My 25 Favorite Young Adult Book Film Adaptations [Part 1]
Young Adult book adaptations have been all the rage in Hollywood since “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” reaped huge dividends at the box office over the last decade or so. The latest YA lit-inspired flick to hit the big screen is the second installment of “The Hunger Games,” entitled “Catching Fire.” It’s already a massive success, boding well for future chapters in the ongoing franchise, and there are plenty more YA adaptations on the horizon where that came from.
Of course, this sort of thing is nothing new, though the enormous box office certainly is. Big bucks don’t necessarily mean great work, however, so I decided to take a look at my favorite young adult adaptations over the years. Not all of them were blockbuster gold, but all are worth a look. Keep in mind these are my personal favorites, not necessarily the best YA adaptations ever. Feel free to contribute your own in the comments section!
For the purposes of this list, I’ve opted to only choose films that firmly fit into the category of YA literature. The term didn’t really come into being in the popular lexicon until the release of the seminal S.E. Hinton novel “The Outsiders” in the late 60’s, the film version of which certainly made the cut on this list, as did another of her books that inspired a movie.
As such, I won’t be including such school reading list standards like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” classic though they may be, whether in book or film form. Instead, I’ll be focusing on books released in the late 60’s and beyond, which in turn inspired classic films. As such, no complaining about my not including the likes of “Alice in Wonderland” or what have you, as solid as those films may be. Let’s get started!
I’m no fan of Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight” series, but I thought this intriguing adaptation of her lone effort outside of that series got a bad rap from critics and audiences alike. The material was a perfect match to the left-of-center sci-fi sensibilities of director Andrew Niccol, who wrote and directed. He’s best known for movies like “In Time” and “Gattaca” and “The Host” is definitely of a piece with his other work. It’s about a race of aliens that invade earth and take over humans, a la “Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” only less forcefully. It’s definitely not in the vein of the “Twilight” series, although the film does devote a small amount of time to a love triangle of sorts- actually more of a quadrangle, to be honest- but it’s nothing like anything you’ve ever seen before.
The film benefits enormously from the excellent cinematography and stylish look of the wardrobe and the vehicles the main characters tool around in, as well as a nicely-nuanced performance from the superlative Oscar-nominated Saoirse Ronan, of “Atonement” and “The Lovely Bones” fame. A lot of people hated it, but I think it’s worth a second look for those who enjoy more subtle sci-fi endeavors. Plus, Diane Kruger and William Hurt are involved and they’re both awesome!
Another box office disappointment, this unique film is surprisingly faithful to some of the darker elements of the novel, considering the fact that it’s a Disney film. Of course, any Disney fan worth their salt knows that they are somewhat notorious for precisely that quality, from taking out Bambi’s mother and Simba’s father to poor Old Yeller’s fate, so it’s really not that much of a stretch when you think about it. Besides, in this film, most of those who are “killed” don’t die, with one notable exception, which I won’t spoil here.
The point is that this is fairly dark material for Disney, and plays sort of like a spin on the old “Fountain of Youth” legend. The cast is uniformly excellent, including “Gilmore Girl” Alexis Bledel, “Nashville”-star Jonathan Jackson, Ben Kingsley (“Gandhi”), William Hurt (“Lost in Space”), Sissy Spacek (“Carrie”), Amy Irving (ditto), and Victor Garber (“Alias”). Though Disney makes some minor changes to the source material, it doesn’t shy away from the more intense elements, so fans of the novel should be satisfied overall.
This adaptation of the beloved novel by Louis Sachar benefits enormously from a screenplay written by the author himself, which ensures that the source material is well-respected. It’s a good thing, too, as the novel is a quick, engrossing read with a winner of a hook that sucks you in and that plays like gangbusters in movie form as well. It’s about a boy (Shia LaBeouf) who is falsely accused of a crime he didn’t commit and is sentenced to a juvenile detention camp in what was once a lake and has long since dried up, and where the “warden” (Sigourney Weaver) forces him and the other boys there to dig holes every day- hence the title- ostensibly to “build character.”
Naturally, there’s more to it than that, and the story goes from there to include flashbacks involving an interracial romance that took place in the area, involving characters played by Patricia Arquette and “Psych”-star Dulé Hill. It’s a fun, taut ride, just like the book, and the casting, which also includes Jon Voight (“Ray Donovan”), Tim Blake Nelson (“O Brother, Where art Thou?”), Henry Winkler (“Happy Days”), and Eartha Kitt (Catwoman on the 60’s TV version of “Batman”), is phenomenal and right on the money all around.
