ALAN v21n3 - Film and the Young Adult Novel

Volume 21, Number 3
Spring 1994

FILM and the Young Adult Novel

Harold M. Foster

Films are a powerful influence on most of our students. As much as teachers may not wish to face this fact, films compete with books as the primary mode of stories, and "stories matter, and matter deeply" ( McConnell, 1979, p. 3 ). Perhaps film's popularity as well as its power lies in its emotional immediacy. Although, like books, films tell stories, film stories are told in the language of dreams -- images, color, movement, sound, and light ( Foster, 1984 ). This medium goes immediately to the senses and requires no intermediary literateness on the part of the viewers. Thus, films are very powerful and emotional; they are potentially "extra-rational" experiences capable of exerting a great deal of subconscious influence upon untrained viewers.

As film and related media continue to dominate our culture, the ability to teach in the book-oriented classroom will become increasingly more difficult ( Rose, 1983, p. 238 ). Yet, young adult novels are powerful literary competitors to films. Many films for teenagers are adaptations of young adult novels, and many other teenage films are like young adult novels in plot, characterization, and theme.

The Teenage Film Goer

Typically, the most dependable filmgoer has been the teenager who "goes to the movies" to get away from Mom and Dad (Mom and Dad like to stay at home and rent videos). Teenagers offer another feature that filmmakers love -- they are an easy sell because they are lacking in discrimination and sophistication ( Considine, 1985, p. 272 ). Whether it's Avia Shoes, LA Gear, or Snickers, once the herd accepts the product, the herd keeps selling the product. And so it goes with movies ( Karutani, 1984, p. 22 ).

Teenage Books

The teenage film market is different from the teenage book market. The book market is relatively splintered; so a single book will probably never connect with the entire market. And the market is smaller than the potential film market because publishers need readers, that is, youngsters who are literate. Filmmakers do not have that restriction since almost all people have been trained since birth to comprehend many, if not most, films.

Another market difference is that teenage books are cheaper to produce but are potentially less profitable than films. But books can make money, particularly if a book is accepted by English teachers. Whereas film marketing goes directly to the teenager via television, radio, and word-of-mouth, book marketing targets teachers as agents. The success of Hinton , Blume, and Zindel can at least partially be attributed to the free marketing provided by English and language arts teachers. The book market benefits from free reading assignments, book reports, sustained silent reading, whole language theory, and so on.

Schools and teachers have little influence with filmmakers since filmmakers go directly to their potential audience. Minor attempts have been made to have educational organizations endorse films. For instance, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) was asked to consider endorsing Never ending Story , which the producers saw as teacher friendly. But NCTE and the filmmakers never got together, and the idea was dropped. Schools do not count much in marketing films. Thus, for films, no teachers intervene, no social conscience comes between the consumer and the product, and the result may be a medium more representative of the teenage consumer than books.

Teenage Films

Teenagers consume all kinds of films. "In America movies reflect teenage, not mass -- and definitely not adult -- taste," writes Thomas Doherty (1988, p. 1) . Batman , The Terminator , Predator , and Lethal Weapon , for example, are not made exclusively for teenagers but depend upon the teenage market to make a great deal of money. Yet, there are categories of films that are aimed primarily at the teenage market. Some of these films are the ever-popular "kill-a-kid" movies such as the Nightmare on Elm Street series or Prom Night , and some are the "sexploitation" films like Porky's or Bachelor Party .

These films that pander to the worst instincts of youth are counterbalanced by films that are intelligent, provocative, free-spirited, socially dynamic, or entertaining. Like the new adolescent fiction, these films are a recent phenomenon, and many of them are adaptations of adolescent novels. Because of the huge market for film, filmmakers look everywhere for ideas, and there is no better source of stories than books ( Eidsvik, 1977, p. 33 ). Yet, because of their differences, books and films have always had an uneasy alliance. Of course, successful movies have been made from books ( Spiegel, 1976, p. 197 ), but most of the good adaptations are from action books such as The Godfather or Gone with the Wind ( Beja, 1979, p. 85 ). Films that are made from "thoughtful" novels often get in trouble, such as The Great Gatsby or Moby Dick . Yet, a good treatment of a good novel, like Grapes of Wrath , can work.

