New versus Old

The Hunger Games has sold millions as a book, and then sold millions of movie tickets.  Like the Twilight and the Harry Potter stories, The Hunger Games created mobs and mania opening weekend.  What I’d like to know is why do only new books create a mania?  At least at the movies.  The John Carter of Mars books were hugely popular in their day, and they had nearly a century to build up fans.

Why didn’t all the John Carter of Mars fans come out for premier weekend of John Carter?  I read the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter books when I was a teen and found them thrilling.  I suppose there are few young people discovering them today, and without the kids you can’t have pop culture mania.  Or can you?  The best counter example is Lord of the Rings and Stieg Larsson Millennium series.  Not quite the same hoopla, but pretty big – adults don’t show their excitement in the same way as kids, but I knew an awful lot of bookworms my age gush about the Stieg Larsson books.

What do you do if you don’t have new books to make into blockbuster movies?  Can old ones do the job?  Larsson is an example of the new making a big entry splash, but Lord of the Rings does prove an old book can still generate some pop culture excitement.  The size of the mania seems related to the size and age of the audience.

Would there have been a mania for The Beatles without teens?  Disney spent a PowerBall fortune making John Carter and it flopped.  Didn’t they know movie manias require the endorsement of the young to make the kind of money they want?  Did Disney think they could create an instant mania?  Avatar did it?  Why?  Sometimes the mania hits without books preceding the movie.

I assume movie makers use books for a ready made audience.  So have they mined all the old best sellers of history?  Look at this list of All-Time Best Sellers at Wikipedia.  Six books have sold more than 100 million.    The all time top sellers at 200 million copies are A Tale of Two Cities and The Little Prince, although other people estimate Don Quixote has sold more than 500 million copies.  I doubt we’ll have open weekend mania if these books were made into films.

The real sellers are series books, with Harry Potter toping the list at 450 million.  Edgar Rice Burroughs did make a show with his Tarzan series at 50 million copies, but John Carter wasn’t listed.  Looking at the list shows some promising titles that haven’t been filmed, but overall the list looks well picked over by Hollywood.

Last year, Ayn Rand’s cult classic, Atlas Shrugged came to the movies at the old theater that I go to see art and foreign movies, where the parking is usually empty.  The lot was full for Atlas Shrugged, even though the film got horrible reviews.  Old books can sell new movie tickets, but it’s a hard sale, and the local news didn’t film adults waiting in line wearing costumes for Atlas Shrugged.  If they had worn Ayn Rand outfits, maybe the film crews would have been there.  Maybe movie makes need adults to act more like kids if want to make a killing in that first weekend.

Science fiction fans have been waiting half a century to see Stranger in a Strange Land or Foundation at the movies, and if they got big Disney sized productions would they do any better than John Carter without the backing of teenager movie goers?

Masterpiece Theater fans watch production after production of old classics, but how many fans does it have?  Downton Abbey created a bit of a mania for the baby boomer set but it was no Beatlmania.

Real fan mania requires both new and old fans.  That’s why some YA novels are read both the young and the formerly young.

Poor movie producers hoping to become billionaires just need to wait for the next new thing, whatever it might be.  That’s probably why they keep remaking movies, because waiting for new authors to write runaway bestsellers is kind of tedious.  Old pop culture doesn’t recycle very well.  The current boom in comic book productions seems to pay off, but how long can they keep that going?  At some point superheroes will jump the shark.

Hollywood must really be desperate if they have to make Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  This is an attempt to combine the old with the new, even though vampires stories are really old, they’ve been through several recycling’s, but they are currently new again.  For awhile.  Just look at this trailer.  Is it new or old?  Will it sell or bomb?  Is it a new trend to repackage old history with new fantasies?

How many new stories are invented each decade that are so well loved they will sell millions of tickets the first weekend? And are there any old stories that can still do the same thing?

