From Modern Mythcraft to Magical Surrealism

What YA Fantasy Means for Movies

A few years ago, there was a cinema boom in children’s fantasy with an eye toward entertaining (or at least accommodating) adults. Harry Potter led the charge, with animation studio Pixar on his heels, and as Harry’s adventures got darker and Pixar’s movies went from Finding Nemo to Wall-E, the quality and profitability of YA fantasy films went up. Soon, hopeful franchises were blooming left and right, some successful (The Chronicles of Narnia), some not (The Golden Compass). Now the market for YA fantasy films is growing almost as fast as the stable of YA books from which they’re adapting.

We know that Harry Potter’s here to stay and the Twilight franchise has broken box-office records, but the genre is poised to change the cinema landscape for years to come. How did this happen, and where is it going?
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The NeverEnding Story. A children’s-book fantasy that doesn’t shy away from the adult, The NeverEnding Story boldly carved a YA niche when it was released in 1984 (with Labyrinth close behind), and it has lost none of its impact since. For my money, YA fantasy film has yet to top this story of a brave young warrior from another world fighting impossible odds, facing his inner demons, dealing with impressive practical effects, losing his horse, reaching the Empress in a race against time, and having to be saved at the last second by a truant from a frame story. (Okay, nothing’s perfect. So close, though!)

What It Meant: The NeverEnding Story is one of the pioneers of the genre, and set the standard for fantasy adventure. Percy Jackson and How to Train your Dragon both owe a tip of the hat to this epic classic. With today’s computer graphic technology, it’s safe to say there are going to be plenty more secondary-world YA adaptations, especially if any of them involve some CGI battle scenes.
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James and the Giant Peach. Released in 1997, this stop-motion adaptation of Roald Dahl’s book was loving and technically proficient, but it skewed young, coming off as a kids’ movie rather than a film for a savvy teen, which impacted box office takings.

What it Meant: James and the Giant Peach is an interesting cautionary tale. When Burton returned to Dahl with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a decade later, the kinship Burton had with the earlier material had vanished into CGI and bizarre choices. On the other hand, director Wes Anderson adapted The Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, using the same stop-motion aesthetic, and got some of the best reviews of his career for the coming-of-age tale. The lesson here is caution: by all means adapt, but only if you can do it without eviscerating the work (lookin’ at you, Burton), or turning a young-adult story into a children’s tale.
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Where the Wild Things Are. This 2009 fantasy movie, ostensibly for kids, had a much bigger market in mind — nostalgic adults just old enough to remember having this book read to them when they were children. With an adult aesthetic, overt sentimentality, and a thicker-than-the-original plot, adapting a Gen-X classic is stealth-YA at its most effective.

What it Means: This year’s Alice in Wonderland took a similar approach, applying Burton design to an adaptation that was banking on classic appeal, though without the same sense of wonder that helped propel Where the Wild Things Are to such success. Expect Zooey Deschanel to be announced for Goodnight Moon any day now! (I don’t know if this is true; let’s just say I will not be surprised.)
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The Hunger Games. Proof positive that Twilight has changed the game. Twilight author Stephenie Meyer sent sales of The Hunger Games skyrocketing when she praised it on her website. The post-apocalyptic battle royale with a dash of media satire hit a nerve with readers and quickly entered the pop lexicon. With a tone accessible enough for the PG demographic and elements dark enough to appeal to older teens, it’s pretty much the perfect YA fantasy for the big screen.

What it Means: Twilight‘s smashing box-office success helped quick-track a Hunger Games movie, aiming squarely for all the teens who had proved their willingness to provide that ever-elusive moviegoing quality: repeat business. If Hunger Games pans out, expect a flood of post-apocalyptic, underage antiheroes.
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Tangled. Disney’s newest animated offering was conceived as an entry into the Princess Pantheon with some of the CGI polish that set Pixar apart. Disney’s movies have become increasingly young-adult (especially as the relative ease and frugality of TV allows for more accessible programs for younger kids), and Rapunzel’s initial material seemed to have a certain Enchanted tongue-in-cheek and a more adult rom-com storyline. Oddly, Disney changed tack during production and ordered a shift in focus from Rapunzel to rakish suitor Finn, who’s now positioned as the hero, while Rapunzel’s name was even removed from the title.

What it Means: As one of the few film companies that actively sees out female-centric storylines, this shift is a hint that the YA market is vast — and that apparently males exert more pressure on it. Let’s hope this isn’t the start of a trend; young women deserve more representation than they’re getting. (Twilight may have changed the game in getting teens to the movie theatre, but you’ll notice there’s no Team Bella shirt for sale at Hot Topic.)
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So after an era in which YA book-to-movie adaptations came years apart, it’s safe to say we’re in a YA renaissance onscreen as well as off. It remains to be seen if the general trend toward pleasing the young and allowance-laden means a renaissance of literate, intelligent fare for teens that might spark an interest in reading what all the fuss is about.

Genevieve Valentine’s fiction has appeared in Clarkesworld, Strange Horizons, Fantasy, Federations, and more. She is a columnist at Tor.com and Fantasy Magazine. Her first novel, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti, is forthcoming in 2011. Her appetite for bad movies is insatiable, a tragedy she tracks on her blog.