Following the massive success of the Harry Potter, Twilight Saga, and Hunger Games franchises, film studios began adapting popular Young Adult novels left and right. Although some, like Divergent and The Maze Runner, found middling success, even more were franchise false-starters, including The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Ender’s Game, and both Percy Jackson films. Now, The 5th Wave – adapted from Rick Yancey’s book of the same name – is the most recent film based on a YA property to flop at the box office and fail to strike gold with critics.
However, The 5th Wave arrived in a month that also saw the premiere of three new television series based on YA books, as well as the return of another show loosely based on a YA title. In its first two seasons, The 100 has become a critical darling, even earning the title of The CW’s most underrated show here at Screen Rant. New to the ranks of YA-based television series this month were MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, Freeform’s Shadowhunters, and Syfy’s The Magicians.
One show in particular, Shadowhunters, is a special case because it’s based on the same novel by Cassandra Clare that inspired The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, but it’s a whole new adaptation with an entirely revamped cast and crew that also features certain changes to the storyline. So, with so many YA adaptations hitting the big and small screens this month – plus even more to come, including this year’s return to the world of Harry Potter in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them – let’s finally settle this: Do YA properties work better as TV series or blockbusters?
Television Adaptations Highlight Story
As of writing this, The 5th Wave holds an 18 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, a 49 percent audience score, and the critical consensus reading: “With unimpressive effects and plot points seemingly pieced together from previous dystopian YA sci-fi films, The 5th Wave ends up feeling like more of a limp, derivative wriggle.” This consensus hits on a number of recurring criticisms of YA adaptations, specifically those aiming for blockbuster franchises: they borrow too many cliche tropes (like the love triangle popularized by Twilight), they exclude memorable/unique aspects of the source material, and they trade key character development for large action set pieces. Since movies have a higher risk of failing due to their budgets, YA blockbusters tend to follow the same basic plan, cutting out most of what made the book worth reading.
Television adaptations can fall prey to similar practices that inspire these same criticisms, like the Shadowhunters premiere devoting so much time to explaining the mythology of its world that the characters don’t get too much to work with – but since it’s on television, subsequent episodes can be used to explore what the pilot was lacking. As we’ve seen in Shannara Chronicles, the show’s creators have put the longer format medium of TV to good use in establishing and exploring its world as well as its heroes. The Magicians, too, takes its time introducing characters, then those characters to its world of magic. Furthermore, in season 1 of The 100 the show turned the typical YA love triangle trope on its heads more than once; now in season 3, the show continues to explore both the political and personal aspects of a post-apocalyptic dystopian Earth.
Inherent to their longer format, television adaptations give the creatives behind the scenes room to explore their source material more in depth, whether it’s the mythology, the characters, or the narrative. Unlike movies, which have to introduce the world, the characters, the conflict and come to a resolution in roughly 2 hours, television series can take a slower approach to the same key story points and develop other aspects along the way. So, while The 5th Wave may not entertain audiences because it feels too similar to past YA adaptations, viewers could easily watch The 100, The Shannara Chronicles, The Magicians, and Shadowhunters without feeling like they were watching the same show, even despite their similarities. Although many of these television series based on YA novels check off the same plot points – the four mentioned here all essentially follow The Hero’s Journey story structure – what makes each property unique is able to shine on TV because they aren’t boiled down to a basic story structure.
Blockbuster Adaptations Highlight Spectacle
Television series, though, don’t have the same massive budgets as film studios grant big screen adaptations. As a result, they’re much more limited in terms of who they can hire, both behind and in front of the camera, as well as what they can do with special effects. Additionally, movies typically have larger advertising budgets, which, in turn, draw in more viewers. Despite its critical acclaim, The 100 season 3 premiere was the lowest rated broadcast primetime show of that night according to TV by the Numbers. Certainly, the show has found a new audience since it was added to Netflix and it has inspired a devoted fan base, but positive reviews may not be able to save the show from cancellation forever.
