Analyzing the phenomenon of the YA book-to-movie adaptation

All the Bright Places should have remained a book

Some books just don't need to be adapted to the screen.
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Do you remember the delightfully uncomplicated early 2010s, when movie adaptations of popular young adult (YA) dystopian novels dominated the box office?

If not, let me refresh your memory. In 2012, The Hunger Games kicked off the golden era of 16-year-old protagonists fighting evil governments. The film was incredibly successful, raking in a massive USD $694.4 million worldwide. Quickly piggybacking off the clout of this moneymaker, Divergent, The Giver, and The Maze Runner all hit theatres in 2014.

The trend of the YA dystopian book-to-movie adaptation was born. 

I’m not here to discuss whether these movies were any good, or whether they were just lazy cash-grabs. Instead, I’ve set my sights on a similar but more modern trend: YA contemporary book-to-movie adaptations.

Hollywood seems to have run out of YA dystopian novels to adapt into films, because in recent years, contemporary adaptations have dominated the field instead. Notable examples are Everything, Everything (2017), Love, Simon (2018), The Sun Is Also a Star (2019), the vastly popular Netflix film To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018), and its sequel, To All the Boys: P.S. I Still Love You, which came out last month.

The most recent victim of this trend is Jennifer Niven’s 2015 novel, All the Bright Places.

Netflix’s film adaptation of All the Bright Places was released on Feb. 28. It follows Violet Markey (Elle Fanning) and Theodore Finch (Justice Smith), two sad teenagers who fall in love. Each is dealing with a deep personal struggle: Violet is grieving the recent death of her sister, while Theodore suffers from a severe mental illness. The two become close while discovering the “wonders” of Indiana for a school project.

Despite this promising setup, this film fails to stand out in the sea of YA contemporary book-to-movie adaptations. It’s insignificant and unmemorable.

I think the filmmakers behind All the Bright Places tried too hard to make an artsy, “deep” movie, but got lazy when it came to what’s really important: the characters.

Characterization should drive a story like this. It’s what grounds the theme and makes viewers care. Rather than develop its characters and give them real personalities, though, this movie slapped mental illnesses on them and called it a day. It’s ironic that Finch laments how people “like to put people in boxes” when that’s exactly what this film does.

This defect means the film fails to achieve what it originally set out to do: raise awareness for mental health struggles. Rather than normalizing mental illness, this movie problematizes it. By failing to give its characters any traits besides their respective mental illnesses, All the Bright Places ends up propagating the stereotype that a person is defined by their mental illness. This message is outright false and, consequently, incredibly damaging to both those who suffer from mental illness and to the conversation surrounding it. We’ve come so far in breaking down the stigma surrounding mental illness, and this film halts that progress by affirming false stereotypes.

All the Bright Places fails to capture the subtlety that made the book great. Niven wove mental illness into the normal teenage experience. Her characters had lives outside of their illnesses—lives they were fighting to keep. This crucial aspect of the book wasn’t translated onto the big screen. In the movie, Finch and Violet don’t have lives outside of their illnesses; they have nothing to tether them (or the audience) to the plot. Their personalities fall flat.

In the end, this movie just didn’t work. It included dozens of artistic shots of the naturalistic “wonders” of Indiana, but failed to capture the most important setting of all: the characters’ own minds. This isn’t the fault of the lead actors—they actually put on impressive performances.

Rather, it’s a testament to the importance of internal monologues in contemporary stories—stories in which the majority of the plot is developed through the characters’ thoughts. Niven developed Finch and Violet through their internal dialogues. The filmmakers behind All the Bright Places didn’t even try to incorporate this aspect of the story; there wasn’t even a voiceover. This choice further contributed to the flatness of the characters and, consequently, the flatness of the film in general.

This miscalculation is a common error in YA adaptations. Many of them fail to translate onto the big screen because the filmmakers underestimate the importance of internal dialogue to both the characterization and the development of the story. So many books weren’t meant to be made into movies, and All the Bright Places is one of them. 

I can’t definitively say why the YA book-to-movie adaptation trend never seems to die. Maybe it’s because teenager viewers are seen as easy sells, maybe it’s because this kind of movie is easy to make, or maybe it’s because Hollywood has simply run out of ideas. Either way, yet another player in the YA book-to-movie adaptation trend has disappointed me.

I hate to be that person, but the book was better.

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