Historical YA Novels at the Movies: When Will We Get Our Blockbuster?

Lovers of historical fiction have patiently waited through the mass hysteria known as the Twilight and Hunger Games movie adaptations. We’re even cheering on upcoming contemporary YA adaptations, such as The Fault in Our Stars, even if the settings are considered far hipper than what we’re used to reading and loving

But, let’s face it, if you’re like me, you’re waiting for the rock star of historical YA movie adaptations to show up in a blaze of killer costumes and settings and take the movie world by storm.

In April, we Corsets, Cutlasses, & Candlesticks members blogged about the current golden age of historical TV series—a wonderful trend for the small screen. I love being able to turn on my TV during almost any month of the year and finding myself treated to smart and entertaining period pieces. But those shows are typically created for adults, not teens. Most of the series don’t draw their source material from novels, especially not YA novels.

The book thiefOne of my all-time favorite YA novels, Markus Zusak‘s The Book Thief, showed up in movie theaters last fall. I crossed my fingers and hoped the movie would be a huge hit, and it did fairly well. As I expected, the movie was up for awards, including an Oscar nomination in the category of Original Score. However, it did not become a major event movie comparable to Twilight and The Hunger Games. The Book Thief isn’t the type of story that inspires “Team Max” T-shirts and other to-die-for merchandise featuring pretty people glaring at the camera with smoldering eyes. To be a rock star of YA  movie adaptations, you have to come across like a rock star. And that’s not where the beauty and magic of historical YAs typically lie.

Madmans jkt Des1.inddSeveral other historical YA novelists have sold film rights to their books, including Libba Bray (The Diviners), Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray), Elizabeth Wein (Code Name Verity), Rainbow Rowell (Eleanor & Park, set in the 1980s), and Megan Shepherd (The Madman’s Daughter). Whether these films make it to the big screen is entirely up to the producers and others involved, but the sales of the rights alone give hope for a potential blitz of historical tales hitting movie theaters in the coming years. I asked Megan Shepherd how she personally feels about historical movie adaptations, and she said, “One of the things that excites me most about the prospect of YA historical fiction being made into movies is because those were some of my very favorite films as a teen (and still are). I loved the moodiness of movies adaptations like Mary Reilly and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow. There’s something so lush and atmospheric about historical stories that translates perfectly onto the big screen.”

A Room with a View, 1985

A Room with a View, 1985

I agree. As a teen and a young adult, I gobbled up Merchant Ivory adaptations of novels by E.M. Forster, such as A Room with a View and Howard’s End. These films weren’t adaptations of YA tales, but they fulfilled my need for visually arresting and emotionally intense period pieces. The costumes were glamorous, the settings divine, and the characters complicated. In short, the movies involved people finding their way in the world (like I was) while living in stunning surroundings (like I wanted to do). Who could ask for anything more of a book or a movie when one is young (or even not so young)?

Furthermore, movie adaptations of favorite books are fun. It’s delightful to find an amazing book and then to learn that said novel will be celebrated on a universal level. Sure, there’s the risk of filmmakers butchering a beloved story and making huge casting blunders, but complaining about those blunders allows us to further bond with other readers who fiercely adore the same novels.

On the other hand, a book doesn’t need to be adapted into a movie to be a true book. I think some readers feel a film adaptation is the ultimate stamp of approval for a novel, which is a shame for all the wonderful stories out there that won’t ever receive the big-screen treatment. Every author will tell you that frequently asked questions from readers invariably include “Will your book get made into a movie?” and “Who would you cast in the movie version of your book?” Adaptations (the good, the bad, and the nonexistent) should never be used to judge the worth of a novel. They should be seen instead as a bonus feature for a book. An entertaining extra. Sure, movies help increase a book’s exposure and sales, but they typically won’t make the source material any better or worse than what it originally was when it first became a full-fledged novel.

Even if the rock star of historical YA movie adaptations never arrives, my love of historical fiction won’t wane in the slightest. The genre’s worth will not diminish. The novels themselves, if they’re strong enough, will allow us to feel as though we’ve already seen the movies inside our own heads. If we do end up getting to see our favorite historicals turned into moviesand if those movies happen to become blockbusterstheir success will simply show the world what we already know: HISTORICAL FICTION IS FAR FROM BORING!

For now, let’s enjoy the wealth of historical YA fiction making its way onto bookshelves. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for all of the historical novels already on their way to becoming feature films. And let us remember that, no matter what Hollywood decides to do about historical YAs, the genre will continue to flourish, to entertain, and to gather new readers, young and old.


About Cat Winters

Cat Winters’s critically acclaimed debut novel, IN THE SHADOW OF BLACKBIRDS, was named a 2014 Morris Award Finalist, a 2014 Best Fiction for Young Adults pick, a 2013 Bram Stoker Award Nominee, and a School Library Journal Best Book of 2013. Her second novel, THE CURE FOR DREAMING, is a 2015 Amelia Bloomer Project Nominee and a 2015 Best Fiction for Young Adults Nominee. Her upcoming books include THE UNINVITED (William Morrow/2015) and THE STEEP AND THORNY WAY (Amulet Books/2016), and she’s a contributor to the 2015 YA horror anthology SLASHER GIRLS & MONSTER BOYS. Cat lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband and two kids. Visit her online at http://www.catwinters.com.

2 thoughts on “Historical YA Novels at the Movies: When Will We Get Our Blockbuster?

  1. Christa says:

    I would love to see more YA historical fiction movies! I think Code Name Verity and The Diviners would both make excellent films.

  2. So many things right with this post! Merchant Ivory made some of my favorite films for years running. To me, films help me find new books, and books help me know which movies I want to watch. Plus, am I the only one who enjoys the spectator sport of fallacy-spotting? 😀

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