The balancing act behind adapting young-adult fiction for film.
BY: Robert Ito
There’s a scene in the 2010 film The Twilight Saga: Eclipse in which Bella (Kristen Stewart) gets on the back of a motorcycle owned by Jacob, a werewolf. She does so unprompted, at least in part to get under the skin of her beau, Edward, who is a vampire. In the book, however, Jacob has to persuade Bella to get on his motorcycle. See the difference? If you’re a young or even not-so-young fan of the wildly popular Twilight series, you sure do.
“That got some flak,” says Melissa Rosenberg, who wrote the screenplays for all five of the Twilight films, based on books by Stephenie Meyer. “Some fans were like, ‘She would never do that to Edward!’. People become very attached to a certain moment in a book, and if you change it, it’s very upsetting to them.”
The latest entry in a spate of young-adult best-seller adaptations to face that challenge is Divergent. Based on the debut novel by Veronica Roth, the film is set in a post-apocalyptic Chicago where young citizens are placed in one of five separate factions depending on their performance on Choosing Day, a dystopic take on the high school aptitude test. Tris, the film’s heroine, soon discovers she’s that rarest of birds: a citizen who doesn’t fit neatly into any of the five castes.
If, as the common wisdom goes, the book is always better, why do so many studios keep making movies out of them? One reason, of course, is that readers will rush out to see their favourite texts brought to life on screen, even as they complain about every casting decision and plot tweak. Few fans are more devoted — and plentiful — than the readers of young adult fiction.
How do screenwriters adapt these stories so they will appeal to a broad swathe of moviegoers, readers and non-readers alike? “You can go on any Twilight website, and 50 per cent of the people say, ‘Oh, the adaptation was incredibly faithful’, and the other half will say that I butchered the book, and my hands should be cut off,” Rosenberg says.
In Divergent, Tris is played by Shailene Woodley, who was nominated for a Golden Globe for the 2011 Alexander Payne film The Descendants. When it was first announced in 2012 that she would play the lead role, fans of the book quickly jumped online to grouse. Too tall, they said. Too pretty. Her face, said one, was “too roundish”.
Casting is one of the biggest of fan concerns. “We’ve learned not to be too reactive about some of their initial responses,” says Erik Feig, co-president of the Lionsgate Motion Picture Group, who has overseen such projects as Divergent, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and the Twilight series. “At first, fans said that Rob Pattinson was the worst Edward ever: ‘How could you have cast him?’,” he says. “A lot of times we want to say, ‘Trust us’.”
Fans also have a list of elements from the books that they feel the films can’t do without. While working on Twilight, Feig and a few of his colleagues sat down with Meyer and came up with their own list. Informally called the ‘Stephenie Meyer Bill of Rights’, it ranged from character details (“Jacob is an amazing mechanic”) to essential scenes.
He has made similar lists for several of his recent films. “The Finnick sugar-cube scene from Catching Fire,” Feig says. “That had to be there. The zip-line scene in Divergent. ‘How long have you been 17?’ from Twilight. Can you imagine an adaptation that wouldn’t have those scenes?”
It’s no wonder that some screenwriters try to insulate themselves from all the online chatter. “I put myself in a bubble,” says Shauna Cross, who wrote the screenplay for If I Stay, a coming film based on the best-selling young adult novel by Gayle Forman. If I Stay stars Chloë Grace Moretz as a gifted cellist who survives a horrific car accident that kills the rest of her family.
At the same time, Cross recognises that fans could be some of a screenwriter’s strongest allies. “When someone’s trying to make changes that don’t seem creatively right, you can say: ‘Hey, we have these people to answer to’,” she says.
Rosenberg agrees. “We have the best fans in the world,” she says. “Even if they hate your version, they’ll show up and watch it five times just to talk about how much they hate it.”