From The 5th Wave to The 100: The State of Onscreen YA

Young Adult fare is becoming more pessimistic, but that may be a cause for genuine optimism for the genre.

This week marks the release of the latest Young Adult novel adapted to the screen: The 5th Wave, an alien invasion story from Rick Yancey, opens Friday with Chloe Moretz as Cassie, a teenaged girl trying to rescue her brother in the wake of an alien takeover of Earth. The film begins similarly to the book it’s based on with Cassie shooting a potentially-unarmed man in a convenience store rather than waiting to find out if he’s hiding a gun underneath his coat.

Folks, we are so far past the Han Shot First Debate. Today’s teens not only have no qualms with their pop culture protagonists taking drastic steps to ensure their own survival as well as that of their loved ones–they expect it. Just ask Clarke Griffin, the teen protagonist of The 100, another Young Adult novel adaptation, which returned to television this week. Like Cassie, Clarke has demonstrated that she is willing to cross the murder line when it comes to ensuring the safety of “her people.” 

Not so long ago, the YA books and onscreen franchises saturating our popular culture were institution-enforcing escapist fantasies like Harry Potter and Twilight (yes, it pains me to lump those two series into any category together). These days, much like The Hunger Games and Divergent, The 100 and The 5th Wave present a nihilistic view of the state of the world, its institutions, and the individual’s ability to affect positive change in it.

If popular culture are our myths, our collective cultural consciousness is (understandably) pessimistic—or at least pragmatic. We often represent youth as hopeful, naive, and unrealistically optimistic. If our current YA pop culture teaches us anything, it’s that the generation currently coming-of-age is anything but optimistic about the future. And, with the release of The 5th Wave and the start of The 100 season 3, this seems like as good a time as any to talk about the evolution of YA phenomena from status quo-enforcing tales of optimism like Harry Potter and Twilight to somber, more pragmatic narratives of resistance and/or struggle like The Hunger Games, The 100, and The 5th Wave

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A Shift From the Personal to the Political

With the heyday of Twilight and Harry Potter behind us (just kidding, HP fandom, the Harry Potter heyday will never be past us), the most popular genre films are shifting on the scale from personal to political—or, in some cases, from romance to revolutionary. It’s the difference between “supernatural romance” and “dystopian” being the most prominently-displayed subgenre in the YA section. It’s the decline in cultural importance (and ratings) of The Vampire Diaries, and the rise in cultural importance (and ratings) of The 100.

The personal and political are, of course, not mutually exclusive, and all of these YA franchises are very much rooted in the personal experience of the (usually female) protagonist. But, whereas the personal interests of Katniss Everdeen (The Hunger Games) and Tris Prior (Divergent) are being directly shaped by the political, characters like Bella or Harry Potter are less interested in the politics of their world—and are subsequently less affected by them.

Even Harry Potter, who is very much affected by the political system to the point of often being used as a pawn in it, is less interested in working out the intricacies of wizarding institutions. Unlike Hermione, you don’t get the feeling that Harry consults multiple sources of media or has taken an active interest in wizarding politics. Challenging the government does become a priority in the later books, but, even then, Harry is not interested in challenging the institution itself, but rather the people who happen to be in control of it at the time.

In Harry Potter, the system of government isn’t at fault. It’s the corruption of the current politicians (meanwhile, Hermione is forming SPEW). But, unlike a Katniss or a Tris, Harry has the option of ignoring any injustices in the early books. Yes, his life has been co-opted by forces outside of his control, but, to him, they are Evil, not Institutional. They are personal, not systemic. (If you’re looking for a good, critical breakdown of the politics of the Harry Potter world, check out the New Statesman podcast episode dedicated entirely to the subjects of politics, economics, and pedagogy in the wizarding world.)

The Fading Importance of the Love Triangle

For a while there, The Love Triangle was a seemingly unavoidable element of Young Adult genre fiction. It still plays a role in many Young Adult stories, but its importance is more often less the focus of the story (a la Twilightor The Vampire Diaries) and more a subplot (i.e. The 5th Waveor The Hunger Games). 

My favorite example of the fading important of the love triangle comes with The 100,which not only actively eschewed the potential of a Clarke/Finn/Bellamy love triangle, but (SPOILER!) had one of the three kill off another. Furthermore, The 100revealed Clarke’s bisexuality in season 2, refusing to not only play into any Young Adult formula that says there must be a love triangle, but refusing to play by the “rules” of heteronormativity altogether.

One needs look no further than the text of Twilightvs. The 100to understand how quickly and completely the Young Adult tide is changing. In Twilight, the central motivator is love — an unhealthy, all-consuming infatuation with a monster. As Bella says: “One thing I truly knew – knew it in the pit of my stomach, in the center of my bones, knew it from the crown of my head to the soles of my feet, knew it deep in my empty chest – was how love gave someone the power to break you.”

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Meanwhile, in The 100, Clarke’s actions are chiefly motivated by other factors: “All I think about every day is how we’re going to keep everyone alive.”

Coming of Age in a time of Austerity, Globalization, and Income Inequality

Last year, just before the release of the final Hunger Games film, British columnist Laurie Penny wrote in The New Statesmen about the logic behind today’s teens loving dystopias: “The complete collapse of the narrative of what a secure future looks like for today’s young people and the grim messages about what the teenagers who grew up with Occupy and austerity have to look forward to as the planet heats up, the job market stutters, pension provision is depleted, and the police get meaner have fostered a generational anxiety about how to cope with overmighty state power.”

