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.