BY AMANDA CLARKE
The global success of the Harry Potter novels was unprecedented. Readers ordered their books months in advance and would eagerly line up on the release date for the latest installment. The internet exploded with online communities dedicated to dissecting the stories and speculating about what would happen next. Harry Potter merchandise was everywhere, from colouring books and journals to t-shirts and dolls; it was possible to buy just about anything featuring the books. If ever there was a sure thing in Hollywood, it was Harry Potter; therefore, the films were inevitable. The books were already being marketed more like films than novels and there was a loyal fan base that was hungry for more of Harry’s world. The first film, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone,grossed almost $975 million worldwide and the franchise has earned $7.7 billion for Warner Brothers. Including book sales, mechanizing profits, licencing fees and revenue from other sources, the Harry Potter brand is worth an estimated $15 billion. This success meant that every studio in Hollywood was looking for its own staple franchise, initiating the current trend of big blockbuster films based off of popular young adult novels.
There are two important trends associated with the young adult book to film phenomenon. The first is that the marketing of novels is now very similar to the marketing of films. Where publishers used to largely rely on reviews, print ads and word of mouth to sell their products, giant billboards and tie in promotions such as contests, giveaways, toys and even trailers are now the norm. Books are experiencing a merchandising boom similar to the one that films experienced in the late 70s and early 80s. The release of a new novel in a series is a major event and the series are truly multi-platform franchises, incorporating every promotional and marketing avenue that can be conceived of. For film studios, these books provide a guaranteed return on their investment.
The second major trend, and the more important one, is the influence of women within the young adult film genre. Most of the adapted novels are written by women, feature female protagonists and the majority of the fanbases are female. This means that for the first time, a significant portion of the studios’ marquee big budget film franchises are led by female protagonists and overall they are out-grossing their male counterparts within the genre. While the films made provide a 50/50 split between male and female leads, within the top 20 grossing films of all time in the genre, 11 feature female protagonists, with only nine featuring male leads. This discrepancy is even greater than at first glance, as eight of the nine male led films belong to the Harry Potter franchise, which is essentially a single, extended film. Women are also the creators of 18 of the top 20 grossing franchises, with only two drawing from source material written by men. Both of these franchises (A Series of Unfortunate Events and Percy Jackson) were indefinitely abandoned before all the existing novels were made into films
The dominance of women in the young adult genre is precisely why it is one that is going to last. These are films that not only make a lot of money, but also fill in a large gap in the Hollywood film market. Even though 50% of the movie-going public is female, only 30% of the speaking roles in film are given to women and most of these are in supporting roles. The defence to this discrepancy has always been that women are able to relate to male characters, but men are unable to relate in that same way to their female counterparts and therefore films featuring women don’t make money. Adaptations like The Hunger Games, Twilight and Divergent are collectively grossing billions at the box office. More importantly they are giving women a chance to see themselves up on the screen—and they like what they see. The film adaptations of these young adult novel franchises are slowly bringing awareness to the fact that girls and women are just as viable heroes as men are. The most encouraging thing in this is that these are stories managing to feature strong and competent women without degrading the male supporting characters, meaning that these are films that don’t alienate a male audience, making their earning potential even higher.
Looking at the popularity of the young adult books turned films, the ones that have gained the most popularity are those that put young women at their centre. This is a phenomenon that is driven by young girls who are looking for themselves in pop culture, something that young boys have always had. When compared to films that are generally targeted at women, like romantic comedies and musicals, even the weaker performing adaptations make almost twice what the highest grossing rom-coms do. These films are proving that female-driven blockbusters are just as viable and sometimes more so, than those driven by men. This means that they will continue to be made and, as a result, a generation is growing up watching women on screen.
Hopefully this trend will bleed into other genres as the younger generation ages and begins to look for more adult content. This can only be a positive as not only will young girls grow up with a diversity of strong female role models, but young boys will grow up learning to relate better to their female peers and meet them on a more even footing. Although generally considered merely as entertainment, popular films play a significant role in shaping how young people see the world as they give them the chance to experience things they have yet to encounter in their daily lives. This means that by simply seeing more women taking the lead in a fantasy context, it becomes a more acceptable practice within reality. As farfetched as it may seem, the young adult film genre may well be the stepping stone to fostering greater gender equality, not only onscreen and in Hollywood, but beyond it as well.
Amanda just graduated from the U of T Cinema Studies program. She’ll watch anything that is bright and colourful and loves everything science fiction.