Teen heroes to the rescue

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 15, 2014

Teen heroes saving the world on screen are also revitalising the book industry.

Young adult novels are selling hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, with the success of The Hunger Games films over the past two years propelling other dark adventure stories to the top of the bestseller lists.

With an eye on this ready-made audience, film studios are snapping up novels with even a whiff of the Suzanne Collins blend of romance and bleak futuristic action, long before the books are even printed.

By Friday next week, theatres worldwide will screen the film adaptation of Veronica Roth's 2012 novel Divergent. The movie rights were acquired by Summit Entertainment months before HarperCollins published the story about a society divided into castes and the dangers of not fitting in.

Summit Entertainment is also behind other young adult adaptations, such as Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game last November and the Twilight saga by Stephenie Meyer.

Universal Studios this year optioned Panic by Lauren Oliver and Red Rising by Pierce Brown (see 120 rejections before bestseller), both books about teens playing dangerous games for a huge prize. The similarities to The Hunger Games are obvious, even though Oliver's novel is set in the present.

Dystopian romance is the hot new genre, attracting film studio attention which in turn revs up sales and interest in such books again.

Major publisher HarperCollins says its teen title count has grown by 50 per cent in the last six years and a spokesman for Penguin UK says she receives "more dystopian submissions than ever".

The glut of similar themes might have editors and reviewers cringing but readers seem to be buying in.

"We feel that a rising tide lifts all boats," says Ms Arianne Lewin, executive editor at Penguin US, via e-mail.

A spokesman for HarperCollins in the region says that in Singapore alone, Roth's Divergent and its sequels, Insurgent and Allegiant, sold 55,000 copies last year, while an earlier trilogy by Oliver - Delirium, Pandemonium and Requiem, about a world where love is a disease - sold close to 20,000 at least.

Young adult novels have always flown off the shelves but book-turned-movie franchises such as J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and Twilight reached out to adults as well. Some had followed the books as teens and watched the movies in their 20s. Others were drawn by the media blitz around the books and movies.

Penguin's Ms Lewin says: "Ten years ago, it wouldn't have occurred to my father to read YA (young adult), but today, he sends me messages demanding the second book of The 5th Wave. And no, I will not send him the manuscript."

She is referring to author Rick Yancey's dystopian novel of the same name, published last year. The 5th Wave is about a girl on the run in a world where aliens stalk the remnants of humanity. It has been optioned by GK Films and Sony Pictures and a book sequel, The Infinite Sea, will be out in September.

Dystopian fantasies seem to be edging out the romances and slice-of-life young adult novels which used to dominate the genre in the 1980s and 1990s.

Movie tie-ins naturally lift sales, so the big young adult title of last year was John Green's The Fault In Our Stars, a tearjerker about two teen cancer patients in love. The film directed by Josh Boone for 20th Century Fox will be released in August. Penguin Books Singapore sold about 42,500 copies of The Fault In Our Stars last year.

However, combined sales of dystopian novels from all distributors here were easily five times that. This included Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, but other bestsellers on the list, including Oliver's Delirium trilogy, have only been optioned and may not even be made into movies for years.

What accounts for the popularity of the dystopian romance? A spokesman for Penguin Books Singapore says these themes "feature far less in traditional adult fiction" and attract readers because the language "focuses much more on the action without compromising on maturity".

Indeed, young adult titles today easily incorporate sex and death, which were taboo just 10 years ago. Lois Lowry's dystopian adventure The Giver (1993), about a society in which knowledge is rationed, was widely criticised for taking on such adult themes and is on the American Library Association's list of "the most banned or challenged books" of the noughties.

A spokesman for MPH Distributors thinks the popularity of dystopia is natural evolution: "Remember, the kids of today have been fed with computer fantasy games in which they always fight and fight to save the world."

As American writer Susan Ee says in an e-mail interview: "Readers are always yearning for a good story and that's what matters in the end."

Her book Angelfall, about a girl fighting against rogue angels who kidnapped her sister, was published in 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton and netted a movie deal last year involving Spider-Man director Sam Raimi.

Book sales went up, though Ee has no idea when her book might be made into a film. "I would be delighted to see (Angelfall's protagonists) Raffe and Penryn on the big screen. Until then, it's just life as usual with the exception that I can exchange e-mails with Sam Raimi and he signs it 'your friend, Sam'. How great is that?"

Divergent is opening in cinemas here on Thursday.

This story was first published in The Straits Times on March 15, 2014

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