Sure, some younger millennials and Gen-Zers have been accused of having unhealthy obsessions with social media and occasionally being entitled, but for the most part, these generations are the ones starting movements. They’re speaking out against hate, and encouraging others to live in their truth—and YA stories centered around characters of this age are helping make Hollywood more inclusive.
Growing up in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s, it wasn’t shocking to see movie after movie starring Rachael Leigh Cook, Sarah Michelle Gellar, Julia Stiles, Jennifer Love Hewitt, and Freddie Prinze Jr. I laughed, I cried, and I reveled in their characters’ angst and adventures—though none of them looked like me, my brothers, or my friends. The protagonists’ experiences and the daily situations they encountered weren’t really (i.e. were never) reflective of my life growing up as a Black girl south of the Mason Dixon.
It hurt to be constantly left out of on-screen narratives.
That’s why I cheered (and maybe even shed a tear) when I first saw Maddy Whittier come to life onscreen, natural hair and all, in Everything, Everything, a movie based on Nicola Yoon’s 2015 YA book. It’s rare to see a Black woman with a white love interest in film, let alone a teenaged one who proudly shows off her coils. Even though I’m cis and straight, I felt a similar ping of happiness when the trailer for Love, Simon—a movie about a closeted gay teen’s romance, based on a YA novel by Becky Albertalli—was first released. All I thought was, “finally.”
Finally, because these YA book-to-film adaptations are doing what should have been done in Hollywood years ago: giving representation to all.
Conversations tagged with #OscarsSoWhite continue to dominate our social media timelines. Trans actors are still being passed over for the (few and far between) roles and stories centered around the LGBTQ+ community. Despite the well-deserved attention surrounding Black Panther and Crazy Rich Asians, as well as studies proving that films with inclusive casts can make more money, many of today’s films targeting adult audiences still lack diverse representation on screen.
On the other hand, writers, producers, and directors of YA adaptations seem to have made a silent pact to showcase as many different shades, personalities, and sexual orientations as they can onscreen.
The appeal of these movies goes way beyond just inclusivity, though, because let’s be honest: films have never really had a problem throwing in a token POC or “gay best friend” for entertainment purposes.
But audiences have fallen in love with YA stories because they don’t water down characters’ personalities and experiences to make them more palatable for more “mainstream” viewers.
Take the wild success of To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, which currently holds a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The premise of the Netflix original, based on Jenny Han’s bestselling trilogy, may not focus on race, but Lara Jean and her two sisters’ Korean American heritage is still an important part of who they are. Han made certain that Hollywood didn’t whitewash the characters, so that important details—like Peter Kavinsky recognizing Lara Jean’s love for Korean yogurt drink, Yakult—weren’t left on the cutting room floor.
Moments like this weaved into the story dispel the myth that people can’t relate to diverse characters or inclusive stories. Viewers are able to see that life for Lara Jean isn’t that different from a teen who’s white, while still recognizing her family’s culture.
And on October 19th, The Hate U Give, starring Amandla Stenberg, will be released in theaters. Based on the 2017 YA novel by Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give follows a Black teenage girl after her friend is shot and killed by the police.
But these movies aren’t just bringing diverse stories to the big screen. They’re also giving us diverse adaptations of non-diverse books.
When the race or sexuality of a character is not explicitly stated in a book, the default for casting directors seems to be white and straight once the novel hits the screen. While that’s certainly okay sometimes, The Darkest Minds—another movie based on a YA novel—is an example of how switching things up in a book-to-film adaptation doesn’t hurt anything in the end. Audiences still get to watch teens run from the government in a kickass dystopian story, and POC get to see themselves as something other than sidekicks, comic relief, maids, and slaves. A win-win for everyone, if you ask me.
This is not to say that YA adaptations have the inclusion formula down pat or that they can’t do better—because they definitely can. Case in point: I’m still waiting on a wide-release, teen-centric rom-com featuring all Latinx characters; a trans-coming-of-age story; one about a Muslim teen who becomes a superhero; a thriller with a differently-abled teen as the lead; and one with a plus-sized, non-binary character who becomes an internet sensation. Okay, so maybe not these exact storylines, but you get the picture. Still, regardless of what’s missing, YA adaptations are actually trying, and that’s really all movie-goers can ask for.
To the rest of the entertainment industry: Take notes.