Young Adult Novels and Films

This uneasy alliance has characterized the relationship between young adult novels and films. There have been a number of adaptations of young adult novels to the screen. Huckleberry Finn has been adapted many times; Lord of the Flies and A Separate Peace have been made into films.The first of the new adolescent novels adapted to film was From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler starring Ingrid Bergman. Adaptations from Robert Cormier's works include I Am the Cheese in 1983, and The Chocolate War in 1989. The most visible adaptations have come from three S.E. Hinton novels: Tex in 1982, then The Outsiders , and Rumble Fish in 1983.

The Outsiders

The film version of The Outsiders , like the book, has been well received by young people ( Barr, 1986, p. 515 ), and the film, like the book, plays better to young people than to adults. The film is a well-meaning movie that is pleasant to see but does not do well under close scrutiny. Yet, the strong and weak points of the film are indicative of the strengths and weaknesses of this whole film adaptation game ( Scott, 1983, pp. 34-35 ).

The film version of The Outsiders , closely adapted from the novel, takes on many of the pluses and minuses found within the novel. The characters use much of Hinton's sweet, simple dialogue, and despite the violent theme, the loneliness and innocence come through beautifully in the film ( Johnston, 1983, p. 237 ). And the film, like the novel, effectively portrays young people holding onto youth for a few more precious moments in an alienating world. Yet, the gang fights, hard-to-believe in the novel, are even harder to believe in the film -- more like stylized West Side Story dance fights than real kids fighting as the movie wants viewers to believe. Also, Dally's death in the novel is melodramatic. In the film, it is worse -- like bad television with police cars and kids converging from all angles. This is one of the most improbable police shootings ever filmed. These badly done scenes scar this film's sense of authenticity.

Many scenes from books do better when imagined than when made concrete in the film. For instance, when Pony boy is being dunked in the fountain by the Socs, the book describes him losing consciousness this way:

I'm dying, I thought, and wondered what was happening to Johnny. I couldn't hold my breath any longer. I fought again desperately but only sucked in water. I'm drowning, I thought, they've gone too far . . . . And haze filled my mind, and I slowly relaxed. (p. 51)

In the movie, a viewer sees Pony boy underwater and then red cartoon paints spreads across the screen. Whereas the book effectively portrays Pony boy's panicked thoughts, the movie resorts to an ineffectively jarring external play. This failed effect is a good example of how difficult it is for a film to recreate an individual's thoughts. Most of the book, because it leaves much to the reader's imagination, works better than the film. For instance, the rescue of the children from the burning church in the book concludes:

. . .We dropped the last of the kids out as the front of the church started to crumble. Johnny shoved me toward the window. "Get out!"

I leaped out the window and heard timber crashing and the flame roaring right behind me. I staggered, almost falling, coughing and sobbing for breath. Then I heard Johnny scream, and as I turned to go back for him, Dally swore at me and clubbed me across the back as hard as he could, and I went down into a peaceful darkness. (p. 83)

In the movie the boys are shown in the hot, burning church with three children. No one is having a hard time breathing. No one is panicked. The blackened faces of the boys are obviously makeup. In the book, the scene is beautifully drawn like a bad dream. In the movie, the viewer is jarred by how badly the scene compares to the viewer's concept of the reality of the situation ( Kracauer, 1960 ).

The music in the movie is terrible. The title song,"Stay Gold," sung by Stevie Wonder, is like a Las Vegas lounge song; it creates exactly the wrong mood for this film set in Oklahoma. The background music is often sappy, overplaying and even sabotaging the emotional scenes, in contrast to the emotional yet controlled tone of the book.

