Welcome to the YA Movie Countdown, our resident expert’s continuing guide to young adult book-to-film adaptations.
Have you had enough vampires, zombies, werewolves, supernatural-human romances and dystopian societies in the young adult book-to-film realm? You’re in luck: D.J. MacHale’s Sylo doesn’t have a single one of them.
WHAT IT'S ABOUT
Sylo is a tough one to describe because part of the appeal is that it’s a mystery through and through. None of the main characters know more than the reader, so each step of the way you’re putting the pieces together right along with them, making the scenario exceptionally suspenseful and engaging, and also making their discoveries particularly gratifying.
In an attempt to keep spoiler free, we’ll stick to the information divulged in the official synopsis of the book. Our main man is Tucker Pierce. He’s not the greatest football player and he has trouble talking to girls, but overall he’s pretty happy with his quaint life on Pemberwick Island, Maine. That is, until SYLO arrives.
Shortly after Tucker witnesses a strange late-night explosion over the ocean, Pemberwick is invaded by a branch of the U.S. Navy called SYLO. The man in charge, Captain Granger, explains that the residents are being quarantined because a lethal virus has been detected on the island, but Tucker believes there’s much more to it than that.
Tucker Pierce: Tucker is the protagonist of Sylo. His father was a civil engineer with a focus on city planning, but due to economic troubles he lost the job and the Pierces relocated to the more affordable Pemberwick Island. Now Tucker’s mother does freelance accounting work for local small businesses, his father owns a landscaping company and Tucker lends a hand when he can. However, even though Tucker takes the no-sweat, coasting approach at school, when SYLO invades he’s determined to expose the organization and make things right again.
Tori Sleeper: I’m not a fan of the term, but Tori is Tucker’s "love interest." He’s a high school guy -- he’s got to have one! But Tori is far from the female halves you’ve seen in typical YA romances – in fact, she’s almost the exact opposite. Tucker calls her “cute, but odd.” They go to school together, but otherwise Tori spends most of her time helping her father out with his lobster business. She never hangs out with kids her age and often comes across as so aloof that Tucker even refers to her as “brain-dead” at a point. It’s a harsh assessment, but initially Tori really is a prickly person.
Quinn Carr: Quinn is basically the exact opposite of Tucker, and Tucker suspects that could be why they make good friends. Whereas Tucker is satisfied with his B-minus average, Quinn is the advanced placement king, and while Tucker is thrilled to kick back and continue to enjoy the quiet life on Pemberwick, Quinn has big plans. He truly wants to make a difference. Also, much unlike Tucker, Quinn’s got zero social reservations. If he feels like telling Tori that Tucker has a thing for her, he’s going to do it.
Kent Berringer: Kent is the starting linebacker on the football team. Unlike Tucker’s family, Kent’s has lived on the island for ages, so the Berringers tend to strut around like they run the place. As a football rookie, Tucker has always been on Kent’s radar, but when Tucker gets in between Kent and his eye candy, Olivia, that puts Tucker on his radar in the worst way possible. Kent’s got a serious temper and Tucker feels his wrath more than anyone.
Olivia Kinsey: Olivia is a nonislander who has a thing for tormenting Tucker with her tiny red bikini. She’s from New York City, but spends the entire summer on Pemberwick vacationing with her mother. Turns out, Olivia stays at the Blackbird Inn, one of Tucker’s father’s clients, so Tucker’s able to mow the lawn and hang around there whenever he wants. The downside? Kent’s family owns the Blackbird and nothing lights a fire in Kent more so than seeing Olivia and Tucker interact – whether it’s flirtatious or not.
Captain Granger: Say hello to the Sylo antagonist, Captain Granger, the commanding officer of the SYLO division of the United States Navy. Even though Granger professes that his main mission is to ensure the safety and well being of those on Pemberwick Island, it’s understandable that the citizens don’t think too highly of the guy taking control of their home, especially when SYLO overstays its welcome and Granger refuses to give the Pemberwick residents any answers.
Ken Feit: In the midst of all of this SYLO madness, Pemberwick has a drug problem, specifically a pusher named Ken Feit. It sounds unnecessary and superfluous, but to keep from spoiling the story, just know that this element is well woven into the narrative in a way that both builds the core concept and adds layers to Tucker.
Tucker: In the book, Tucker is just 14 years old, but it’s highly likely that the filmmakers will give all of the kids an age boost. Tucker’s got to be the happy medium between Quinn and Kent; he can’t be the big man on campus and he can’t be geeky. He needs to be unassuming, but also a believable hero, much like Mud’s Tye Sheridan.
