. The main characters were already 16, and the book provided plenty of romance for filmmakers to work with. While Giver and Pi had to conform to the industry standard, Stars provides a perfect template for box office success.

By trying to modernize, mature, and glamorize such adaptations, the emotional impact and compelling storylines of seminal works are compromised; the rawness of true age gives way to popular demand for the older, the sexier, and the more sophisticated. Casting Brenton Thwaites was a creative choice—as was changing his age—and the screenwriters and directors leading the charge are prioritizing the target audience rather than the hardcopy plot. In an interview with The New York Times magazine, Lowry confessed a fear she had before the film’s production began: “I remember seeing the costume designs for the female lead, Fiona — in the book she’s 12, and in the movie she’s 16. I advised [the costumer] that some of the costumes were too sexy. And so the hem was dropped a little bit. I asked them: ‘Please don’t turn this into a teenage romance.’”

But at 16, teenage romance proves inescapable.