In the wake of The Hunger Games dominating the box office, studios are rushing faster than ever to find more young-adult books to turn into movies. According to the Los Angeles Times, it's become a feeding frenzy, to the point that Universal paid $1 million for the rights to a book that's only sold about 23,000 copies since September.
And the list of YA novels that have been optioned in the past year is too long to reproduce. But our bet for the book series that has the best shot at capturing the audiences that swarmed to see Katniss kick ass? The Vampire Academy books by Richelle Mead.
I've read a lot of YA science fiction and fantasy books in the past few years, and it's safe to say that they've been hit and miss. For every Hunger Games, there have been some duds, including some books that got major attention and huge movie deals. As Universal's Peter Cramer tells the L.A. Times, "We're seeing a million of them, but most feel like imitations or 'Johnny-come-latelies.'"
In particular, I see a lot of cookie-cutter dystopian settings, which often lack any real menace, or an interesting means of social control. Or worse yet, contrived set-ups, which don't seem like they would ever happen in real life. I'm also seeing a lot of bland main characters, who are too passive in the face of the challenges they face — which is the kiss of death for this type of novel, and especially for any movie. Oh, and then there's the I Am Number Four problem, where the main character is just unlikable and kind of a brat.
The thing that was so great about Hunger Games, and resonated with so many people, was the fact that Katniss is seldom passive, and she has actual survival skills. She doesn't get drawn into the Games because she's picked randomly — she volunteers, to save her sister. And once she's pulled in, she keeps making choices, and trying to use her skills to survive. She's proactive and skilled, and also kind of pissed off at the world.
And that's why I like Rose Hathaway as a potential heroine of a film series — she's also a proactive character who makes rash, impulsive choices. The first VA novel begins with Rose and her best friend Lissa already having run away from the Academy, after Rose was on the verge of being expelled for destroying school property. Rose says things like "I don't start fights where people can see them," but she's refreshingly violent nonetheless. She's also training to become a vampire bodyguard, so there are lots of training scenes and fight scenes, and yet she's not invincible or anything — she gets her ass kicked a lot.
And the world-building, featuring two races of vampires, the Moroi and the evil Strigoi, plus the half-breed dhampirs, is also engaging. As the books go on, we get sucked further into the intricacies of vampire politics and the Moroi get more and more desperate to survive in the face of the overwhelming Strigoi threat.
I wrote a lot about the awesomeness of the first Vampire Academy book here. Suffice to say, it's very different than The Hunger Games, but it's also not really much like Twilight or Harry Potter either, despite the "vampires" and "boarding school" thing. Image by GiorRoig on Deviant Art
But what the series does offer is a strong female character — not in the sense of "bland action hero who happens to be female," but in the sense of "female character who takes action and has real emotions and relationships." The huge success of these books shows that they've already resonated with lots of people, and I really think that Rose could inspire the same kind of devotion on the big screen that Katniss now has.
But there's also the fact that at least the first Vampire Academy book has a huge theme of slut-shaming, which is woven into the more dystopian aspects of the world-building. Rose lets her friend Lissa feed on her blood, which is something that only "blood whores" — the lowest of the low, dhampirs who live in disgusting brothels — ever do. And meanwhile, two of the guys in the school spread rumors that Rose had sex with both of them, which fuels the attempts by the school's mean girls to ostracize her. The whole "Rose is a slut" theme finally culminates when — spoiler alert — someone gives Rose a cursed necklace that makes her unable to control her sexual urges.
When these books first started coming out a few years ago, slut-shaming was already a huge issue for teenagers — but now? Now, it's a cultural emergency, for adults as well as teens, and it would be fantastic to see a movie that used supernatural tropes to talk about it, in much the same way the Hunger Games uses dystopian tropes to talk about class in America.
The other thing that's great about the Vampire Academy books, that would be really nice to see on the big screen, is their exploration of female friendship — the relationship between Rose and Lissa is like a real teen friendship exaggerated through the lens of fantasy — they have a psychic bond and Rose can feel what Lissa is feeling sometimes. And Lissa can heal Rose with her magic powers. Not that the books don't also have excellent male characters — including Rose's mentor/hottypants, Dmitri and Christian, the outcast goth kid. Image by Emmav on Deviant Art.
These books provide a strong foundation for a movie series, and might help us avoid more I Am Number Four-style debacles. So what's been happening with the books since they were optioned in July 2010?
We asked producer Don Murphy (who also produced the Transformers films and Splice), and here's what he told us:
We've been working very hard over the last year on Vampire Academy with producer Mike Preger in order to get the perfect combination of screenplay and director. Some studios have reflexively turned us down because of Vampires being involved, which is strange- after the last Twilight do they think that audience disappears?
But realistically, we are staying focused on getting the right film made and on the characters. Every studio turned down Transformers. The great thing about the VA books is if you actually read them, they will obsess and absorb you. Richelle Mead created a world that we think is more seductive than either Twilight or Hunger. We aim to get that word to the screen intact.
Reading between the lines, it sounds as though the studios are afraid of vampire burnout after Twilight — plus other vamp movies, like Cirque du Freak, haven't done that well. And it sounds as though Murphy and Preger are seeking to keep a lot of creative control over the project instead of handing it over to the studio to manage. It sounds like they also want some guarantees that the film will actually get made soon, rather than getting stuck in development.
So now that Hunger Games is a bona fide hit and everything has changed, will Vampire Academy get out of limbo? And can the movie really keep Rose, with all her toughness and her anxieties over people thinking she's a blood whore, intact? Let's hope so.