YA Movies Get Real: Black Lives Matter, Activism Explored in New Projects

Amandla Stenberg, Nick Robinson and Katherine Langford - Reality YA - Photo Illustration - H 2017
Monica Schipper/WireImage (Stenberg), Desiree Navarro/WireImage (Robinson), Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic, all Getty Images; Courtesy of Harpercollins (Hate, Simon)

A fresh crop of films, including 'The Hate U Give,' are more likely to be inspired by personal narratives than dystopian sci-fi.

With box-office returns for dystopian young adult film adaptations on the wane, producers are hunting for the teen audience's next big thing — and they're optioning a number of gritty, socially conscious coming-of-age stories.

Author Angie Thomas, who wrote a book inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement, The Hate U Give, was convinced no one would want to publish it. "I knew that although the topic was timely, it was sensitive," she says of her novel, which revolves around a young black girl who sees her best friend shot by a white cop. "While there were calls for diversity in children's books specifically, as a young black woman I wondered, how diverse is too diverse? Can I write this unapologetically black girl book and you guys find it acceptable?"

Not only did publishers find it acceptable, they clamored to get the rights to it. After a heated auction among 13 houses in February 2016, HarperCollins' Balzer + Bray imprint nabbed the rights for six figures. Then Fox 2000 and Temple Hill scooped up the film rights in a mid-six-figure deal. Fox 2000 fast-tracked the adaptation of Thomas' book (which has spent 15 weeks at No. 1 on the NYT YA list and is on its 16th printing since its release in February), and is currently casting it, with Amandla Stenberg starring along with Regina Hall, Russell Hornsby and Algee Smith.

"When it comes to my work, I choose films that I believe can prompt an important and nuanced conversation on a large platform, or roles that I believe create representation for black women in spaces we typically don't get to occupy," says Stenberg, who is attached to both The Hate U Give and another YA adaptation, The Darkest Minds. "I do this so women of color can be empowered by seeing someone like them in media, and so those who have been taught to be prejudiced against me can see me as human."

The Hate U Give is indicative of a shift in YA adaptations from the dystopian-set stories to what producers describe as "reality YA," which is set in the real world and deals with issues teens are facing in their own lives or in their communities.

Unlike special effects-driven fantasy fare such as YA blockbusters The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner or Divergent, these can be more narrowly focused, personal stories that are cheaper to produce. In that vein, Warner Bros. and MGM are planning an adaptation of The Sun Is Also a Star, about a Jamaican teenager who falls for a Korean-American boy while fighting against her family's deportation. And Dumplin', a book-to-movie adaptation about a plus-size teenage girl (Patti Cake$ breakout Danielle MacDonald) who joins a beauty pageant to spite her mother and ends up redefining its beauty standards, is currently in pre-production as an indie film.

Fox 2000 began focusing on real-world-set YA with John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Paper Towns, when it seemed that dystopian YA was on its way out in film. "In the publishing world, they can continue to publish stories that are somewhat derivative of the ones that have come before because they can publish them for relatively low cost," says Fox 2000 president Elizabeth Gabler. "With movies, it's not the same. It's too expensive and you can't keep feeding audiences the thing they've seen before."

Fox 2000 and Temple Hill also are in postproduction on an adaptation of Becky Albertalli's novel Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda, a novel about a teen coming out as gay, starring Nick Robinson and Katherine Langford. The studio also is developing Sherman Alexie's The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, about a teen on a Native American reservation.

"We're seeing an expansion of representation in YA, where all of a sudden you're getting characters of color or characters of a different sexual identity that are finding their way into this genre that they haven't before," says Temple Hill producer Wyck Godfrey. "Given the difficulty of getting people into theaters, the thing that's most likely to get them there are unique stories, stories that you feel you haven't seen before."

Getting real, however, also means staying loyal to the author's unique stories. In the case of Warner Bros. and MGM's adaptation of The Sun Is Also a Star, producer Les Morgenstein of Alloy Entertainment says it's a priority to remain faithful to the diversity of the story. "We are not going to go into what probably would've happened 15 years ago where we would've had two white kids in that story," he says. "The background of the characters in those stories is part of what makes the stories unique and interesting."

Roaring Book Press' Katherine Jacobs, editor of Moxie by Jennifer Mathieu, says YA authors are feeling the desire from their audience to read books that are authentic to the world around them. "I think these kinds of issues are really relevant in high schools today and that this kind of stuff is happening out there and kids want books that reflect that experience," she says. Moxie, which follows a 16-year-old girl who starts a feminist revolution at her high school, was acquired by Paper Kite (Amy Poehler's production company) earlier this year, well before the book's Sept. 19 release date.

"A lot of this age group wants to see the big tentpole movies," Gabler adds, "but when you can hit a chord with a movie that makes them feel like they're being represented, their music is being represented, their anxieties are being represented, they are able to see actors go through the same things they go through — they'll come out for that."

But targeting young audiences (a demographic that pays little attention to reviews and is heavily present on social media) requires creativity and active social media accounts. "They take special handling within the marketing departments because you're dealing with a young audience that's very picky and hard to reach," says Gabler.

Social media is not only one of the most important marketing tools for these "reality YA" projects, but it's part of the reason that there's a demand for these projects in the first place. Producers and authors credit the rise in popularity of this contemporary genre to social media, which allows young people to be tapped into real-world issues and also express their demands for what they want to see in books and on film.

"With social media, barriers for entry for knowledge now are very low, so I think audiences are probably smarter and kids learn more sooner," says Temple Hill's Marty Bowen. "So from that perspective, they want more sophisticated material."

"Before, people didn't have ways to make their voices heard," says Thomas, who points at the #BlackLivesMatter and #WeNeedDiverseBooks movements as examples. "I think social media has allowed us to connect and see that things that may have bothered us weren't just bothering us. Finding our voices and connecting with one another has in some ways forced these industries to make some changes."

A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.