Like it or not, Hollywood’s current obsession with adapting (any and all, apparently) YA novels to the big screen got its biggest push from the tremendous success of the Twilight novels. The Stephenie Meyer-penned series set the stage for a hefty number of teen-centric (and paranormally influenced) features to go the cinematic route, even as her blockbuster franchise presented a very problematic view of teen romance and sexual obsession (something I touched upon before the first Hunger Games arrived in theaters). In the post-Twilight years, a number of other YA adaptations have arrived, bolstered by big-time romances that often overshadow stories that ostensibly center on youngsters (mainly girls) exploring special powers, from Beautiful Creatures to The Mortal Instruments. Being magical or immortal or witchy or intelligent might be a good thing, but it’s not the most important thing – but that’s starting to change.
With the success of both Divergent (less than a week in release, and already headed straight to Franchise Town on a train populated by people who enjoy boarding and disembarking said trains in the most dangerous way possible) and The Hunger Games series, YA adaptations are steadily moving away from making their stories rely on romance, instead focusing on actual power and personal discovery. It’s a nice change for that genre, but it’s also a swift kick to the neck of other action films.
Back when The Hunger Games: Catching Fire opened last November, I explored the film’s lack of interest in the book-pushed love triangle and the “team” mentality of its dueling love stories over at Film.com – essentially arguing that the film series has placed less of a premium on romantic entanglements and more on Katniss’ journey as a hero. As I wrote back then:
“Fans of the books already know that Katniss does eventually make a very final choice of paramour by the time the final book, ‘Mockingjay’ (which will be split into two films for reasons of the moneymaking variety), wraps up – without giving too much away, one of Katniss’ competing suitors commits a wholly unforgivable crime with very personal repercussions that all but demands she cast off this particular perpetrator. It’s not the most romantic way to choose a mate, necessarily, but it does drive Katniss into picking the right man for her. And that’s what the love stories of The Hunger Games have always been about – Katniss’ romantic life isn’t very, well, romantic. It’s about survival. When she picks the right man for her, it’s very much about picking a partner who can help her survive the hardships of a very hard life. There’s no room for flowers and sunshine and cartoon hearts and tender kisses in the world of The Hunger Games, and the films based on that world don’t balk at that.”
Additionally, I lauded the film franchise for stripping away unnecessary romantic flotsam and jetsam, writing that it “isn’t a franchise hung up on rooting for various romantic ‘teams’ or placing all its drama in its leading lady’s decision as to who to spend her life with. Instead, it’s a series that finds value in revolution, spark, and wily political maneuvering, with romance simply serving as one piece of the world-changing toolbox.”
Similarly, Neil Burger’s Divergent (based on author Veronica Roth’s bestselling trilogy kick-off of the same name) doesn’t present a “hearts and flowers” version of romance. Sure, star Shailene Woodley eventually opens her heart to Theo James’ Four, but as is the case in both Roth’s novels and in The Hunger Games series, it’s a love that has deep roots in the need to survive outside pressures and pains. In many ways, that’s what love should be – a fortress from the storm (a reader recently pointed out that Woodley’s Tris and James’ Four can be combined into a snazzy portmanteau – FourTris – that seems too weird to not be somewhat intentional), not the raging weather that soaks the whole thing – and that’s probably why the love stories of both series seem so much more satisfying than those in, yes, Twilight.
Burger has also, quite wisely, chucked some of the meaningful looks that pepper Roth’s prose – YA novels, it seems, are frequently built on a foundation of stares and sighs, enough of which amount to a profession of love – and although that might make Tris and Four’s eventual relationship seem less dreamy and romantic, it does make it seem more realistic. Tris and Four need each other, but not in a needyohgodhormones way, they quite literally need the other’s talents and skills to survive what’s happening in future faction-based Chicago. It’s a meeting of the minds, not a clinging of the hearts.
It’s also refreshing to see a female hero picking a partner based on both romantic interest and pragmatic desires. Action outings typically involve a male hero getting the job done and picking up a hot babe along the way – think films like Point Break, Top Gun, just about any James Bond film, RoboCop (new and old), and the Die Hard franchise – but both Divergent and The Hunger Games star strong females who choose partners, both for loving and fighting, based on their needs. Other pictures like Speed, The Matrix series, and True Lies have allowed female characters to kick some ass, but the central decision-making (and, let’s face it, the power) of most action films has rested on male characters. (Alien is, of course, a fantastic outlier, but that one doesn’t center on a romantic partnership.)
Two is a trend, and hopefully the shifts that both The Hunger Games and Divergent are admirably pursuing set the stage for more films about power, action, and bravery that don’t require hushed glances, pulsating looks, and something best described as “steamy breaths” to pull in excited audiences.