Hunger Game-Changer: How Suzanne Collins Made the Most of Hollywood's Young-Adult Obsession
Suzanne Collins can start her victory lap now. The film version of her first Hunger Games novel is on the brink of blowing up box-office records – and critics and fans like it, too. Other young-adult fantasy authors haven’t been quite so successful in dealing with Hollywood. Some of Collins’s success was luck and good timing: her first Hunger Games book was released a month after Stephenie Meyer’s final Twilight novel appeared, sending publishers and studios alike scrambling for the next young-adult franchise. But Collins also skillfully played the game with and for the filmmakers, making deliberate choices about how she wrote the novels and how she helped market them to the books’ fierce fans. Forget teenage love triangles or wizards vs. werewolves; here's a far more practical list of dos and don'ts for when your popular young-adult fantasy book is being adapted by Hollywood. (Spoilers for lesser movies ahead.)
DO work closely with your screenwriter.
“She sent a letter requesting changes to the film's script, but she's not sure any alterations were made.” Could a sentence be any sadder? The Dark Is Rising’s Susan Cooper was kept at arm’s length from what became The Seeker, a much-maligned, unfaithful, and ultimately unsuccessful adaptation of her great books about magical British schoolchildren. (Cooper has since reportedly begged friends not to see the film.)
Other young-adult fantasy authors have learned their lesson: JK Rowling had “an intense relationship” with Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves, and Meyer gave Twilight screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg a manifesto of requirements before coming on board herself as producer on the franchise's final installments. (Though I still really want to see Bella Swan, Track Star!) Collins was even more hands-on with The Hunger Games, earning herself screenwriter and executive producer credits on the film.
DO enlist the fans.
Collins knows how to be a savvy marketer. Like Meyer and Rowling, she realizes the power of her fans, and she has taken to the Internet to reassure them about Hollywood’s reverence towards their sacred texts. Last year Collins wrote an open letter calming fears about the controversial casting of Jennifer Lawrence as heroine Katniss Everdeen, telling her fans that Lawrence was the only actor “who truly captured the character I wrote in the book.” This month she gave the final product a glowing endorsement, assuring fans that the film is “faithful in both narrative and theme.” (Having seen the film, I would call her endorsements sincere – both Lawrence and the film itself do the book justice – but wasn’t it reassuring to know about the author’s stamp of approval ahead of time?)
Compare that to Cooper, who was giving ambivalent interviews before The Seeker even came out, or Philip Pullman, who had to sit through years of development hell before the film adaptation of his Golden Compass made it to theaters. His website now tersely praises the “many things about the film [that] were excellent, especially the performances.” Speaking of Pullman…
DON’T overtly criticize religion.
Collins didn’t even touch it. One of her smartest moves was writing books that were dark without piquing mass boycotts – she’s killing kids, but at least she’s not killing God. Pullman’s wonderfully strange, angry His Dark Materials trilogy spooked Hollywood, which stripped out much of his anti-religion message before the first and only adaptation of his novels made it to theaters – and then Christian groups boycotted it anyway. The Golden Compass movie had other flaws, including dropping the last third of the book’s plot, but the boycott didn’t help its buzz or its studio’s fortunes. The rest of Pullman’s novels are unadapted to this day.
Positive stories about religion seem to fare better. While its sequels have stumbled, the recent adaptation of C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe was a critical and commercial success, regardless of – or perhaps thanks to – the book’s exceedingly on-the-nose Christian allegory.
DO try to get Hollywood interested as quickly as possible.
Collins, like Meyer and Rowling, had Hollywood hooked months after the first book in her trilogy became a bestseller. That ensured that the books’ fans automatically became a primary audience for the studio, and guaranteed Collins a powerful role in transferring her novels to film. Delays can be deadly; Pullman and Cooper saw years and decades pass between publication and movie adaptation, and their readers became less powerful constituents over time.
If you must wait very long, sometimes death is the best option; Lewis and especially J.R.R. Tolkien lucked out in their posthumous dealings with Hollywood. Unfortunately for Edgar Rice Burroughs, even that strategy isn’t foolproof. But hey, with all the sold-out showings of Hunger Games this weekend, maybe the audience spillover will help John Carter sell a few more tickets.