We were all teenagers once. Yet, while we’ll happily revisit the cultural products of our own dorky years, we often fancy ourselves too sophisticated for films aimed at Today’s Yoof… unless those films have a nostalgic setting or nostalgic cultural references. Some reviewers even seem to relish panning teen movies (even Junkee’s trodden that path), sometimes in cruelly hyperbolic terms.
Recently, critics mauled The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. The angels-versus-demons teen action romance currently has a stinking 12 per cent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and a relatively generous 33 at Metacritic. Production of the sequel, City of Ashes, has been delayed indefinitely. Given the similarly lacklustre box-office performance earlier this year of Beautiful Creatures and The Host, commentators have speculated that the young adult novel adaptation bubble has burst for good.
I doubt it. Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters is out this Thursday, and as well as The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, the coming months hold Ender’s Game, Seventh Son, The Maze Runner, Vampire Academy and Divergent.
“You critics don’t know what you are talking about,” a passionate Mortal Instruments fan wrote on Metacritic. “It’s not for you. But don’t bash it because it didn’t meet your needs.”
The needs YA films serve are emotional. Whether the movies are ‘good’ or ‘bad’, whether they blockbust or bomb, they do something wonderful. They give us permission to wallow in our feelings, to take them seriously and find them significant, the way we first felt them. These are the same impulses that make Tavi Gevinson’s Rookie so popular with readers decades older than its target audience.
There’s nothing juvenile or embarrassing about tapping into the curiosity and adventurousness that adulthood has dulled. In a world of instant, cheap gratification, we can remember how precious it was to yearn. And when we worry we’re becoming mediocre drones, YA films console us that we’re special people destined to make our mark on the world.
A Hero’s Journey
It’s not down to genetics, psychological trauma or transformative workplace accidents. You become heroic by learning to trust your abilities and assert yourself rather than passively letting stuff happen to you. “I make my own destiny!” says Percy Jackson.
Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters and its 2010 prequel The Lightning Thief cheerfully modernise ancient Greek heroic myths, mashing up the stories of Perseus, Jason, Orpheus and Odysseus. It’s delightful that in these movies, ‘going on a quest’ is as matter-of-fact as ducking down to the shops.
In the new film, Percy (Logan Lerman), son of the sea god Poseidon, must race several antagonists to steal the Golden Fleece from murderous Cyclops Polyphemus (voiced by Ron Perlman). But troubling Percy is a prophecy that he will either save or destroy the world.
This ‘messiah’ trope is a romance of self-sacrifice in pursuit of the greater good. And in YA movies it’s a grand, swooning, personalised gesture: I WOULD DIE 4 U. As Bryan Adams once suggested, love and friendship are stronger catalysts for heroism than predestination or abstract duty.
Percy’s arrogant rival Clarisse (Leven Rambin) is not heroic because she acts alone, for self-aggrandisement. (Intertextual note: In The Hunger Games, Rambin played the cruel District 1 tribute Glimmer.) But Percy acts for his family and his friends, Grover (Brandon T Jackson) and Annabeth (Alexandra Daddario). He can’t understand why Luke (Jake Abel) loathes his Olympian father, and he warms to the irritating doofus Tyson (Douglas Smith) once Tyson proves willing to lay down his life for Percy. “You’d do the same for me, brother,” says Tyson.
What might your own loyalties inspire?
A Shadow Society
LA Times reviewer Mark Olson disparages YA films for being “far more invested in the fantasy trappings and wonky internal mythology of their made-up universes than they are in the deeper metaphors of body shock, transformation and revelation.”
But immersing yourself in arcana is the whole point. It’s satisfying to learn about shadow societies, talismanic objects, hidden cities, magical means of communication, and the histories between heroes and villains. This is what made Harry Potter so great.
The Mortal Instruments is deeply unoriginal — a mashup of Harry Potter, Buffy, Twilight and Star Wars. Protagonist Clary Fray (Lily Collins) discovers a secret race of half-angelic demon-slayers known as Shadowhunters, who fight evil in the interstices of contemporary New York. Clary can see through their concealing glamour because she’s no ‘mundane’ human: turns out she’s a Shadowhunter, too.
What distinguishes The Mortal Instruments is its runes. Inscribed on the skin, these calligraphic symbols look like cringeworthy goth tattoos, but endow Shadowhunters with superhuman capabilities. Consider that in early Norse culture, a ‘rune’ meant a secret source of power, decipherable only by an elite. As Clary learns to read and wield runes, audiences acquire this arcane knowledge along with her.
Seeing what is hidden to others is doubly seductive when your everyday life is boring or alienating. Shadow societies not only offer audiences a fantasy of escape, but also the flattering feeling of being deemed worthy to glimpse other worlds.
In one of the most poignant moments in Beautiful Creatures, bookish, brooding Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich) is forced to confront his ordinariness. Determined to escape his oppressively insular hometown, Ethan falls for beautiful Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), whose family are powerful enchanters. But when her menacing uncle Macon (Jeremy Irons) enquires about Ethan’s future plans, Ethan finds himself unwillingly narrating a depressingly provincial biography ending in a lonely, alcoholic death.
Macon’s cruel spell is meant to underline that Ethan doesn’t deserve someone as special as Lena. But in a culture that celebrates specialness, it also reflects our greatest terror: being average.
An Erotic Choice
Ethan and Lena’s love turns out to be special, of course. I adore the glorious tradition of erotic angst in YA films. Two characters forge an immediate connection, then spend most of the movie complicating it. There’ll be a disapproving relative, romantic rivals, a disparity of race, class or supernatural ability, or even a disastrous intimation of incest.
Clary must choose between enigmatic Shadowhunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) and her BFF Simon (Robert Sheehan). Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) must choose between taciturn hunter Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and kindly baker Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). Intellectual compatibility; trust and safety; sheer sensual pleasure — YA films operate in a heady, powerful space where several variations on desire can be contemplated simultaneously, without fear of moral judgment.
The Host is perhaps 2013’s most insane dramatisation of erotic indecision. While it’s a collaboration between retro-futurist director Andrew Niccol and Twilight scribe Stephenie Meyer, it’s an anti-auteur film in that it seems artless, its weird sexual politics seeping out involuntarily around the edges of the ostensible story.
The titular Host is Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), whose body has been colonised by Wanderer, one of the parasitic alien ‘Souls’ who have almost completely overrun Earth. But Melanie’s consciousness survives as an echoey voiceover, setting up a love tri/quadrangle: Melanie wants her boyfriend Jared (Max Irons), while Wanderer falls for Ian (Percy Jackson’s Jake Abel).
When Ian tells Wanderer he loves her, she replies, “No, you don’t. You love this body.” Melanie, meanwhile, is worried she’s lost her intellectual closeness with Jared.
The Host asks us to be honest about what attracts us to others. Do they ever know the ‘real’ us? The film’s characters literally feel their way through the problem in an almost-but-not-quite threesomey make-out session, trusting in the tangible and accepting the ineffable. Melanie murmurs to Jared: “Kiss me like you want to get slapped.” Or, as Descartes might have put it, “I slap, therefore I am.”
In many YA films, the final erotic choice is literally a life-and-death matter. Wouldn’t it be thrilling to bring such fearlessness and urgency to our own love lives? Our craven grown-up strategies include being blasé, hiding our feelings, and avoiding hurt by pretending the stakes are low. But teenagers get that the stakes are high enough to terrify any vampire.
Mel Campbell is a freelance journalist and cultural critic. She is the founding editor of online pop culture magazine The Enthusiast. Her debut book, Out of Shape: Debunking Myths about Fashion and Fit, is out now.