Adapting tween fiction on screen

Adapting tween fiction on screen

Hollywood phenomenon

There’s a scene in the 2010 film The Twilight Saga: Eclipse in which Bella (Kristen Stewart), the movie’s teenage heroine, gets on the back of a motorcycle owned by Jacob, a werewolf. She does so unprompted, at least in part to get under the skin of her beau, Edward, who is a vampire.

In the book, however, Jacob has to persuade Bella to get on his motorcycle, which she does. See the difference? If you’re a young or even not-so-young fan of the wildly popular Twilight series, you sure do.

“That got some flak,” said Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplays for all five of the Twilight films, which are based on a series of books by Stephenie Meyer. “Some fans were like, ‘She would never do that to Edward!’ People become very attached to a certain moment in a book, and then if you change it, it’s very upsetting to them.”

The latest entry in a spate of young-adult best-seller adaptations to face that challenge is Divergent. Based on the debut novel by Veronica Roth, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago, where young citizens are placed in one of five separate factions depending on their performance on “Choosing Day,” a dystopic take on the high school aptitude test. Tris, the film’s heroine, soon discovers that she’s that rarest of birds: a citizen who doesn’t fit neatly into any of the five castes.

If, as the common wisdom goes, the book is always better, why do so many studios keep making movies out of them? One reason, of course, is that built-in audiences of devoted readers will rush out to see their favourite texts brought to life on screen, even as they complain about every casting decision and plot tweak.

Few fans are more devoted — and, perhaps most important to studio executives, plentiful — than the readers of young adult fiction, whose numbers have made film series like The Twilight Saga and The Hunger Games movies into multibillion-dollar franchises.

Such devotion, however, comes with its own special challenges. In Divergent, Tris is played by Shailene Woodley, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for her role in the 2011 Alexander Payne film The Descendants. Despite her acting credentials, when it was first announced in 2012 that she would play the lead role, fans of the book quickly jumped online to grouse. Too tall, they said. Too pretty. Her face, said one, was “too roundish.”

Casting, as one might expect, is one of the biggest of fan concerns. Nose around some of the most popular young adult-book fan sites, and you’ll find commenters as mean as snakes, and missives that range from creepily specific to nonsensical.

“We’ve learned not to be too reactive about some of their initial responses,” said Erik Feig, co-president of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, who has overseen such projects as Divergent, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the Twilight series. “At first, fans said that Rob Pattinson was the worst Edward ever: ‘How could you have cast him?’” he said.

And it’s not just casting, Feig said. Fans often have a list of elements from the books that they feel the films can’t do without. While working on Twilight, he and a few of his colleagues sat down with Meyer and came up with their own list. Informally called the “Stephenie Meyer Bill of Rights,” it ranged from character details (“Jacob is an amazing mechanic”) to essential scenes. “That became a rider to the contract,” Feig said.

He has made similar lists for several of his recent films. “The Finnick sugar-cube scene from Catching Fire,” Feig said. “That had to be there. The zip-line scene in Divergent. ‘How long have you been 17?’ from Twilight. Can you imagine an adaptation that wouldn’t have those scenes?”

Between the specific plot demands and the “worst Batman ever” sort of casting complaints, it’s no wonder that some screenwriters try to insulate themselves from all the online chatter. “I put myself in a bubble,” said Shauna Cross, who wrote the screenplay for If I Stay, a coming film based on the best-selling young adult novel by Gayle Forman. “I don’t want to read any comments. At the end of the day, everyone would direct their own version of the movie. Everyone would do it slightly different. It’s not my job to go door to door and give everyone their perfect meal of the movie.”

If I Stay stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a gifted cellist who survives a horrific car accident that takes the lives of the rest of her family. Cross may have avoided the fans of the book while working on her screen adaptation, but that didn’t keep her from recognising that they could be some of a screenwriter’s strongest allies.
“The more loyal the fans are, the more you can protect the story,” she said. “When someone’s trying to make changes that don’t seem creatively right, you can say: ‘Hey, we have these people to answer to. This is not what they’re going to want.’”

Rosenberg agrees. “We have the best fans in the world,” she said, “because they’re extremely passionate. Even if they hate your version, they’ll show up and watch it five times just to talk about how much they hate it.”