JWH – 4/3/12

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins

Why are YA novels so appealing right now?  I know many people in their fifties reading young adult novels like the Harry Potter series and The Hunger Games trilogy.  And these non-YA readers just gush about the great storytelling they are finding in their kids’ books.  I recently listened to The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, which includes The Hunger Games (2008), Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay (2010) and was amazed by how much I enjoyed them.  I was just blown away by Suzanne Collins’ narrative skills and plotting.  Nothing was conventional.  The story was completely fresh. 

I won’t tell you about the plot, because it sounded bizarrely unappealing when I first heard it.  But my friend Linda insisted that I get over that.  I’m glad I took her advice.  Just get a copy of the first book, The Hunger Games and give it a try.  Don’t spoil it by reading reviews.  Let me just say one lady I recommended The Hunger Games to has since read all three books and has already started rereading them.  If you liked The Giver by Lois Lowry or Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, the odds you should read The Hunger Games.

I caught this YA trilogy at the perfect time, finishing the first two the night before the third was released on August 24th, which I got from Audible that morning when I woke up.  I’m not sure I would have loved them so intensely if I had to read them a year apart, like I’m doing with the WWW trilogy by Robert J. Sawyer, another story that I highly recommend, also featuring a teenage girl as the hero of the story.

hunger-games hunger-games-2 mockingjay

My all-time favorite novels are the Heinlein juveniles, twelve science fiction books written in the late 1940s and 1950s by Robert A. Heinlein.  I read those books when I was a teenager, and the only books that come close to their excitement since then have been YA novels.  Is that a failure to grow up? 

Oh, I’ve read hundreds of adult novels that I greatly admire, but they lack the emotional excitement of YA novels.  That’s one clue.  Adult novels are great for intellectual reasons, but YA novels are fun for their emotions.  YA novels are like roller coasters – thrill rides, and even when they deal with ideas, they are sense of wonder thrilling.  Maybe us oldsters just want to feel young again.

YA novels defy genre classifications – they are all shelved together and not segregated by topics.  For instance The Hunger Games is science fiction, but it’s read and loved by all kinds of readers, including those who would never choose to call themselves fans of science fiction.    Stranger still, this trilogy has flown completely under the radar of most hard core science fiction readers. 

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire should have been Hugo winners, but they didn’t even make it to the nominee level.  Why?  I’ve read the 2010 nominees and I think Catching Fire stands up equal to any of those books.  Wake, by Robert J. Sawyer also features a teenage girl protagonist and is a YA novel too, but Sawyer is a big name in the SF genre, and Suzanne Collins is not.  Julian Comstock is also about tyrannical government that occupies the former United States like The Hunger Games, and its author, but Robert Charles Wilson has already won a Hugo and is well known to SF readers.

In other words, YA novels seem to be a world unto themselves.  According to Wikipedia, young-adult fiction is intended for 14 to 21 year olds.  I’m not the only one wondering about why us old folks are reading kids’ books, the New York Times ran “The Kids’ Books Are All Right” recently asking the same questions.  I agree completely with:

“A lot of contemporary adult literature is characterized by a real distrust of plot,” Grossman said. “I think young adult fiction is one of the few areas of literature right now where storytelling really thrives.”

Over at Ground Zero they asked what has sparked a YA golden age?  They point out that sales of adult novels are in decline while YA sales are growing.  They also give more first person accounts of adults reading more YA novels than their young adult children.  Did the Harry Potter books get us all hooked on reading kids’ books?

Over at the American Library Association they have their YALSA lists of Best Books for Young Adults broken down by long lists and top ten lists going back to 1996.  The Hunger Games was on their Top 10 Best Books for 2009, picked from 86 books from the longer list.  The Hunger Games was the only book I recognized, so maybe I have a treasure trove of great books to mine.  I didn’t recognize any of the 2010 top 10, and only one each from the 2007 and 2008 lists.  (I did read that one 2007 book, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, and it was impressive.)

YA lit is a vast area of literature that I’m mostly unfamiliar.  I need to change that and go exploring.  It will give me something to do in my old age, and maybe even help rejuvenate my old mind.  Maybe YA books are appealing to us OA (Old Adults) because we’re weary of this old world and crave a younger one.

JWH – 9/1/10