The Darkest Minds (2018) and The Death of YA Cinematic Adaptations

In 2016, the third instalment in The Divergent Series was released in cinemas. Allegiant (dir. Robert Schwentke), in all regards, was a terrible movie. A dull, misshapen and stagnant adaptation of an already controversial Young Adult novel. In fact, the magnitude of its failure led to the ending of the whole Divergent franchise, with the fourth and final film- Ascendant being pulled from production before the year was even out. Along with the triumphant disaster of the Divergent series, as well as a slew of other failed franchises from Beautiful Creatures (2013) to Vampire Academy (2014), it appeared that the YA fantasy movie adaptation was yet another ‘dead horse’ genre being beaten into a bloody pulp by the Hollywood higher-ups, with nothing even comparing to the success of both The Twilight Saga (2008-12) and The Hunger Games film franchises (2012-15).

It appeared that YA fantasy and dystopia were not the kind of books the studios needed to be adapting, leading to the emergence of a whole new genre of YA movie. This being the YA contemporary – stories about the hardships and struggles of being a teenager in the modern world. From this new focus we see the beginning of some moderate success stories in the form of The Fault in Our Stars (dir. Josh Boone, 2014) and Paper Towns (dir. Jake Schreier, 2015). It appeared that movie-going audiences were not as concerned with the plights of teenagers when they were fighting against a fascist regime. Instead audiences seemed to prefer the suffering of teenagers when they were faced with real-world problems, something which was again evidenced this very year with the release of Love, Simon (dir. Greg Berlanti, 2018), a film which tackled the unfortunately still taboo subject of LGBTQ+ romance. However, it also appears that 2018 is the year of second chances, as it also saw the release of The Darkest Minds (dir. Jennifer Yuh Nelson, 2018), an adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s best-selling  YA dystopian trilogy. And I wish I could say that this film marks the beginning of another blockbuster franchise, or the chance of other such adaptions hitting the big screen in the near future, but if anything this film has helped to cement the death of the YA Fantasy adaptation.

Set in the near future, The Darkest Minds envisions a world where a disease (oddly named IAAN) has ravaged the American landscape, killing off 90% of the country’s children. However, those who are able to survive the disease are then cursed with superhuman abilities, ranging from telekinesis to mind control. Our main heroine is a young girl named Ruby (played by Amandla Stenberg) who is categorised as an orange, meaning that she has the ability to control the minds of others. After accidentally erasing her memory from the brains of her parents, Ruby is placed in a concentration camp with the other super powered teenagers, where she must hide her orange identity for fear of being killed by her captors. From the beginning of the exposition alone, the cracks in this story are vast and hard to fill. For example, Ruby is an orange, making her the most dangerous of the colour coded super power system. In this world oranges are killed on sight, and yet we see Ruby do very little damage over the course of the film. In fact, we see the supposedly harmless blues (who have telekinesis) commit far worse atrocities than any of the orange characters combined, making me wonder why blues aren’t killed on sight either. The plague that starts the whole sequence of events also baffles me as it appears to have no set symptoms. Apparently the makers of this movie do not know that diseases tend to kill you by breaking down your body and not by simply zapping you with a spark of terrible CGI.

After a dull sequence of Ruby’s treatment in the camps, she is whisked away by a tragically under used Mandy Moore, to become part of The Children’s League – a shadowy organisation that wants to free the other children from the cruelty of the camps. However, seeing as Ruby is a YA heroine, she doesn’t listen to the adults and instead escapes into the forest where she encounters a small group of quirky characters. In this trio we have Liam, the smouldering telekinetic love interest. Zu, a little Asian girl with the ability to manipulate electricity and finally Chubs, a teenage boy with the brain of a rocket scientist and honestly the best character in the entire film. Ruby’s interaction with the cast of Fraggle Rock leads to another issue with the film’s primary message, which is that you are not defined by society. And yet, every character in the film is, as they still choose to utilise the colour coded system even after they have escaped the oppression of the child concentration camps. In fact, the final triumphant moment of the film has Ruby declaring herself an orange in front of an arena crowded with other super powered children, who each have donned the colour of their power. Word of advice, if the primary message of your movie is that your characters aren’t defined by society, don’t have them still adhering to a strict categorised system that was first created by the primary villains of the story – it makes things a little complicated.

After meeting the trio, the film becomes something like The Walking Dead, with the teenagers trying to survive in the dystopian wilderness that America has become, except there are no zombies but instead comical bounty hunters, one of whom is played by Gwendoline Christie. Yet again another talented and adored actress tragically misused by the narrative of the film. Of course the movie is also brimming with all the traditional YA tropes, there’s a handsome villain who is drawn to Ruby, there’s betrayal and there’s corny love scenes that hold very little pathos for the audience, who by this point have either gone home to watch Stranger Things or have simply fallen asleep in their chairs. Sadly, Jennifer Yuh Nelson’s directing also doesn’t help to make the film any more interesting, as again this is a YA adaptation that suffers from being given into the care of a first-time live-action director, who has very little vision when it comes the look and style of the film. In fact it appears that Nelson chose to model the film’s tone on that of a generic YA contemporary, with the dull palette and tired action scenes not really gelling with the X-Men style of the story. By far the best performances are given by Amandla Stenberg, who really showcases why she is emerging as a new rising star. And by Skylan Brooks, who really does steal the show as the ever-comical Chubs, when a character says exactly what you’re thinking about the pace and narrative of the movie, you know you have a winner. However the other performances range from stale to brick, with the film not even benefiting from the addition of a more experienced actor such as Emma Thompson or Kate Winslet, something that even the dreaded Divergent series had.

It appears that this film will only be known as yet another nail in the YA coffin, another example of why films like these just don’t do well at the box office and why studios should stay clear of them if they wish to still be in business in ten years’ time. And it is genuinely sad to see this, as there are plenty of YA novels still waiting and needing to be adapted for the silver screen. Let’s just hope that the near future holds at least a cinematic adaptation of Tomi Adeyemi’s Children of Blood and Bone (2018) or of Stephanie Garber’s Caraval (2017), books that deserve to be made into beautiful works of cinematic art, by directors who both love and care for the source material they are adapting.

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