Two years ago, I stole "The Fault in Our Stars" from my roommate's bookcase. It was a rainy Sunday morning, and all I wanted was an easy read and a bacon, egg and cheese from the corner bodega. Going in, I knew "TFIOS" was a B.F.D. (Big F--king Deal). John Green's story of two teenagers with cancer falling in love and experiencing life and loss was a worldwide phenomenon. From what I had heard -- Jodi Picoult called it "electric" on the jacket blurb, which is high praise in my book -- it was the kind of novel best reserved for rainy days.
With my roommate's slightly obese cat at my feet and a belly full of undercooked bacon, I dove right in. Less than two hours later, I was sobbing uncontrollably. And not in the Internet's cute, hyperbolic definition of the word. Sobs wracked my body. Augustus Waters, teen heartthrob, was dying, and there was nothing Hazel Grace Lancaster, or I, could do about it. It was unfair. But mostly, it just really, really sucked.
That's what cancer does. It sucks. And Green doesn't sugarcoat it. He trusted his readers to get it, in "TFIOS," and similarly with other teen issues in his previous novels "Looking For Alaska," "An Abundance of Katherines" and "Paper Towns" -- and he doesn't need an arena seeping with the blood of children or totalitarian regimes to convince us that the stakes for his characters are high.
Don't get me wrong, I love grand, sweeping, fantastical stories and creative world-building. To me, there's a substantial difference between this type of fantasy, like J.K. Rowling's seminal "Harry Potter" series and Brandon Sanderson's "Mistborn" trilogy, and the dystopian young-adult genre that's been influencing pop culture trends for years now. In dystopian YA, the stakes are so blindingly high, where the fate of an entire civilization is placed on the shoulders of an apathetic teen, I've become numb to their emotional weight. Rarely in dystopian YA do kids just get to be kids, to feel infinite the way Charlie does in Stephen Chbosky's brilliant novel "The Perks of Being a Wallflower" -- and because of this, my appetite for this kind of macabre storytelling has changed.
But I didn't really know that I had hit Peak Dystopia until watching "The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2." Despite an effortlessly affecting performance from franchise star Jennifer Lawrence, the film felt too burdened by the gravity of its story. I could give a similar criticism to the big screen adaptations of "Divergent," "Insurgent" and "Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials." I want more time with these characters, and less time setting the stakes. Simply put, I don't care about a character's failures or triumphs if I don't know what that character is about. Most importantly, what do they want in life? What is that driving force that inspires them to get out of bed in the morning?
Even Lois Lowry, the author credited with starting the bleak trend in her 1993 novel "The Giver," recently said, "Dystopian fiction is passé now." Given the end of the multi-billion dollar "Hunger Games" franchise (at least for now) and the failure of "The Giver" to find an audience at the box office, she might be onto something.
This push and pull between realistic teen fiction and post-apocalypse YA isn't necessarily new, either. The meteoric rise of "GreenLit," or realistic, self-aware stories about teenagers and the teen experience, is often characterized as a reaction to the influx of dystopian hellscapes that have popped up in the wake of the blinding success of "The Hunger Games." I don't think that's particularly true. After all, stories of teen angst, alienation and depression have been a thing since J.D. Salinger's "Catcher in the Rye." Also, let's not forget the woman who practically ushered every Millennial into adulthood, Judy Blume. Then, there was Sarah Dessen, whom I consider to be the queen of contemporary YA. Like Green, Dessen's novels focused on the emotional roller coaster that is growing up -- love, loss, isolation, heartbreak, disorder and practically any other emotion you can think of -- with sincerity and humor.
The basic reason is, there's something incredibly refreshing about reading a story about a real teen, someone who has enough s--t to deal with without being thrown into a deadly arena or a flimsy Chosen One mission. And we've started to see that reflected on the big screen.
Long before the Girl On Fire set the box office ablaze, the "teen movie" was omnipresent. By "teen movie" I don’t just mean a movie that features teens because by that definition, teen movies never left the mainstream. I'm talking about realistic teen stories -- without witches, shapeshifters, angel-human demon hunters, vampires or post-apocalyptic trials. This is the sort of nuanced teen story John Green specializes in, but he's not the only one.
