This week sees the Young Adult sub-genre stumble onwards into yet another dystopian future with the release of The Divergent Series: Allegiant. The sub-genre has thrived since the early noughties when the cinematic adaptations of Harry Potter (2001-2011) and then the Twilight series (2008-2012) marked a new interest in a certain kind of teen-focused fare. It’s normally got blockbuster stylings, it’s normally dystopian, and, let’s be honest; it’s not the most consistent genre around.
Tom: Let’s get straight to it: what’s your favourite YA film and why?
Joni: My vote goes to The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. It’s a thrilling film that improves upon the series’ debut in every way, whilst still managing to be a great adaptation of the book. That’s a rare combo.
Bertie: I’ve picked The Maze Runner. It follows many of the same beats which define the YA genre, but has a twist which makes it fairly unique; it takes place inside a very confined space. It also has the least exposition which, whilst making it slightly opaque, means it doesn’t trip over itself trying to make sense.
Rachel: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1. After 6 films set at Hogwarts, characterised by school life and awkward teenager-ness this was a refreshing change of pace. Though it sadly seemed to usher in the trend of splitting final books into two films, I think in Potter’s case it was a decision that largely paid off. In Part 1 it gave us the chance to spend time with the central characters away from school and see their relationships tested in unfamiliar environments.
Bertie: I’m currently rewatching the HP series but I haven’t reached Deathly Hallows yet – doesn’t that one mainly take place in a tent?
Rachel: In a tent, around a tent, on beautiful freaky looking rocks all over Scotland. I really like it because it breaks the formula of the earlier films/books while continuing to develop the characters and the conflicting relationships within our central trio of Harry, Ron, and Hermione. It also helps that the boys’ shaggy hair phase had ended by this point.
Joni: Plus it is a really cool tent. Wizards know how to camp.
Tom: As you point out Rachel, Part 1 breaks with the Hogwarts-bound ‘let’s solve a mystery’ formula of most of the series. Do the rest of you think that’s a good thing?
Joni: I really enjoyed how it not only starts exploring the rest of the wizarding world, but the action breaks out into London itself. It really adds to the feeling that the war with Voldemort has escalated, and stretches beyond the confines of a remote castle in the middle of Scotland.
Rachel: Yes, I think it helps you to see that everything they’ve wrestled with throughout the series is connected, and serious enough to affect not just Hogwarts or wizards, but all of society.
Tom: We’ll move onto Bertie and Joni’s picks in a moment, but while we’re on HP, do you all think this is the best film of the series?
Bertie: Far from it, sadly. I actually think Part 2 was the best half of The Deathly Hallows. The sense of nostalgic closure almost certainly tinged my memories, but who doesn’t want to see a huge battle between wizards in the ruins of Hogwarts and see kick-ass moments from Neville Longbottom and Mrs Weasley?
Rachel: What weakens it for me is the structure – where part one has the journey and search for Horcruxes to give it shape, Part 2 is a single event followed by a cheesy epilogue.
Bertie: Oh God the epilogue. I’d forgotten that. You win! Part 1 is better!
Joni: Part 2 does have the heist though right? That whole sequence planning and robbing Gringotts is pretty great. But I’d still say the best film in the series is Prisoner of Azkaban. I think it’s the film that best balances the darkness and the fantasy of the books, which all of the subsequent films struggle with. That and Alfonso Cuarón absolutely nails it.
Tom: I reckon that’s enough HP for now. Joni, do you want to expand on your case for Catching Fire?
Joni: Man, I rewatched Catching Fire this morning and it’s so much better than I remember. It takes a similar tactic to Azkaban; redirecting the series in a darker direction with a more complex plot. Just as Azkaban starts to bring in the Marauders and tell us about the first Wizarding War, we finally visit the other districts and we get to see the escalating rebellion as Katniss does. Best of all, it doesn’t sacrifice character to do this, or revisit the events of the first film. The Games don’t actually start until 80 minutes or so in, and I didn’t feel like I was waiting for them to start.
Rachel: I remember being surprised when I rewatched it that it takes its time getting to the games, but you’re right, it works. The psychological fallout from the first games is the main driving force. It’s also worth saying that Jennifer Lawrence is just as good in Catching Fire as anything she’s been Oscar nominated for.
Bertie: The clock device was brilliant, Hoffman and Sutherland had this great evil-genius off and the stakes were higher too, since all the players were champion-killers
Tom: Unanimous on Catching Fire then! Are there any other contenders within the Hunger Games series?
Joni: I mean one of the reasons I like Catching Fire so much is because of how much I dislike the first film. I went into Catching Fire mostly out of obligation and left blown away by the improvement. Ditching the shaky-cam action of the first film was the best decision Francis Lawrence made.
