The Best of 2014: Young-Adult Book-to-Film Adaptations

The Best of 2014: Young-Adult Book-to-Film Adaptations

Dec 31, 2014

Welcome to the YA Movie Countdown, our resident expert’s guide to young-adult book-to-film adaptations.

The young-adult book-to-film craze continues, going five-for-six in 2014. The Giver may have completely missed the mark, but The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1, The Maze Runner, The Fault in Our Stars, Divergent and Vampire Academy all had something to offer. Of course some were better than others, and now it’s time to recognize those standout accomplishments.

The category selection was a bit arbitrary and simply came down to what I wanted to write about most, so if there are topics, moments or other achievements that are not addressed here, please do include them in the comments section below.


Best Actress: Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1

Let’s start with the most obvious one of the bunch, Jennifer Lawrence for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1. There are many, many talented people involved in this franchise, but there’s absolutely no denying that it would never be what it is today without Lawrence. She’s a big reason these movies aren’t just mindless action films and have some serious depth to them. Katniss doesn’t narrate the films like she does the books, but there’s really no need. Lawrence’s expressions alone are so telling and she offers up so much access to Katniss’ thought process that you wind up taking much more from seeing her react versus flat-out stating her thoughts and responses.

That’s a quality that is absolutely vital when making the transition from The Hunger Games and Catching Fire to Mockingjay -- Part 1. There are physical and mental challenges in the Hunger Games, but Mockingjay -- Part 1 is really just one big mind game. It’s a lot of talking, rationalizing and emoting, and Lawrence is so committed to each and every bit of it that watching Katniss hang out in District 13 and film propos is just as intense as watching her compete in the Games.


Best Actor: Dylan O’Brien, The Maze Runner

Could Dylan O’Brien be the next "Jennifer Lawrence"? After The Maze Runner, it seems like he might have a shot. As presented in the film, Thomas doesn’t have as many layers as Katniss, but O’Brien certainly does a lot with what he’s given. The role of Thomas is a tough one -- he basically has to go from terrified teenager to reputable leader over the course of a two-hour movie, but O’Brien actually manages to pull it off.

Thomas does grow more and more confident, but O’Brien expertly slips in just the right amount of fear and doubt to sell Thomas as a real person who’s making thoughtful decisions. O’Brien is also one heck of a physical performer. It may sounds silly, but if you’re going to star in a movie called The Maze Runner, you better be able to convincingly run for your life and O’Brien goes above and beyond in that respect. I highly recommend checking out some of the Maze Runner Blu-ray special features because when you see what some of these sets really looked like, it’ll confirm that O’Brien really knows how to bring a world and situation to life like no other.


Breakthrough Performance: Ansel Elgort, The Fault in Our Stars

What a year for Ansel Elgort! Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars and then Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children. Sure, some did better than others, but as an individual Elgort certainly delivers quality work across the board. Gus is especially charming in John Green’s book, but putting him on the big screen in the flesh definitely came with the risk of having such a confident and poetic character read as arrogant. However, thanks to Elgort’s wholehearted performance and infectious charisma, he immediately wins you over. Elgort doesn’t get half as much material to work with in Divergent, but when he is on-screen as Caleb, you really can see the wheels turning in his head, giving off the impression that Elgort is an actor who really understands his characters’ motivations.


Best Director: Wes Ball, The Maze Runner

An adaptation like The Maze Runner needs a director with a clear vision for every single element of the production... a director like Wes Ball. I very much enjoyed The Maze Runner during my first watch, but it took me a second viewing to stop being precious about the source material and appreciate the changes made, many of which are key to the impeccable momentum of the film. The Maze Runner doesn’t stop for a second because every scene, image and line of dialogue has value and serves a purpose, but also because Ball has an incredible eye for riveting, rich visuals.

So much of that imagery speaks to Ball’s VFX know-how and his skill as an actor’s director. You’ve got to see how that scene in Section 7 was shot. So much of what we see in the final cut wasn’t really there, so it’s all on Ball to set the scene for his actors so that it all comes together. The Maze Runner isn’t a perfect film and I still take issue with a few character flaws and the big finish, but this really is some quality entertainment right here that suggests that Ball was pivotal to bringing out the best in the script.


Best Adaptation: Danny Strong and Peter Craig, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1 is one of few recent young-adult book-to-film adaptations (if not the only one) that’s better than the book. The third installment of the Suzanne Collins trilogy is a good read and loaded with thoughtful, promising concepts, but the narrative is also packed with lulls and isn’t particularly well constructed either. Not so with the first part of the feature film version, however. Yes, Katniss is still a bit mopey, but by exploring the situation from different perspectives, her journey becomes far more meaningful.

It is effective to read about the unrest in certain districts, but that just can’t compare to seeing the Peacekeeper ambush in District 7 and the destruction of the hydroelectric dam in District 5. And the same goes for characters like President Coin. In the book, she’s dubbed the head of District 13 and that’s that. In Mockingjay -- Part 1 however, we get to see why she’s the right leader when she makes some key decisions during the bombing sequence.There are a few memorable moments from the book that I miss, but overall the writers really did a stellar job adjusting Collins’ work for film.


Best Song: The Hanging Tree, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1

Katniss singing “The Hanging Tree” in the book is a memorable moment, but actually hearing Jennifer Lawrence sing it is almost overwhelmingly powerful. The lyrics are especially haunting, but Lawrence’s raw and somewhat soothing voice also gives the song a rousing quality, especially when we get to see the tune catch on throughout the country. And “The Hanging Tree” isn’t just catchy in Mockingjay -- Part 1. It’s a song that I genuinely enjoy listening to casually as well. (Well, minus that odd pop remix.)


Most Underrated: Vampire Academy

A 9% on Rotten Tomatoes? Really? I’ll admit that Mark Waters’ rendition of the Richelle Mead novel has some serious flaws, but it’s still loads of fun. It’s got a little too much exposition, some of the jokes fall flat and the characters are a bit one-dimensional, but thanks to the vibrancy of the world and the charming leads, I found it to be an absolute pleasure to spend two hours in the big screen rendition of St. Vladimir’s Academy.

The pacing is spot-on, the film is packed with prime music cues and Zoey Deutch is this mesmerizing ball of sass and energy. In fact, it’s especially disappointing we’re not getting a sequel because that means we won’t get to see her do more with this part. Vampire Academy is no masterpiece, but it is some quality, sit back, relax and get-a-little-silly type of entertainment that makes for a lighthearted, spirited and upbeat watch.  


Best Young-Adult Book-to-Film Adaptation of 2014: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1

Yet again, nothing comes anywhere close to stealing this title from The Hunger Games franchise. Divergent, Vampire Academy and The Maze Runner are all enjoyable films, but they don’t have nearly as much depth as Mockingjay -- Part 1. The Hunger Games franchise did get a nice boost from its high concept early on, but the movies have always been about Katniss, her journey and the state of the nation, not the Hunger Games themselves -- and that’s what makes them monumentally more moving than most other YA films.

I’ve been covering The Hunger Games for almost five years now and am incredibly grateful that the filmmakers continue to both respect the source material and improve upon it. Again, Mockingjay the book is packed with quality concepts, but The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1 takes the narrative to a new level, making you feel the importance of Katniss’ role as the Mockingjay and also making you feel as though you’re part of the rebellion yourself. It all started with those rebel transmission promos prior to the release and now we’re walking around humming “The Hanging Tree.”


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