In 1983, Francis Ford Coppola's "The Outsiders," based on the coming-of-age novel by S. E. Hinton, brought a realistic portrayal of poor teenagers from the wrong side of the tracks to life. It was gritty and dark, but it also tapped into what makes your teen years so formidable. Mainly, it was a story of friendship. Recent teen-fiction adaptations like "The Perks of Being a Wallflower," "The Spectacular Now," and 2015's "Paper Towns" and Sundance darling "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" have done the same, reigniting the desire for realistic teen stories on the big screen.
And it will continue in 2016. Jennifer Niven's heartfelt YA debut, "All The Bright Places," is getting the Hollywood treatment, with filming set to commence next year. Starring Elle Fanning as protagonist Violet Markey, "All The Bright Places" explores the emotionally dizzying whirlwind relationship between two depressed and damaged teens. Meanwhile, "Let It Snow," based on a short story collection by Green, Maureen Johnson ("13 Little Blue Envelopes") and Lauren Myracle ("Internet Girls" series), is slated to hit theaters just in time for next holiday season. Green's next film adaptation, "Looking For Alaska," is currently in production, following the release of "Paper Towns" this past summer. Needless to say, we're at the teen movie tipping point.
Of course, that's not to say dystopian teen epics are going away completely (nor should they). The genre's next big release, the Chloë Grace Moretz-starrer "The Fifth Wave," hits theaters in January, followed by the third film in the "Divergent" franchise, "Allegiant," in March. However, since "The Hunger Games" bowed in November, interest has certainly peaked -- but has it waned?
I'd say so. At this point in the zeitgeist, dystopian YA has a tendency to all look the same after a while. Simply put, "Divergent" is "Hunger Games." And that's OK. After all, Collins put her own spin on "Battle Royale" to make "The Hunger Games." But its obvious parallel themes -- lying adults, dubious totalitarian regimes, combat training as a coming-of-age ritual -- and archetypal characterizations are too brutally cookie-cutter for my liking. I get it: our future is grim, we can't trust the government, and there will always be a simple bae who gets his heart broken by our inevitable (white) female savior.
Now, I will always admire "The Hunger Games" for giving us Katniss Everdeen, a fictional character who has undoubtedly inspired young women around the world with her courage and resilience. But she's never felt real to me. While it's easy to surmise that Katniss and her mini-me Tris Prior don't feel authentic because they're living in a futuristic hellscape that is decidedly not authentic, it's more than that. Collins and Veronica Roth write for teens, not about them, meaning that Katniss Everdeen could have been 23 or 27 (barring, of course, the actual age requirement for The Hunger Games) and the narrative would have read the same way. Are we supposed to believe that she's 16 because she found herself reluctantly -- very reluctantly -- in the middle of a love triangle? (For what it's worth, I love a good love triangle, but it can be used as a lazy plot device in YA.)
Throughout the books, Katniss appears unemotional. She's often disconnected from glaring emotional triggers, protecting herself from painful thoughts and subverting the typical topes of a female protagonist. She is the perfect heroine for the neo feminist era. Of course, this counters Peeta's relative vulnerability and Gale's emotionally charged rants against the Capitol. As someone who's read a lot of YA, I deeply cherish Katniss' quiet stoicism, but frankly, I've always yearned for the character to emote more, to give us a glimpse into what she was really feeling.
To be clear, real teenage issues can and have been explored in these kinds of dystopian tales and their subsequent films. This is true in all genre fiction, YA or not, which is often overlooked as being nothing more than dragons, time travel and/or magic. But especially in dystopian fiction, teens rarely get a chance to be teens.