And, of course, much of the eloquent, simple writing is gone. This is how Hinton describes the way in which Pony boy experiences the sunrise:

The dawn was coming then. All the lower valley was covered with mist, and sometimes little pieces of it broke off and floated away in small clouds. The sky was lighter in the east, and the horizon was a thin golden line. The clouds changed from gray to pink, and mist was touched with gold. There was a silent moment when everything held its breath, and then the sun rose. It was beautiful. (p. 69)

The movie shows a standard film sunrise that in no way conveys the beauty that is brought out in the writing. Like an author, a film director must interpret, since neither the book nor the movie can do an actual sunrise. Both give an artist's impression, and in this movie the interpretation is trite and uninspired.

And yet, despite all its faults, the movie has merit because of excellent acting and wonderful use of the camera to underscore the acting. The cast includes an amazing array of future stars: Tom Cruise, Patrick Swayze, Matt Dillon, Rob Lowe, Diane Lane, Ralph Macchio, Emilio Estevez. But it is C. Thomas Howell as Pony boy who gives the finest performance. His portrayal of Pony boy is almost perfect: vulnerable, sad, kind, sensitive, sweet. And the director wisely uses close-ups and medium shorts for most of the dialogue. Faces are lit with a thematically appropriate gold glow that highlights smooth, youthful cheeks and wide, innocent eyes. When Pony boy is talking to Dally, or Cherry, or his brothers, or particularly Johnny, it is a very good movie. Those images of golden, young faces are not easily forgotten and mean as much as many pages of written description. Those moments separate the movie from the book and give the film its special identity.

The Chocolate War

All three of the films based on S.E. Hinton novels are the best of the young adult novel adaptations. But these relatively good films should be used cautiously or not at all in the classroom to compare with the books. Perhaps film adaptations could help novice readers visualize the characters, relate to the themes, and understand the plots. But there is a price to pay for substituting a filmmaker's vision of a book: the film will forever change the novel in the imagination of the reader. Who has seen and read To Kill a Mockingbird who doesn't imagine Gregory Peck as Atticus? Can Dally from The Outsiders be anybody but Matt Dillon? Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz will always be movies, rather than books. Film adaptations irretrievably interpret the novel for the viewer-reader.

When the film adaptations are badly done -- and many have been terrible -- the movie can sabotage the book. After seeing The Chocolate War , a viewer may easily question the power of the book, for the movie badly weakens its charge. The sabotage is compounded by the faithfulness of the film adaptation, which until the end is like a dramatic reading of most of the dialogue as Robert Cormier wrote it in the book, although the movie changes the ending in an unconscionable way. The problems of this film are subtle and hard to analyze because not only is it generally faithful to the book but also the acting is basically competent. The failure of the film has two causes. First, the filmmaker had no genuine artistic vision of this project, but merely attempted to recreate the book. The book is dark. The movie is literally dark -- gray --for its entirety. Cormier writes a scene where brother Leon harasses Bailey, one of his students. The film depicts the scene. Cormier shows a class of boys carrying out a prank on an unsuspecting teacher. The film depicts the scene. And so on. Thus, there is no intelligence besides Cormier's behind this film, which brings in the second problem. All the film could depict are the externals of the book -- the action, the dialogue. In the book, the real electricity comes through in the inner-life drawn with incredible talent in words by Cormier . What the film lacks, as all films must, is the author's interior narrative thrust. A good filmmaker compensates by creating her/his own statement, but by using movement, composition, sound, color, lighting, and editing, thus creating a new and different work of art ( Foster, 1979 ). Since the filmmaker of The Chocolate War offers no worthwhile compensating film statement, what the viewer receives is the external world of The Chocolate War with all of the narrative inner life of the book gone.

These are Cormier's words:

A figure was advancing toward him on all fours, like an animal. The aspect of the beast -- nightmare, after all. He shrank back, his skin hot and prickly, like the onset of hives. (p. 46)


Then he saw the mustache of moistness on Brother Leon's upper lip, the watery eyes and the dampness of his forehead. Something clicked. This wasn't the calm and deadly Leon who could hold a class in the palm of his hand. This was someone riddled with cracks and crevices. Archie became absolutely still, afraid that the rapid beating of his heart might betray his sudden knowledge, the proof of what he's always suspected, not only of Brother Leon but most grownups, most adults: they were vulnerable, running scared, open to invasion. (p. 22)

These passages, powerfully written, are not film able for the most part, so they, and all passages like these -- the very soul of this haunting book -- are left out of the film. And what is left is merely the behavior, the exteriors.