With the world in such an uncertain, unequal state, why shouldn’t pop culture reflect that? For me, the popularity of stories like The Hunger Games and The 100 aren’t cause for concern, but rather hope. If, “in a mad world, only the mad are sane,” then stories that address these complicated concerns rather than pretend they don’t exist are a sign that we are trying to be, if not more socially responsible, then at least more socially aware.

Take The 100, for example. For those who haven’t been watching one of the best shows on television, The CW drama tells the story of various groups of humans trying to survive on Earth a century after nuclear war almost wiped out humanity. As viewers, we are aligned with the “Sky People,” the group that survived most of the last 100 years on space stations orbiting the planet. However, The 100 doesn’t give the Sky People moral superiority. Like Battlestar Galactica before it, The 100 doesn’t conflate humanity and the complexities of war with protagonist privilege. It’s a show that has its characters explicitly wondering, “The things we’ve done to survive, they don’t define us.” “What if you’re wrong. What if this is who we are now?”

This show never lets us forget that, just because we are rooting for Clarke and her friends doesn’t mean they are in the right. The world is much more complicated than that. Accountability is much more complicated than “us” vs. “them”—or at least it should be. Given the state of political discourse in this country—i.e. that one of our leading presidential candidates thinks banning an entire religious group from our country is a helpful solution to any of our country’s many problems—this seems a theme desperately in need of exploration in our popular culture.

The Rise of the Strong, Female Protagonist

In Young Adult stories, girls and women are much more frequently allowed to be Strong Female Protagonists who can not only save themselves, but the world. Female characters are allowed to be people; they’re allowed to be complicated, flawed humans. Of course, the cultural compulsion to add “strong” as a qualifier before “female character” still exists and appears to come from a defensive, presumptive place. It stems from the assumption that, if we just see “female character,” then we will assume she is not strong. Because women who are able to save themselves are still the exception to the rule.

So, why are female heroines so much more common in the Young Adult genre? It is undoubtedly at least partially informed by the fact that a majority of authors for popular Young Adult books are themselves female. (According to The Atlantic, 63 percent of the 235 books nominated by NPR for their 100 Best-Ever Teen Novels list, compiled in 2012, were written by women.) But it is more complicated than that…

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The derision of young people and, even more specifically, teen girls combine to create a stigma around Young Adult stories. The Young Adult genre—both in book and film form—is looked upon with a certain level of mockery, or at least with the presumtion that the stories are less complicated, valid, and altogether good compared to stories specifically aimed at and about adults by our society. What teen girls find important has always been looked down upon, fanaticized, and mocked.

This stigma is frustrating, but perhaps it also opens up greater potential in the genre. If Young Adult stories aren’t as important or valid as adult stories, then it doesn’t matter (as much) if they challenge the status quo, if they centralize the female experience, and make heroes out of teen girls.

This habit of creating heroes out of young women has, thankfully, started to become a larger cultural trend (see: Star Wars’Rey). But it’s, sadly, hard to imagine Rey without characters like Katniss having come before her. The Hunger Gamesraked in a lot of money, proving the seemingly obvious fact that people will still go to see a movie if it has a woman as the central hero.

Unfortunately, we have yet to make much headway as a culture in the depiction of older women as heroines, especially in action films, with the notable exception of films like Mad Max: Fury RoadThis is demonstrated, for example, in the diminished role of Leia’s character vs. Han’s in The Force Awakens,or in the early, frustrating death of Aunt Pyrea in MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles. (Yes, the latter is based on an already-established book series, but they totally could have kept her around. She was one of the most interesting characters!)

Still Very White, Heteronormative, and (Somehow) Middle Class

Onscreen Young Adult fare is becoming more diverse and progressive, especially in relation to gender, but it still has a long way to go in its representation of class, race, and sexuality. Sometimes, this lack of diversity is a failure inherent in the books. Other times, the diversity of a novel’s world is lost in translation. When casting for Katniss, for example, Lionsgate asked only for “Caucasian” actresses when the protagonist in the book is described as having olive skin and dark hair. Of all of the on-screen franchises we’re discussing, none of them feature central protagonists of color.

The Hunger Games adaptations also disappointed in the way the films somehow skated over the hunger of the books. In the novels, Katniss’ impoverished background meant she was often hungry growing up or, when her family’s table was graced with a bird from her hunting, only just not. In the books, District 12 is one partially defined by hunger. It creates a status quo of struggle, but also leads to a close-knit community that takes after its own. Hollywood in general is ill-equipped to translate working class poor to screen—it always has been. Poverty is flattened into desperation and the culture of working class poor (or straight-up poverty) is lost in the translation.

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With the exception of The 100, notably the only example made for TV versus film, sexuality in YA properties always fits into a heteronormative mold. The 100 has a bisexual protagonist in Clarke Griffin. If you cast the net wider, including Shadowhunters (the TV adaptation of The Mortal Instruments series that just launched on Freeform), then you have one more example of a YA onscreen property with LGBTQ characters with Alec and Magnus. (Shadowhunters is also one of the more racially diverse onscreen YA properties with multiple actors of color in its cast. This is a notable difference from the film adaptation that flopped in theaters in 2013.)

Again, any examples of breaking outside of most traditionally-depicted socioeconomic traits are exceptions to the rule. Perhaps I am being too cynical, but it’s hard to imagine Rainbow Rowell’s excellent Carry On, whose gay wizard protagonists originated as in-universe fan fiction characters in her previous novel Fangirl,making it to the screendespite the best-selling book being embraced by both critics and readers. For now, the most progressive Young Adult adaptations seem to be taking place not on film, but on television (i.e. The 100), which tends to not only be lower risk financially for its producers, but is a storytelling form (much like the book series) that lends itself to diversity and depth.