Tori: Remember, cute but odd. And let’s throw tough in there, too. Tori gets quite the arc in Sylo, so this role is going to have to go to an actress capable of nailing the entire spectrum, someone with a rough yet charming sass like Shanley Caswell in Detention.
Quinn: This one’s easy. Slap some glasses on Divergent’s Ansel Elgort and we’ve got a winner! Carrie isn’t a particularly strong film for the resume, but Elgort did manage to make an impression as Tommy Ross and he’s got high-profile projects including Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars and Jason Reitman’s Men, Women & Children on the way, so casting Elgort should be a safe bet.
Kent: He may be growing out of teenage roles, but after his work in The Hunger Games, it’s clear that Alexander Ludwig could nail Kent’s intimidating presence. Even though Ludwig delivered strong work in Hunger Games, Lone Survivor and even Grown Ups 2 (he really was the funniest part of the movie), it’s about time he gets a character that lets him show some range. Kent’s a meathead brute, but he’s also a calculating guy and that should make him an interesting character to track.
Olivia: Someone who looks good in a bathing suit and can act – why not professional kiteboarder-turned-actress Maika Monroe? Ramin Bahrani’s At Any Price marked her first big gig, but even alongside powerhouses like Dennis Quaid and Zac Efron, she still managed to stand out by creating a character who initially could be perceived as just a pretty face, but eventually goes on to show there’s a lot more to her, just like Olivia in Sylo.
Granger: Michael Rooker could be a tough get after Guardians of the Galaxy, but who better to play a straightforward solider with steel-gray hair and one heck of a threatening presence? Admittedly, there are a number of more obvious knowing, military-esque types to choose from, like perhaps Stephen Lang, but why turn Granger into more of the same? Even though Granger is a stickler for the rules and formality, there are two additional layers any actor would have to hit – he’s got to offer a sense of comfort so the Pemberwick residents believe he’s there to protect them, but then he also has to be just the slightest bit unhinged.
Feit: Feit’s a curious character. When Tucker first spots him, he notes the longish blond hair poking out of his hoodie and dubs him a surfer dude. He also pegs him as a major creeper because while the entire crowd at the football game is cheering, he’s hunched over, scribbling in a notebook. But then, when they have their first face-to-face interaction, Feit’s a charming salesman. Who knows if Adam Brody can rock blonde hair or even grow long locks, but thanks to Jennifer’s Body, we do know he’s able to be convincing and sleazy at once.
DIRECTOR THOR FREUDENTHAL
As reported by Deadline back in October, Fox 2000 and the Donners Company recruited Thor Freudenthal to get behind the lens for its adaptation of Sylo. Perhaps you don’t know his name off the top of your head, but if the thought of a movie version of Sylo piques your interest, odds are you are familiar with his body of work. Freudenthal is responsible for three other book-to-film adaptations – Hotel for Dogs, The Diary of a Wimpy Kid and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. While none were particularly well received, as far as experience goes the combination could put Freudenthal in a good position to adapt Sylo.
The book has one epic battle, but otherwise Sylo is a particularly grounded, intimate story. Minus that opening blowout, there should be minimal CGI and showy action sequences because the thrill of the scenario stems from the mystery more so than anything. Freudenthal did a solid job bringing audiences back to middle school via Greg Heffley in Diary of a Wimpy Kid and he had a strong handle on the action in Percy Jackson, but here he’d need to find a middle ground and establish a more mature, darker tone.
Much unlike Percy Jackson, Sylo isn’t a playful romp. Clearly it’s meant for young adults, but in order to steer clear of juvenile melodrama, Freudenthal is going to have to approach the material from a more mature perspective as compared to his previous adaptations.
Sylo is a standout because of its characters. It isn’t powered by a high concept like The Hunger Games and doesn’t create some out-of-this-world hidden realm like The Mortal Instruments. It’s a very human story and that makes it highly relatable. Tucker, Quinn and Tori don’t blast away their enemies with superhuman powers or even topple the government; they’re trying to solve a mystery as anyone might, by snooping around and taking chances, and that makes their situation particularly easy to connect with and believe.
The sole potential drawback to Sylo is that, much like many other YA-to-film adaptations, it’s part of a series. MacHale gives enough answers to make the first read a satisfying one, but on-screen it won’t be easy to earn that ending and avoid leaving viewers frustrated that they can’t have more. But will we even want more? The Sylo sequel, Storm, is due to hit shelves in March so we’ll be able to confirm Sylo’s franchise potential for you soon enough.
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