LOS ANGELES — Angsty teenage love may be as old as Shakespeare and the Brontë sisters, but with the star-crossed lover motif getting a makeover (often introducing elements of the supernatural) in the last few years from novelists Stephenie Meyer and Suzanne Collins, Hollywood has been stalking the young adult book market with the ferocity of a jilted lover. One result is a pileup at the box office this season of female-driven stories with strong-willed protagonists battling zombies, witches and aliens while wrestling with their own overwrought emotions.
In the next three months Summit Entertainment, Open Road Films and Warner Bros. will, respectively, release three movies targeting this voracious crowd: “Warm Bodies,” “The Host” and “Beautiful Creatures.” But with so many fighting for attention, will there be enough audience adoration to go around?
“What I think we have going for us is I think we hit a lot of the touch points (teenage girls) want: We have the romantic elements, we have a strong female character that I think is very appealing, and we are tapping into the teenage worldview, when life is so vivid,” said Jonathan Levine, screenwriter and director of the zombie romance “Warm Bodies,” which is set to open Feb. 1.
Each of the three male writer-directors of these projects are coming to the genre for the first time, attracted to the high-stakes material for the varied themes each one offers on coming of age, love and internal struggle — the emotions that seem to overwhelm the teenage condition. Adding in the supernatural aspect allowed each of the filmmakers a greater scope to tell his tale.
While the new films have been made for a fraction of the price of that of their predecessors, key to their success will be luring in the “Twilight”/“Hunger Games” audience. Add in the fact that the “Twilight” franchise ended in November and the next “Hunger Games” installment won’t hit theaters until Thanksgiving, and the studios are hoping there’s a built-in audience for this romantic fare.
Yet market researcher Vincent DeBruzzese warns that simply because a book has a following with a specific audience segment does not mean that will translate to box office gold.
“Books are usually a one zero thing,” said DeBruzzese, president, worldwide motion picture group, Ipsos MediaCT in Los Angeles. “Either they are ‘Twilight,’ ‘Hunger Games,’ ‘Harry Potter’ or they are popular but they aren’t driving the box office. Only ‘The Host,’ because it was Stephenie Meyer’s book after ‘Twilight’ and it got some traction right away, will have an impact. The others are big in their own right, but they won’t have an impact at the box office.”
Levine was attracted to Isaac Marion’s irreverent male protagonist played by British twentysomething Nicholas Hoult, a zombie living in a post-apocalyptic world unhappy with his soulless lifestyle. He meets, and rescues, Julie (played by young Australian actress and Kristen Stewart-look-alike Teresa Palmer) one of the few remaining humans on the planet and the daughter of Gen. Grigio (John Malkovich), the head of the beleaguered resistance movement.
“I was so enamored with the idea of the protagonist. I always looked at him as a shy person — someone trapped in his own body who can’t express himself,” added Levine, who says he has a very easy time tapping into the teenage mind-set. “I’ve always felt that way, especially when I was younger and especially if I was sitting across from a girl like Teresa Palmer. That would have made me pretty much mute.”
While Levine previously navigated the fine line between comedy and drama in the Seth Rogen/Joseph Gordon-Levitt cancer story “50/ 50,” he had the more difficult challenge of marrying zombie gore with teenage romance — a task rarely achievable in the genre game.
“You have to earn romance more than anything else,” said Levine, acknowledging it was the biggest challenge of making the $30 million movie shot on location in Montreal. “I can probably make you sad pretty easily given the right situation and with comedy, you get Rob Corddry to tell a joke and I don’t really have to do that much. But romance is hard. So that was scary.”
An alien situation
Romance proved challenging too for writer-director Andrew Niccol, who in his quest to adapt Meyer’s lesser-known yet still bestselling novel “The Host” was tasked with creating a believable love-triangle-turned-love-rectangle when his protagonist played by Irish actress Saoirse Ronan (“Atonement”) is invaded by an alien being, nicknamed Wanda, who falls in love with a different boy than the one the host character Melanie loves.
“In this case I think it’s the complexity of this particular relationship (that’s attracting audiences),” said Niccol, who collaborated closely with Meyer in adapting her sprawling 650-page novel into a digestible film due out March 29. His budget was $35 million. The New Zealand director’s previous work included such sci-fi films as “Gattaca” and last year’s Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried vehicle “In Time.”
“I think that’s great for teenage girls who are starting to think romantically about the choices they have. The complexity of that is enticing,” he added.
Good and evil
Richard LaGravenese, a veteran screenwriter and director, took on the Southern-set witch tale “Beautiful Creatures” because he thought the novel had both social themes and coming-of-age ideas that were worth further exploration.
In a twist on the Romeo and Juliet tale written by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, Southern boy Ethan Wate (Alden Ehrenreich), frustrated with his hometown’s conservative ideals, meets the literal girl of his dreams, Lena Duchannes (Alice Englert), a mysterious young witch who at age 16 gets claimed by either good or evil forces. Viola Davis, Emma Thompson and Jeremy Irons fill out the supporting cast.
“I really liked that idea that at that age, we are struggling to figure out our identity, and it gets to a point where one has to disinherit ourselves from what our mothers and fathers want us to be and claim who we are, good and bad,” said LaGravenese, whose $50 million film will open Feb. 14.
All three of the aforementioned titles have sequels either completed or in the works. Marion is currently writing his follow-up to “Warm Bodies,” which just hit the New York Times bestseller list, while Meyer has plans for two more installments in “The Host” trilogy. “Beautiful Creatures’” authors have already completed their series — a total of four books in all.
LaGravenese, who experienced audience fervor when he adapted the screenplay to Robert James Waller’s “The Bridges of Madison County” in 1995, stood back a bit from the maelstrom so he could maintain objectivity when adapting “Beautiful Creatures” for the screen. He met with fans at Comic-Con, but he made sure not to read the subsequent chapters of the series. Though the series has a devoted and wide-ranging fan base that reaches older women too, LaGravenese is relieved it’s not as fervent as “Twilight” or “Hunger Games.” He believes it has allowed him to make his adaptation more cinematic and less “slavish” than the others.
“I want it to stand on its own as a good movie. I’m really tired of movies that end with a ton of questions that you have to come back and buy another ticket for,” he added. “I tried to make this as original as possible — as separate and apart from the previous franchises in terms of how I wrote it, how I casted it and what I wanted it to be about.”