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Sunday, July 24, 2016

Does YA Dystopian Fiction Have A Future?

The recent news that the final movie in the Divergent series, Ascendant, will become a TV film instead of a big-screen release, may raise the question about whether or not young adult dystopian fiction has any future.

My interest in young adult fiction rose after I read The Hunger Games series and, yes, that played a role in spurring my ideas for the books I'm writing. But given what's happened with Ascendant and the poor reviews that The 5th Wave film received, could I be having second thoughts?

The short answer is no. The explanation is that I don't believe what happens in the film industry always reflects what might interest readers.

At the last Kansas Writers Association meeting, after my presentation about superheroes, author Stephanie Storey talked to everyone about her new novel, Oil and Marble. Storey is a TV producer in Los Angeles and talked a bit about what goes into writing a screenplay. She explained that they need to be written so that studio executives will turn the page every time and that, with every book adaptation into a film, things have to be cut.

Those two points sound like two issues writers face. Every writer wants to have a book in which readers keep turning the pages and every writer, at some point, has to cut something from a story that either doesn't fit or advance the plot.

But when books are adapated for the big screen, the challenges to draw viewers don't come from the writing alone. Acting and directing mean as much to getting people to watch a film. If a film doesn't have those elements in place, you are less likely to keep the audience interested. Compare that to a book, in which the reader will use his or her imagination to determine what the characters' voices sound like and how they visualize the characters interacting with everybody.

Storey brought up another point: When you are putting together a film or TV show, you are working with multiple people and those who handle the writing won't always get everything they want. That applies to an extent to novelists, but not as much as to TV writers. While anyone from an editor to a beta reader may suggest a change or revision to a draft, the final decision rest with the author most of the time. Not so in the world of TV and movies, as Storey explained.

So when people adapt a book to the big screen, those people have a bigger task ahead of them. They have to get a lot of people to work together to put many elements into place and deliver a product in which viewers won't have to use their imaginations regarding how people's voices sound or what the landscape looks like.

If the acting doesn't convey the emotions that people felt when they read the book, it's harder for people to accept the film product. If certain elements in the book don't make it into the film and those who read the book believe those elements meant a lot, they won't appreciate the film like they did the book. Fans of the book may not like it if a scene is rewritten to the point that they believe the characters aren't consistent with who they are in the book.

I believe what made The Hunger Games films hold up is that the film writers did a good job of streamlining the books so that the main theme remained intact, Jennifer Lawrence was strong in the role of Katniss Everdeen and the visual effects added to the world building Suzanne Collins did in the books. Compare that to Divergent, in which I thought the first book was good (though not as good as Hunger Games) but the film never held my interest and I thought most of the actors didn't do a good job with their roles (which I would blame the directing as much as I would blame the acting).

But just because the Divergent films haven't done that well at the box office doesn't mean the trend of young adult dystopian fiction is fading. That's determined by book sales, not movie ticket sales. I think there's a still a place for this type of fiction, but it needs themes and ideas that readers can relate to.

Whether or not I have the concept that readers will like remains to be seen. But I don't believe I, or anyone else, should be discouraged from trying. Using the film industry to measure what people are or aren't interested may be useful, but it shouldn't be the only factor or the biggest factor. The biggest factor should be the novelist writing what interests him or her and letting readers decide for themselves what they think of the product.

It goes back to another bit of advice I heard at Smallville ComicCon: Yes, someone else has done it before. Do it anyway. You never know if readers may be interested in your take.

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