We don't need to be threatened with the end of the world to be inspired by the greatness of our literary heroes. Hazel from "Fault in our Stars" is a hero. Life dealt her a crappy hand, but that didn't stop her from living. Green's tempered first muse, Alaska Young, is a hero, albeit a tragic figure in the author's canon. While we may never know what happened to Alaska -- that's between her and Blue Citrus -- we do know that she was hurting. She felt lost. Hopeless. But through it all, she kept fighting, and when she was too weak and too messed up to fight, her friends fought for her. She was just as strong as the Mockingjay warrior of Panem.
Green's strength (and other author's like him) as a writer stems from his effortless understanding of teenagers. He gets them so well that last year, The New Yorker dubbed him "The Teen Whisperer." He understands that teen readers don’t need to be sheltered or patronized. His books expose the ugly, unbearable truth about the world: that it was unfair, but that it can also be pretty damn great. Augustus Waters may have lived a short life, but it was a good one. Quentin "Q" Jacobsen didn't get his dream girl, and the world kept spinning.
His novels often encapsulate heartbreak, or that emotional turmoil of loving someone, and then losing them, without plunging into over-arch, post-apocalypse metaphor. They're poignant glimpses into the turbulence of teens coming of age in an ever-complicated, confusing world. Hazel just so happens to have Stage 4 Thyroid cancer while coming of age in "the 137th nicest city in America," but her diagnosis doesn't stop her from being a teen and experiencing all of the emotions, and sometimes angst, that come with growing up.
Similarly, Green's debut novel "Looking For Alaska" follows studious high schooler Miles Halter (otherwise known as Pudge) as he stumbles through friendships, first love, and intellectual questing. Haunted by the dying words of François Rabelais -- "I go to seek a Great Perhaps" -- Pudge falls in love with the recklessly bombastic Alaska and learns that love isn't as translucent as it seems. Sometimes, there are no answers. No resolutions. No famous last words. Life just goes on, even when you're not sure if you can.
Q and Colin, the teen protagonists in Green's "Paper Towns" and "An Abundance of Katherines," respectively, learn similar lessons. Girls aren't pretty, perfect objects. They're people with wild, complex emotions -- and they're not here for you to gawk at and daydream of.
Sure, you could say Green's books all share the same common threads, but isn't that how life works? Most importantly, you don't have to be a teen to relate these characterizations because Green treats teens like people. Their emotions, fears and anxieties are no less valued because of their age.
It's foolish to think Green is the arbiter of self-aware teen stories. Rainbow Rowell's earnest tale of hardship and love in the '80s-set "Eleanor and Park" resonated with both teens and adults because we could relate to it. Eleanor is a 16-year-old girl overwhelmed by insecurities and trying to survive an abusive household, and Park is a quiet half-Korean kid who doesn’t feel like he fits in, so he seeks refuge in music and comic books. It's not flashy. It's not a larger-than-life epic. It captures the same emotions we've all felt growing up: Who hasn't felt like an outsider? And who hasn't felt solace in music, movies, comics or art?
That narrative, and the simple and sincere way Rowell tells it, hits us right in the chest. So, it's not really a surprise that the film rights to "Eleanor & Park" have been optioned by DreamWorks. Rowell is currently working on the screenplay.
There will always be stories about teenagers coming-of-age in a confusing modern world. I would bet my menial life-savings on it. But what makes stories like "Looking For Alaska," "Eleanor & Park" and Becky Albertalli's "Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda" is that they capture what being a teen is really like. The fear and fun and unexplainable sadness and all of the emotions you feel at any given moment.
If Hollywood is going to keep dumping money into page-to-screen adaptations (and they will), then I want to see more of this side of fiction. I want to experience funny-sads and happy-cries without the fate of the entire world at stake. I want characters who are young and feel everything, even infinite. I want characters who aren't afraid to care.
Life is unfair, yes. But that doesn't mean we should be afraid to care. Hazel, Augustus, Alaska, Margo Roth Spiegelman, Colin, Will Grayson (and the other Will Grayson) -- they're all sarcastic, earnest, empathetic, and maddeningly flawed. They care too much, and sometimes, their dreams get crushed under the weight of their own expectations. They're not dealing with the end of the world... They're dealing with the end of their world. And that's life.