Results of the Failures

The failure of the film of The Chocolate War created ripples. The film was produced through an independent company, Management Company Entertainment Group (M.C.E.G.), in an era when most films can be made only with major studio backing. Every failure of a small, experimental film makes it more difficult for the next risky movie project. And, compounding the problem, adolescent novel adaptations generally have not made successful films.

Even The Outsiders has not been strong enough to attract a wide audience. Although readers of the books go to some of these movies, the vast non-reader teenage film audience tends not to see them. And The Outsiders is one of the most successful of these adaptations both artistically and financially. The Chocolate War fails on both counts. I Am the Cheese and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler disappeared without a trace. Thus, the lessons filmmakers have learned from these adaptations is that they do not work financially or artistically. The book business can take splintered audiences but the film business cannot. Soon after Coppola made The Outsiders and Rumble Fish , his Zeotrope Studios went bankrupt.

Young Adult Films

Yet, strong, intelligent movies about and for teenagers have done very well financially and artistically, and many of them can and should be used in the classroom. These films have strong similarities to the new adolescent novels in themes and characters. They take teenagers very seriously. In many ways, these films are the equivalent breakthrough in the cinema, overcoming Porky -esque teenage exploitation films, as new adolescent novels were the breakthrough in the literary field overcoming insipid or overly-romanticized fiction. As in the new adolescent novel, young adults are placed in a world that forces them to grow up faster than anyone concerned about young people would hope. This is a world of alienation and loneliness, filled with dangerous temptations.

These young adult films have succeeded where the novel-to-film adaptations have not. Pure film is not encumbered by the need to translate one medium to another; so these films have had the benefit of being planned only as movies.

The Breakfast Club was one of the most popular of these films. Yet, ironically, this film has less action than any of the young adult novel film adaptations. This film is set in a suburban Chicago high school library on a Saturday morning where five students gather to serve a detention under the supervision of a vice-principal. Like The Outsiders , the film is about how young adults get trapped in group identities that exclude contact with outsiders and inhibit honest and sensitive communication.

Unlike The Outsiders , the teenagers blame much of their isolation and unhappiness on the adults in their lives -- cruel and uncaring parents and teachers ( McDermott, 1987, p. 27 ). The film is a carefully crafted series of episodes that build to an emotional climax. These scenes are bridged by musical sequences that portray various non-dialogue activities such as running through the school halls, dancing and ripping up library books, or confronting boredom at library tables. Most of the movie is talk. The talk is hostile, hateful, painful, cruel, harsh, gross, sexual, violent, and eventually honest, sensitive, and revealing. Unlike The Outsiders , there is not a false moment in the film. And unlike The Outsiders , there is no literary barrier that the filmmaker, John Hughes, had to overcome. The episodic quality of the movie allows it to build like ballet. The rhythms of the movie are extraordinary, building in intensity until near the end where the kids sit in a circle, and for the first time in the film, quietly reveal themselves with genuine and deep feeling. It is at this point that the flaky girl (Ally Sheedy), in an intense close up, sums up all of their positions when she says that when you grow up, your heart dies. The movie ends with a long, basically non-verbal, episode where one young couple makes love, another forms a relationship, and the "brain" of the group reads the required punishment theme in a voice-over with a hard rock accompaniment as each member of the Breakfast Club leaves the school, forever changed.

The Breakfast Club , unlike The Outsiders , is an excellent film that achieved wide acceptance by teenagers and a large crossover adult audience. Other successful young adult films include Fast Times at Ridgemont High , Fame , The Flamingo Kid , My Bodyguard , Foxes , St. Elmo's Fire , Risky Business , Sixteen Candles , All the Right Moves , The Karate Kid , Losin' It , and Stand By Me . The success of The Breakfast Club helped to make possible the continuation of this genre with the productions of Pretty in Pink (1986), Hoosiers (1986), Ferris Bueller's Day Off (1986), Big (1988), The Dead Poet's Society (1989), and the quirky Heathers (1989).