The first of two adaptations of books by Roald Dahl on this list, I was torn on whether to include this or “Matilda,” which is also well worth seeing. Ultimately, I went with this one because it freaked me out as a kid, although not nearly as much as the book, which has a decidedly different ending that’s even darker than the movie, in its own way. (It’s hard to talk about it without venturing into spoiler territory, but suffice it to say that while it’s a happy ending for the main protagonist, it’s not so much for the reader!) Whatever the case, this is still about a boy who runs afoul of some witches, notably the Grand High Witch, played by Anjelica Houston, in what will always be her defining role to me, despite solid work in the likes of “The Grifters” and “Prizzi’s Honor.” Well, this and her role in the also spooky “Addams Family” movies.
Where that last role was played for laughs, here it’s decidedly not, as Houston is the stuff of nightmares, as the witchy woman whose mission in life is to eradicate the world’s children! In her latest scheme to do so, she concocts a potion that turns them into mice, which is a fate that befalls the main character when he’s caught spying on a private witch meeting. The big reveal of the witches’ “true” look is terrifying, and this is definitely not one for the kiddies, which is precisely why I consider it more of a young adult endeavor, as is the case with most of Dahl’s work which is all similarly packed with nightmare fuel. Dahl hated the changes director Nicholas Roeg (the horror classic “Don’t Look Now”) made to his work, and died shortly thereafter, as did Jim Henson, who did the unique puppetry featured in the film. Really, though, this one comes the closest to capturing the rogue spirit of Dahl’s work, despite the big ending change, which, let’s face it, was for the better, IMHO, given the alternative.
While a number of books on this list have multiple adaptations, for the most part I’ve chosen the ones I feel are more definitive. In this case, however, I’m going to leave it to reader to decide, as both the original 1976 version and the 2003 take have their individual charms. In the original, you have a young Jodie Foster, radiating effortless cool, while I can only imagine the proto-MILF crushes sexy Barbara Harris must have inspired in her day. It’s a bit dated, to say the least- check out those green screen water-skiing scenes!- but still a lot of fun, with both of the leads nailing it.
Meanwhile, I really loved the 2003 version, also by Disney, featuring a pre-meltdown Lindsay Lohan and former scream-queen Jamie Lee Curtis as her mother. While it does try a little too hard to be cool, supplanting Foster’s field hockey prowess (which she actually did herself) with Lohan’s being in a garage rock band- the intent being to help launch Lohan’s singing career, with her first album hitting stores the following year- it’s still a fun movie, with Curtis in particular knocking it out of the park in her “teen” guise. Fun fact: Lohan’s character was originally supposed to be a Goth, before Lohan herself nixed the idea, saying it should be a more relatable and light-hearted teenager instead. Good move, given the outcome.
Alright, so this is more of a guilty pleasure, but I’ve always loved this adaptation of the German fantasy novel by Michael Ende, even though the author hated it and actually sued the film company to halt production of it, and it only really adapts the first half of the book! (A second, lesser film followed, adapting the second half, albeit while adding other elements.) Still, I saw the film first and have always loved it, so it gets a pass, even though the book is well worth reading. The most expensive non-US film ever made at the time, it was also famed director Wolfgang Peterson’s first English-language film. He went on to do such Hollywood blockbusters as “Air Force One,” “In the Line of Fire” and “Outbreak,” among others.
What it lacks in star power (though co-star Gerald McRaney went on to do the popular “Major Dad” and cult hit “Jericho”), it more than makes up for in imagination, with the flying, so-called “luckdragon” Falkor being especially memorable from a visual standpoint. Also much beloved is the score by electronic music pioneer Giorgio Moroder, best known for his work with Donna Summer and Blondie, who reworked the original score by German composer Klaus Doldinger for American audiences, not unlike he did for the re-release for “Metropolis.” The theme song by Limahl was a huge hit and has been covered by many artists, most recently New Found Glory, and the metal band Atreyu got their name from the film. You’d be hard-pressed to find a child of the 80’s that doesn’t love this one.
One of the more recent adaptations on this list, this one underperformed at the box office, but that may have more to do with the massive budget (around $110 million!) than the controversial views of author Orson Scott Card, on whose book this was based. (He came out against gay marriage in the press, understandably prompting a ban by the LGBT community.) I loved this book in high school, and it still holds up today, as a genuinely thought-provoking read that inspired an ongoing book series and a comic to boot, despite the views of the author. The movie is pretty impressive, too, also including elements of the subsequent novels. It was clearly intended to be the beginning of an ongoing series, but that seems unlikely given the film’s so-so performance at the box office, which is too bad, as it’s a solid film.
