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How YA like “The Hunger Games” Came to Rule Fantasy and Scifi Films

Hunger Games mania is upon us: The first of a planned four-film series based on Suzanne Collins’s science fiction trilogy (because now it’s apparently required that the final book of any series must be broken into two movie) hits theaters on Friday. To say the box-office expectations are huge is underselling the statement: Film industry observers expect it to have an opening weekend box office in the neighborhood of $100 million (and that’s just domestic) and to be one of the biggest films of the year.

The film does something else as well: It solidifies young adult science fiction and fantasy as one of the most successful genres of literature for adaptation into blockbuster films. The Hunger Games will be following on the massive success of the Twilight series (four films, $1 billion in domestic box office) and Harry Potter series (eight films, $2.3 billion), and will be followed by others, including Cassandra Clare’s The Mortal Instruments, with Lily Collins (Mirror Mirror) set to star, as well as Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, optioned and on deck.

What is it about young adult science fiction and fantasy that makes it so delicious to Hollywood — and to moviegoers? Well …

1. Stories, Cinematically Built
Young adult genre reading audiences like a good story — a tale that
has a beginning, middle, and end, and doesn’t necessarily get lost in
the thickets of language or craft. This may sound like a backhanded
compliment, but it’s actually the opposite, and also why so many adults
enjoy young adult fiction: because it gives readers a complete
storytelling journey. There may also be good language and writing craft, but the emphasis is on the storytelling, which is not always the case with adult fiction.

emphasis on storytelling works very well for commercial films, which
have the same emphasis, and makes it easier for filmmakers to adapt and
streamline the books into two-hour movies.

2. Built-in, Fanatical Audiences
Successful young adult series have the sort of fans that get movie makers salivating: They’re young and they’re so committed to the series
that they will bring it into their lives, writing fan fiction and
dressing up as their favorite characters and endlessly discussing the
world the author has created. It’s the sort of commitment that marketing
can’t buy and that films can’t create before release. It also gives the
films a marketing and publicity hook, because newspapers, blogs, and TV
shows can cover the fan love of the series well in advance of the films.
As they did for Potter, Twilight and now Hunger Games.

This sort of thing can be rushed, to bad effect — note the flop of I Am Number Four,
the film of which was released well before the book series gained any
sort of real traction with YA readers — but when it’s on, it’s gold.

3. Young (Yet Identifiable) Heroes
Harry Potter, Bella Swan, Katniss Everdeen: all characters that work
for every age group. Younger audience members see a character they can
identify with and wish they could be, or have adventures with — it’s
not a coincidence my 13-year-old daughter has taken up archery — while
older audiences empathize someone going through a series of trials and
tribulations so young.
This isn’t to say that being a wizard, or
being in love with a vampire, or staying alive in a bloody reality show
is in the normal range of experiences for most people (I mean, hopefully).
It’s more to the point that we recognize these things as heightened versions
of (respectively) discovering ourselves, being in love, and suffering
through crises.

For Hollywood, there is also the practical aspect
that young stars are cheap, at least at first, which helps keep film
production costs manageable, at least at first.

4. Ancillary Merchandising
Pop into a Hot Topic store this week and you’ll find it’s been taken
over with Hunger Games stuff — everything from the inevitable T-shirts
to an $80 crossbow. In all there are more than 60 different Hunger Games-related items you can get from the store, according to a Los Angeles Times article on the subject. There’s even a Hunger Games Barbie on the way.

of which may seem ridiculous, but then, let’s go back to point two, and
the built-in, fanatical audiences. They’re already there, movies are
expensive, and licensing merchandise to successful films is a grand
tradition in Hollywood, as well as in science fiction and fantasy. Just ask
George Lucas, if you can find him under his massive piles of
merchandising cash.

YA-based science fiction and fantasy films are not always a license to print money — for every Harry Potter, there’s an underperforming Percy Jackson; for every Twilight, there’s a lackluster Vampire’s Assistant.
But if you’re a filmmaker and you’re swinging for the fences, then the
YA section of your local bookstore is definitely going to be one of
your first stops.

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