Rachel: Yes, and dispensing with the deaths shot so fast you could barely see – it’s pretty fruitless to try and tone down teen murder.
Bertie: Part 1 and Part 2 of Mockingjay were crushingly disappointing after Catching Fire.
Rachel: Mockingjay Part 2 was such a let-down.
Joni: I still haven’t seen the last Mockingjay, I might watch it this evening because Catching Fire got me so excited.
Bertie: Joni let us save you. Don’t do it.
Tom: I’ll save you Joni, by moving us onto The Maze Runner. Go Bertie!
Bertie: So, The Maze Runner, or, as IMDb claims director Wes Ball originally pitched it: “Lord of the Flies meets Lost”. It stars a raft of young talented actors: Dylan O’Brien, Will Poulter, Kaya Scodelario and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. They wake up in a walled garden (The Glade) with no memory of who they are, how they got there, or what the heck is going on. Chaos ensues.
Joni: I really enjoyed The Maze Runner, although I got far too much running and not enough maze. Seriously, I hear a movie is gonna be about a maze and I go in expecting awesome booby traps and challenges and puzzles – I received some weird robots and a couple of moving walls.
Bertie: For the most part the maze is effectively a brutalist corridor – and that use of a single location can be an effective tool – just look at Room recently. Here it is essential to what is great about the film. There is no “this is the new world” dystopian exposition; the world just is, and we accept that and move on. The reasons for the maze are not important (really), the reason for these kids being there is not important. What’s important is that they survive.
Joni: The premise and setup is brilliant, and that opaque feel you mentioned is very well pitched.
Bertie: That said, The Maze Runner does have some real face-palm cliché moments, like all their names being famous scientists or philosophers and WICKED standing for “World In Catastrophe, Killzone Experiment Department”. Blurgh.
Tom: What about The Scorch Trials?
Bertie: Think of everything you liked about The Maze Runner: the mystery, the tightness. Then burn it. That’s The Scorch Trials.
Rachel: Sounds a fitting title then.
Bertie: Exposition sets in, a really bad case of it. Still asking more questions than it gives answers, but these are questions we aren’t really given any reason to care about
Rachel: That’s exactly how I felt about Divergent.
Bertie: I haven’t seen a compelling reason to add it to the YA series I have seen/am seeing.
Tom: Have we reached an over-saturation of YA series then?
Bertie: There was The 5th Wave recently. No one saw that.
Joni: I think Divergent certainly shows that The Hunger Games has capped off dystopian YA fiction.
Rachel: I think my enthusiasm for the fantasy/dystopian vein we’ve been discussing has waned. If something looks to be doing much the same as The Hunger Games but not as well, I’m inclined to avoid.
Joni: I can’t see anything in Divergent that makes me think it would be more worth my time then rewatching Catching Fire.
Tom: Does anyone have thoughts on other YA series we haven’t discussed yet?
Joni: I think His Dark Materials is sad because if they’d actually gotten to do the second film, and used the end of the first book, people would have got on board with that series. They are doing a BBC miniseries though which is exciting.
Rachel: As a teenage girl at the time the books kicked off, I was snared by Twilight. But by the end of the film series I found them barely tolerable.
Bertie: Twilight has one abiding memory for me – being in a cinema packed with fans, who all started screaming at the screen in that big final battle when EVERYBODY died, for it all to be revealed as a dream/hallucination.
Joni: I think I yelled “DALLAS” really loudly when that happened.
Rachel: Putting aside the story for a second, the production is inferior to most other series – think of those wigs for example!
Bertie: And that creepy baby.
Tom: High fives all-round, excellent opinions. I think we’ll move to final statements now. Do you still think the film you first argued for is the best and why? And what do you think is the best all-round series?
Bertie: Out of the three films we’re championing, I’d be hard pressed to pick between Catching Fire and The Maze Runner, but overall the Harry Potter series can’t be touched. My thoughts on it haven’t been soured by any particular film unlike in the other series.
Rachel: I agree that Harry Potter is the strongest series, closely followed by The Hunger Games. Though over time I could certainly be convinced away from Deathly Hallows Part 1 as the best; there’s tougher competition within Potter than the other series.
Joni: Whilst I think Harry Potter is the best all-round YA series, I will stick with Catching Fire as my favourite film. It takes the series in a new and more expansive direction very fluidly, and brings in so many fantastic and memorable characters – as much as I enjoyed The Maze Runner the only name I can remember is of the stupid WCKD company.
Tom: They missed a controversial product placement opportunity with WKD there…
Bertie: YA films meet UA drinking.
Joni: Now that’s dystopian fiction I might watch.