Saturday, June 27, 2009

A Thought on YA Novels and Movies

After reading a few brand new young adult novels (target age range 12-16) I remarked to my library's Director that the YA books read like movies. They seem to have straightforward plots that would translate almost immediately, and easily, into screen plays. The characters of the books are not deep or complex, they again seem like movie characters. For example the character's backstory is such that sometimes when traumatic things happen to them in the book's story, we don't even care. That to me, is not good writing. Readers should be affected by emotion when bad things (or good things) happen to the book's characters.

I remarked that unlike so many very good children's books whose movie adaptation leaves us feeling empty and unfulfilled, due to the movie being unable to convey the depth of the characters and often overly focusing on the action in the story, these YA books seem almost like they were written with the intention (or hopes) of someday being sold for movie rights.

The Library Director said that it should not surprise me that the YA books being published today read like movies. She reminded me that the teenagers today were raised with heavy doses of television, movie and screen based entertainment. She said they like the YA books, the young adults think these books are great, even when I think they are "mediocre" or 'shallow'. She said they like their books to read like movies. She said my standard for 'a good book' is different than today's young adults. What I want out of a book, a children's book or a YA book is different than what those young readers want from it, she said.

I guess what she was also trying to say was that my generation, and hers, were raised in a different time when books were different and when screen-based media was almost non-existant or was barely available (such as the four television channels I got on our black and white TV and mainly seeing movies in movie theatres).

I've been trying to wrap my mind around this for a few months since she said this to me. I am not saying that pleasure reading should be heavy or like "War and Peace".

I still have an issue with books written for teenagers whose writing is on a fourth for fifth grade level with simple sentence construction and dumbed down word choices. I still have an issue with very serious issues in YA books being treated too casually so as to not illicit a strong emotional response as they should. I take issue with big problems being tossed about in a book so that the reader is dulled to it and thinks it is nothing to have a problem with. For example, a book character's death, struggles with bulemia, having been a victim of child sex abuse, and not having proper emotional reactions to problems in their lives (divorce, abuse, etc.). I feel that if an author is to tackle a serious issue in a book, especially for some purpose, that they have a responsibility to write well so as to have the intended outcome. For example if the story focuses on bulemia to bring awareness to it and to try to prevent some teens from starting or continuing with an eating disorder the reader should actually feel that way about it not just read it and say "whatever".

Today I read an article about a YA book that is in the process of being written and whose rights to the movie have already been sold. In fact, before the first book has even been published (or its likability tested), a whole series has been planned for (six books).

I truly do wonder if some of the YA book authors intentionally craft their stories for easy adaptation into movies, hoping indeed it will become a movie which I believe has potential for higher profits, especially if the movie is a hit. Then if the movie is a hit, more books will be sold, tie-in merchandise may be a source of income also. Lately, certain action movies also have video games released on multiple gaming platforms. With the way the video game industry is growing and its high profits made the video game can be a major source of revenue as far as "tie-in" merchandise goes!

If the first book and movie do well (or primarily the movie and secondarily the book), then possibly sequels to the book will be made, ensuring more book profits and possibly a movie sequel too.

What do you think of these ideas?

Article title: James Frey Collaborating on a Novel for Young Adults, First in a Series
by: Motoko Rich
Date: 6/26/09
Published in: New York Times Books

Hat Tip: I found this story on Twitter from NY Times Books.


Jennifer Fink said...

I think you're onto something. It's the it's-all-business mentality. The book publishers are in it to make money, so they're only going to publish what sells. And if that's movie-like books with the potential to be turned into a whole series of movies, well then, that's what writers are going to write.

Of course, some writers may still be writing other stuff, but that writing won't necessarily see the light of day.



Karen said...

I'd suggest that looking at the Firebird imprint for young adult fantasy and science fiction may lead to things you'd like better. Some of it is older re-released works, other stories are newer, commissioned by the editors.

There are some authors who cross the line with some of their work put in the YA section, others in science fiction and fantasy. It seems that the dividing line is the age of the protagonist. Terry Prachett, Diana Wynne Jones and Charles de Lint are a few. In some cases their books have started in one department and moved to another on a later release.

I don't totally agree with your librarian. I think some of these books ARE being written with an eye on the prize of movie rights being sold. I think a lot of the young adults are looking for quick reads, to be sure. BUT - the editors and authors are the ones putting out this work. As you've noted, simpler books translate better to today's primary film format.

I also think there's a general move in the publishing industry to stick to tried and true successful patterns.

On a related side note:
I know that you feel the kids should read a book before seeing the movie. Given the level of a lot of these books, I'm not sure it matters.

Some food for thought on doing it the other way. My daughter watched Sense and Sensibility when she was 10. She fell in love with Jane Austen's work. Just after she turned 11, she found editions of Austen's books that she found comfortable to read. She split the cost with me so she could get them all. Loving a story can be enough to make someone want to put the effort into reading the book even if it's a challenge.

christinemm said...

Jennifer and Karen thanks for your thoughts.

I had another thought today and edited the post to add the video game revenue. Frequently video games come out at the same time as a movie. Video games have big profit and releasing games across several gaming platforms increases profits too.

Carol D. O'Dell said...

I enjoyed your post on YA books. As a mom (to 3 daughters), and an author (my book is a memoir and focuses on family caregiving, but I am working on 2 YA's), I had to first write for me, the reader. I have long loved children's and YA books, but like you, they ahve to have depth in order to keep me engaged. I have to "beleive" in the book--not just the plausibility of the plot, but the plausiblity of the concept and the characters. Without that, I'm insulted.

Even my girls (now in college) don't read "dribble." These kinds of books will never stand the test of time. They'll never be loved like L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time or Lowrey's The Giver. Even good ole' Harry Potter has shown that even a modern fantasy children's books can still create a complex world and characters that struggle with everything from relationships to the meaning of family to integrity.

I have to wonder if some of these authors fell in love with books and stories or if they fell in love with fame/tv/movies.
It's two very different mediums and conveying complexity in film is a challenge since it's largely a visual medium--but it can be done--and I am always excited when the film is rich and textured.

I'm not keen on readers having to settle and I think kids/teens are smarter and certainly have life issues of their own that should make them better readers and story aficianados. Yes, pure escapism is important in our stressful times, but let's escape into a fully fleshed out world that grabs us, engages us, and leaves us begging for more.

~Carol O'Dell

Amy said...

Interesting thoughts, Christine.

I read a good amount of YA books, and although I've never actually formulated the same thoughts you put forth here, I think I agree with much of what you say. Even the books which I think are well written lack a certain depth of character we often find in children's and adult stories.

Thanks for the food for thought!