Whereas movies may have trouble with their two-hour time constraint in terms of story, the benefits of the format can be found in film adaptations’ visual spectacle. Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games would have looked much different as television series without the effects to create a world of magic, or give vampires super-human powers, or build the futuristic world of Panem. Furthermore, the grand scales of the maze and the scorch in The Maze Runner series likely would have been cut down on TV; similarly, the degraded Chicago landscape of the Divergent series and the wider sci-fi world of Allegiant would not have the same quality if they appeared on television. When so many of these YA novels are set in expansive fantastical worlds, movies are more likely to do justice in bringing them to life in terms of the visuals. To their credit, television series like The 100 and Shannara Chronicles do have much better effects than we would have seen in previous decades on TV, but they still cannot rival blockbuster films.
Additionally, movie adaptations can tap more well-known actors and actresses to appear on screen. Although film studios and producers may not angle for A-listers in terms of the leads, they’re still working within an arguably higher-caliber talent pool. That isn’t necessarily a recipe for success, but Jennifer Lawrence certainly brought a depth to her performance as Katniss Everdeen that other actresses may not have been able to achieve. Plus, the Harry Potter franchise may have hired complete unknowns for their child stars, but it was built out with much more well-known and respected performers like Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman, and Michael Gambon. The talent, mixed with the visual element, helps movie adaptations of YA properties often out-pace their television counterparts in these aspects.
What All Adaptations Need
If we’re talking about what really makes adaptations successful, it isn’t necessarily their format; both film and TV have had their fair share of false-starts, there are a handful of YA-adapted pilots that never made it to air – in the case of The Selection, two separate pilots were shot with completely different casts, but neither were picked up. What differentiates the failures from the successes in both formats is the property’s crossover appeal. Young Adult may be a big enough genre within the book industry, but it isn’t within Hollywood.
As Ben Schrank, president and publisher of Penguin Random Houses’s YA imprint Razorbill, told Vulture, the most successful YA films were adapted from books that had already found an adult audience:
“That’s the recipe for enormous success. When you see adults on their commutes reading the hardcovers of these books with their jackets removed, it means the movie has a far better chance of working.”
In terms of numbers, Vulture references the amount of copies sold of Little, Brown’s four-book Beautiful Creatures series (another blockbuster franchise false starter in 2013) versus Scholastic’s three-book The Hunger Games series, 3.5 million and over 50 million respectively as of 2013. To further put that into perspective, when The 5th Wave film began production, Penguin Random House had sold 300,000 hard copies, and 80,000 e-books of the first installment of Yancey’s series since it was published in 2013, according to Sony Pictures.
Of course, television series have more time to find an adult audience that may not exist for its source material. The buzz surrounding The 100 – generated by predominantly adult critics – has continued to grow over the show’s three seasons, while the series follows both teenaged and adult characters. Meanwhile, most of MTV’s programming, including the Shannara Chronicles, is aimed at its teenaged/adult audience; FreeForm launched with the premiere of Shadowhunters, a series that network president Tom Ascheim told Variety they hoped would help in their endeavor to appeal to a wider audience that includes both young adults and adults. Additionally, Syfy aged up the characters of The Magicians to be post-college rather than post-high school, likely in a move to appeal to a larger viewership.
All this is to say that these series seem to have either attempted and/or found crossover appeal in terms of their audiences. But, one of the major critiques of The 5th Wave has been its focus on a teenaged love story, one that failed to appeal to older audiences, likely hurting the film’s reception both by critics and casual moviegoers. The film and book industries are different and measure success on a different scale in terms of audience numbers. For a YA adaptation to be successful – either on film or television – it needs to appeal to a much wider age range and larger audience.
Both blockbuster and TV adaptations have their strong suits, and either can be successful depending on whether they play to the format’s strength. A story that works on TV may not work in a movie, and vice versa. There isn’t one medium that will work for all YA properties. Certainly, book fans will have their own preferred format for their favorite YA property, whether it’s blockbusters, television series, or the novel itself.
But, there is a reason that the Young Adult genre has found much more success in the book industry compared to the film industry – where blockbuster adaptations have failed to launch franchises and YA television series pilots don’t make it to air or have underwhelming ratings – and that’s because young adults cannot sustain an entire genre based on the measurements of success in Hollywood. Movies and television series need to appeal to a wider audience in order to be successful.