The cast is great, including Asa Butterfield (“Hugo”), Oscar nominees Hailee Steinfield (“True Grit”), Abigail Breslin (“Little Miss Sunshine”) and Viola Davis (“The Help”), plus Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford, in his best effort in years. The ending still packs a punch, and if the visuals are a bit video-game-ish, it actually suits the material. All in all, the film deserves a second look, or a first look as the case may be, on home video.
Speaking of second chances, this one deserves another look, even though it was successful enough to warrant a sequel, this year’s “Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters.” Lumped in with all the “Harry Potter” also-rans, it’s basically a more teen-oriented spin on that series, only with Greek mythology instead of wizards and witches and the like. It also shares a veteran from that series, director Chris Columbus, who helmed the first two movie adaptations of the “Harry Potter” franchise. Really, though, what this reminds me more of is the Ray Harryhausen stuff from the late 50s to the early 80s, like the “Sinbad” movies and “Clash of the Titans.” In other words, it’s a family friendly take on the material, with some fun old-school effects juiced up with modern technology where it counts.
And that cast! We’re talking Uma Thurman (as Medusa!), Sean Bean (“Lord of the Rings”), Rosario Dawson (“Death Proof”), former Bond Pierce Bronson, Catherine Keener (“The 40-Year Old Virgin”), Steve Coogan (“24 Hour Party People”), Joe Pantoliano (“Memento”), Melina Kanakaredes (“CSI: NY”), Alexandra Daddario (“Texas Chainsaw 3D”), and the super-talented up-and-comer Logan Lerman, who will crop up elsewhere on this list. That cast alone should make you want to see it, but it’s a fun film, and so is the ongoing series upon which it is based.
Another flick I loved as a kid, this Disney adaption of the novel by Alexander Key- who, like Orson Scott Card, was known for writing sci-fi books aimed at young people- still holds up today, despite various sequels and remakes, involving everyone from Christopher Lee and Bette Davis (1978’s “Return to…”) to “Mad Men” star Elisabeth Moss (1995’s “Escape to..”) to Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson (2009’s “Race to…”). I still prefer the original, with the tag team of then-future “Real Housewife of Beverly Hills” Kim Richards and Ike Eisenmann, who are also in the direct sequel “Return” and who appeared together in the bad movie guilty pleasure, “Devil Dog: The Hound from Hell.” Also cropping up as a younger version of her sister’s character is Kyle Richards, fellow “Real Housewife,” perhaps best known for appearing in the original “Halloween,” which featured her co-star here, Donald Pleasance, as Dr. Loomis.
Despite the title, the book and film aren’t about witches at all, but rather extra-terrestrial children with psychic and telekinetic abilities. This ability puts them on the radar of a paranormal-obsessed millionaire with nefarious intent, who they spend most of the movie trying to escape, eventually trying to find the titular Witch Mountain, in hopes of reuniting with their people. If this sounds kind of familiar, it’s because the later “E.T.” cribbed some of its plot from the film. It’s a fast, fun ride and well-worth seeking out.
Another film unfairly associated with the post-“Harry Potter” and “LOTR” fantasy film onslaught, this YA adaptation was terribly mis-marketed, as the fantasy elements are actually an imaginary world created by the main protagonists as a fun escape from the “real” world. Think “Pan’s Labyrinth,” only less dark…but not by as much as you’d think. Inspired by real events, the film has a nice symmetry to it, in that the film version was adapted by David Paterson, the son of original author Katherine, who just so happened to be the one to whom the events of the story were based upon. Pretty cool, right? Well, given the true events involved, it’s kind of bittersweet overall, but still, it just feels right.
The cast includes then-future Carrie Bradshaw, AnnaSophia Robb (“The Carrie Diaries”), then-future “Hunger Games”-star Josh Hutcherson, and current “New Girl” Zooey Deschanel as a teacher, just like she played on that show; plus Robert Patrick (“Terminator 2”) and Bailee Madison (“Once Upon a Time”). It’s yet another Disney flick, but come on, who does movies for kids that also play well with adults better than Disney? This is an underrated little gem that’s well worth your time, but fair warning: stuff gets real.
