The 10 Best Modern YA Film Adaptations

Not all YA adaptations are created equally. In fact, there are many terrible examples of the genre. On the other hand, here are a few that are pretty great.

It’s back. The franchise few were asking for, now dubbed The Divergent Series, has returned with part two of its underwhelming narrative, a little something called Insurgent. Apparently, Hollywood has fixated on the idea that every up and coming starlet, be she an Oscar winner (Jennifer Lawrence) or mere nominee (Shailene Woodley) deserves a Young Adult vehicle of her very own. In the case of this failing attempt, the expectations met with actuality, and both agreed to call a truce.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that the final two films in the series — both based on the Allegiant book — will be just as bad. But when faced with the prospect of seeing more of that tiring Tris and her collection of male hangers-on, including boy toy and neo-nemesis, we’d rather invest in another Team Edward/Team Jacob argument. YA has come to mean copycat, a means for Hollywood to capitalize on a pop trend while it’s still a literary thing. A decade from now we may be laughing at the desire to turn children’s lit into worldwide hits, but it’s already happened, so we’ll let history judge.

For now, we’ve decided to “celebrate” Insurgent by providing a list of our ten favorite (and, therefore, best) YA adaptations. Now, there are some exclusions that one can complain about. We did not list The Wizard of Oz here, since there’s really only been one attempt at bringing L. Frank Baum’s books to life, with the rest being remakes / reboots / reimaginings / rights issues borrowing (each new entry sullying the original). We’ve also left out Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, The Witches, James and the Giant Peach, and anything else Roald Dahl. The author may have a strong connection to YA, but most adaptations failed to fulfill their artistic promise.

Finally, there are so many flawed first attempts at jump starting a franchise, titles with names like “Spiderwick” and “Host” and “Inkheart”, that we wanted to focus solely on those that eventually made the grade. So without further ado, here are Short Ends & Leader’s choices, both as franchises and as standalone efforts. They may not represent your personal favorites, but they do illustrate that, on occasion, Tinseltown can jump on a bandwagon and not cause the vehicle to crash.

10. The Maze Runner

We’re including this one on potential alone. The first film in the proposed series settled in and delivered a visually arresting (if narratively familiar) story of youths lost in a deadly, deceptive experiment. The sequences inside the massive concrete maze, filled with shifting monoliths and retracting pathways may be the best thing about the entire entry, but as long as the rest of the films promise something as compelling, this will easily eclipse the whole Divergent/Giver/Seventh Son strategy. Of course, we could come back a few years from now and mea culpa for including such an unworthy franchise to our list.

9. Lemony Snicket’s a Series of Unfortunate Events

It remains a mystery why this film, based on the first three books in Daniel Handler’s multi-volume series, didn’t spawn a few sequels. It had enough star power, a potent visual style, and enough box office (over $200 million on a $140 million budget) that one could see at least a remake. Sadly, that has yet to occur (with Netflix possibly developing the property into a TV series), which marks a true missed opportunity. The overall production may play like Tim Burton lite, but the end result is entertaining as heck, and Jim Carrey is excellent as Count Olaf’s many evil personalities.

8. The Outsiders

Hot off his success with the stellar Apocalypse Now, Oscar winning director Francis Ford Coppola decided it was time to expand his own studio brand (American Zoetrope) and make his dream project — a musical filmed completely on sound stages, not locations. The result was the disastrous One From the Heart. Needless to say, Coppola came away bruised. When a middle school teacher suggested he take on S. E. Hinton’s novel, he read it and was so moved he decided to film it and Rumble Fish, as well. Casting a who’s who of young Hollywood, the final result was a satisfying coming of age tale and a true return to form for the fallen filmmaking idol.

7. The Perks of Being a Wallflower

You have to give Stephen Chbosky credit. It required a deft hand to turn his 1999 bestseller into a solid, straight forward coming of age drama. After all, the book is epistolary in nature, requiring someone to bring the divergent documents used into a single narrative thread. Luckily, he did the writing, as well as the directing, and his insights into the subject of growing up in the early ’90s are fascinating. Semi-autobiographical and loaded with recognizable characters, it’s the kind of cinematic revelation that doesn’t require the introduction of cancer or a car accident into the story (ala The Fault in Our Stars of If I Stay) to work. It just needs the truth.

6. The Neverending Story

(SPOILER ALERT) Forget the two supposed sequels to the original Wolfgang Peterson film. Both only borrow bits from the original Michael Ende novel, and represent nothing more than a direct to video money grab by producers. No, it’s the first movie, representing (at the time) the most expensive effort made outside of the US, that captures the imagination and the tragedy inherent in the storyline. Indeed, many middle aged adults still remember how devastated they were when Atreyu’s horse dies in the Deadly Swamps of Sadness. It can be tough going — it is a grief allegory, after all but Peterson’s vision makes it worth the visit.


5. The Princess Bride

William Goldman’s fairytale is really aimed at adults. While it contains all the standard Brothers Grimm gimmes, it’s level of wit and humor hope to thrill Mom and Dad just as much as the derring-do makes Junior and his sister smile. You can see it from the very beginning when Grandpa Peter Falk has to convince grandson Fred Savage that he will actually enjoy this old fashioned storytelling. The rest of the film is equally inventive, with the cast both deconstructing and wholly buying into the whole damsel in distress/kingdom in disarray dynamic. Besides, how can you not love a film featuring the magnificent Andre the Giant?

4. Coraline

Neil Gaiman’s back catalog is filled with such wonderful items that it’s unreal that only a slight few have been adapted into films. Luckily, those that have are terrific, including this stop motion classic. Henry Selick is the main reason why this movie works, his visual style creating spellbinding moments of animated amazement within a solid story (thanks, Mr. Gaiman) about learning to appreciate your parents, and their problems. Yes, there is a dark and scary element here, one that younger kids might find too frightening, but if they manage to make it through the ending, they’ll be rewarded with one of the best entertainment experiences of their young life.

3. Hugo

Here we are again. Another Oscar winning auteur. Another sudden and seemingly strange detour into YA territory. And, as a result, another amazing motion picture experience. One can easily see how Martin Scorsese was drawn to this material. It celebrates the dawn of film, something he’s been a fan of since jumpstarting the post-modern movement in the early ’70s. But the director also made some important concessions to the 21st century, presenting his story in 3D, and showing even the most avid admiring of the cinematic gimmick how it’s done. The result is a refreshingly honest and emotional movie that just so happens to love the medium it’s made of.

2. The Harry Potter Films

I know, I know. Heresy! Potter should be number one on this list, and with good reason: each book in this billion dollar baby has been made into a movie, and the vast majority of them are excellent. On the other hand, their success had little to do with the filmmaking and everything to do with a familiarity with the source. You can’t sell millions upon millions of books and not at least entertain a cultural phenomenon. So hate this list all you want, but if we had to go back and revisit any films on this list, the ones in first place would take priority over Mr. Potter and his magic.

1. The Hunger Games Films

Maybe we have an unhealthy fascination with Jennifer Lawrence. Maybe it’s our innate love of the whole “kids killing kids” conceit (done a thousand times better in the Japanese horror action classic Battle Royale). Perhaps we can’t get over the fact that, no matter how redundant Suzanne Collins dystopia feels, the filmmakers put in charge of realizing it have (so far) done a fairly impressive job. The first film was decent. Parts Two and Three were excellent. Of course, should Part Four tank (and it could, given the book’s flawed finale) but, for now, this is our choice of the best cinematic YA out there.