Teaching Film

The power of The Breakfast Club underscores the legitimate concern of parents and teachers because the value messages young people receive are complicated and serious. The film seems to give approval to drugs and casual sex and promotes the view that adults are untrustworthy and unreliable. Themes that run through this film include ambition, family, love, career, anger, alienation, loneliness, cruelty, money, success, and justice.

Thus, the young adult film, like the young adult novel, is ripe for careful and well-guided classroom exploration that sets young viewers questioning and pondering what they saw, what they felt, and what they believe ( Coles, 1986, p.26 ). This is not a recommendation that teachers explain to their students what films are about and what values they should perceive. Rather, films should be subject to classroom reader response discussions and activities that allow each viewer to recreate and analyze important film experiences. Film responses are often wildly subjective. Reader response techniques will allow students to explore the themes and values in these very complex movies by eliciting their subjective reactions that, as in good reader response discussions, should be gently prodded, disciplined, and refined by co-viewers. Thus, these discussions can bring forth a community of reactions that give depth and insight into the film ( Cox, 1989, p. 289 ).

Film study should become a major part of the modern curriculum if education is serious about helping shape thinking skills required in the new technological age. Students need help in understanding, appreciating, and controlling the most powerful stories that enter their lives. Not only must students discuss important films, but also they must read and write about them in order to learn about film. Ironically, by studying films, students will be learning the very skills that film has so badly eroded -- language literacy skills.


Barr, Helen R. "I Saw the Movie But I Couldn't Read the Book," Journal of Reading , November, 1986, pp. 511-515.

Beja, Morris. Film and Literature: An Introduction . Longman, 1979.

Coles, Robert. "Seeing Is Not Believing," American Film , May, 1986.

Considine, David M. The Cinema of Adolescence . McFarland, 1985.

Cormier, Robert. The Chocolate War . Dell, 1974.

Cox, Carole. "Worlds of Possibilities in Response to Literature, Film, and Life," Language Arts , March, 1989, pp. 287-294.

Doherty, Thomas. Teenagers and Teenpics: The Juvenilization of American Movies in the 1950s . Unwin Hyman, 1988.

Eidsvik, Charles. "Toward a Politique Des Adaptations," in John Harrington, Film and/as Literature . Prentice-Hall, 1977.

Foster, Harold M. The New Literacy: The Language of Film and Television . National Council of Teachers of English, 1979.

______. "The New Literacy: Television, Purveyor of Modern Myth," English Journal , February, 1984, pp. 26-30.

Hinton, S.E. The Outsiders . Dell, 1967.

Johnston, Sheila. " The Outsiders ," Monthly Film Bulletin , September, 1983, pp. 236-237.

Karutani, Michiko. "What Is Hollywood Saying About the Teenage World Today," The New York Times , April 22, 1984, Section 2, pp. 1 and 22.

Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality . Oxford University Press, 1960.

McConnell, Frank. Storytelling and Mythmaking: Images from Film and Literature . Oxford University Press, 1979.

McDermott, Alice. "Teen-Age Films: Love, Death, and the Prom," The New York Times , August 16, 1987, Section 2, pp. 1 and 27.

Rose, Cynthia. "The Fiction of S.E. Hinton," Monthly Film Bulletin , September, 1983, pp. 238-239.

Scott, Jay. "The Wild Ones," American Film , April, 1983, pp. 30-35, 64-65.

Spiegel, Alan. Fiction and the Camera Eye: Visual Consciousness in Film and the Modern Novel . University Press of Virginia, 1976.

Hal Foster is Professor of English Education at the University of Akron and author of The New Literacy: The Language of Film and Television , published by NCTE and a new methods book, Crossing Over: Whole Language for Secondary English.