Speaking of which, this riveting piece of work is proof positive that, given the right role, perpetually lip-biting, hair-swishing “Twilight” star Kristen Stewart can actually be a pretty good actress. Some of you wags who’ve seen it might be inclined to say that’s probably because her character doesn’t say much, so how could she screw it up that bad, but there’s more to it than that. Stewart plays Melinda, a girl who falls out of favor with her classmates when she calls the cops to a party she’s attending and they break it up, getting some fellow students in trouble in the process. What they don’t know is that Melinda was raped at the party by a senior, Andy (Eric Lively, brother of Blake). The event proves so traumatizing, she loses the ability to speak and becomes an ostracized mute, hence the title.
The rest of the film involves her attempts to communicate what has happened to her, which come to a head when Eric starts dating a former friend of hers, Rachel (Hallee Hirsh) and she fears the same fate will befall her. Will she find the bravery to come forward and speak the truth- and if so, will anyone believe her? What’s more, what will Andy do when he finds out? This is tough, intense subject matter, but it’s exceptionally well-done, and deals with a subject that every teen needs to be aware of, so as to better prepare themselves for what could very well happen to them if they’re not careful. As such, it’s required viewing for young teenage girls in particular, and in my opinion, far and away Stewart’s best work to date, for whatever that’s worth. The book is well worth a read, too, featuring a creative, non-linear format that beautifully mimics Melinda’s state of mind in a unique way that really sets it apart from a lot of books of the same bent, aka “problem” novels. An “Afterschool Special” this is not, in other words.
This one holds special significance for me, as it was the first movie I was ever paid to review. I should also mention that I almost certainly would have never seen it otherwise, being as how it’s a movie obviously aimed at teenage girls- not exactly my wheelhouse under normal circumstances. However, the experience taught me a valuable lesson as a critic: sometimes pleasant surprises can be found in the most unlikely of places. Based on the first book in the popular series by Ann Brashares- interesting name, given the plotline of the books!- it chronicles a group of teenage girls who separate for the first time over the summer, with one thing connecting them on their travels, a pair of jeans that somehow magically fits them all, despite their very different shapes.
Sounds ridiculous, right? Well, believe me you, I was right there with you, and if I hadn’t wanted to be on the newspaper staff so bad, I doubt seriously I would have ever watched it in the first place. (I say newspaper, because there really was no online version back then, as there is now.) Anyway, what sells this is the hugely endearing cast, which really features someone for everyone’s tastes, within reason. There’s wonderfully snarky Tabitha (Amber Tamblyn, currently of “Two-and-a-half Men”), a budding filmmaker; Puerto Rican Carmen (America Ferrara, then-future “Ugly Betty”), whose father is about to marry into an all-white family that couldn’t be more different from her upbringing with her Latin mother; Lena (“Gilmore Girl” Alexis Bledel), who has a “Romeo & Juliet”-style romance with the son of her family’s sworn enemies; and the soccer-playing tomboy Bridget (“Gossip Girl” Blake Lively), who is still reeling from her mother’s suicide and has a crush on her coach, which is decidedly problematic, for obvious reasons.
The chemistry between the four girls is palatable, and it’s no wonder they remain friends to this day. There’s also a second film that is equally entertaining, but this is the one that stole my heart against all odds, so I’m going with the original. It might seem like a chick flick, and it totally is, but it’s one you actually won’t mind watching as much as some of the crap you could be watching as a guy forced to watch such stuff, believe me.
Rounding out this part of the list is the adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s modern-day classic, “Coraline,” a dark fairy tale that would do Roald Dahl proud. The film is animated, but it’s in the stop-motion style used in the Rankin-Bass specials like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” That makes perfect sense, as the film’s director is Henry Selick, who single-handedly revitalized the form with his classic “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and also adapted Dahl’s “James and the Giant Peach,” which nearly made my list. He and director Tim Burton worked together at Disney, and became fast friends, bonding over their love for the aforementioned specials, and later got their chance to revive the form with “Xmas.”
“Coraline” is perfectly suited to this approach, playing a lot like a modern-day variation on “Alice in Wonderland,” which, of course, Burton himself would also end up adapting. This is darker material than “Alice,” though, with little Coraline (voiced by Dakota Fanning) encountering alternate “other” versions of people in her normal life that are…well, let’s just say a bit off. I don’t want to ruin the experience, which is really a trip worth taking. In fact, I dare say I like it much more than Burton’s take on “Alice.” It’s sort of like a Goth version of the same- think “Alice” filtered through one of those creepy Tool videos or something by the Quay Brothers. It’s also readily available in 3D, which makes for an even better experience. Though only a moderate success, I’m hoping this will pave the way for more Gaiman adaptations in the future, whose work is ripe for the picking.
That about does it for this installment of my favorite YA adaptations. Be sure to keep an eye out for part two, in which I detail my top 12 all-time favorites!