It might be difficult to think back on a time before the YA genre reigned supreme in the cinematic realm. Second only to superhero movies, young adult pseudo-romantic fantasy dramas maintain a stronghold on the Hollywood market, coming out in droves year after year. But where did it all begin? Many will cite the Harry Potter franchise as the forerunner to the genre. Sorcerer’s Stone hit theaters in 2001, instituting a new wave of passion for book-to-film adaptation among young (and young-at-heart) audiences. At the same time, however, fans tend to separate the Hogwarts series from what is generally connoted as part of the YA breed — a community back-dropped by the fantastical, like the Potter stories, but far more heavily reliant on the tenets of romance or teen “angst” — crediting the launch thereof with a much later release: Twilight.
In 2008, the first Twilight movie opened to immediate commercial success, laying groundwork for its in-series successors (each of which grossed above or just shy of $300 million) and a legion of thematic kinsmen. Following the unmitigated allure of Twilight’s Mormonism-soaked vampire mythology and the Bella Swan-Edward Cullen-Jacob Noshirt conceit, studios played to the same elements in an effort to duplicate the Stephenie Meyer product’s dynamic fandom: we’ve seen varying degrees of success in The Hunger Games, Divergent, The Mortal Instruments, Beautiful Creatures, and a slew of forgotten entries.
Ill of fortune though many of these attempts may be, they keep on coming. This past year alone, we saw a handful of new members of the tribe, including The Giver — starring the wasted talent that is Brenton Thwaites — and The Maze Runner, which features in a likewise vacant role one Kaya Scodelario.
We’re inclined to credit (or blame) Twilight for movies like The Giver and, especially, The Maze Runner, assuming the precedent for such to have been set with that $7 million opening night back in November 2008. But even if you’re wont to absolve Harry Potter of the YA genre (a term that I’m using flippantly, I admit, but that I champion wholeheartedly the celebration thereof), you might be hasty to call Twilight the true pioneer of the latter day young adult movement. There’s another franchise that, although draped in a different garb, beat Meyer’s vamp shtick to the punch in all the principal ways. I’m talking about Pirates of the Caribbean.
Pirates of the Caribbean 5, bearing the Yosemite Sam-reminiscent subtitle Dead Men Tell No Tales, has announced its casting of Maze Runner star Scodelario alongside The Giver’s Thwaites and Mortdecai himself Johnny Depp (whom I guess would be more sensible to credit as Pirates’ returning star, but I’m not quite ready to let him off the hook for Mortdecai). Its replacement of a newly emancipated Keira Knightley and a long ago vanished Orlando Bloom with the duo might stamp Pirates 5 with a distinct YA flavor…but that isn’t an entirely inappropriate approach.
In earnest, the original Pirates was one of the Millennial generation’s first tastes of young adult-directed blockbuster cinema. In spirit, it’s not all that different from Twilight: an average (albeit privileged) young girl is torn from her unsatisfactorily ordinary life and thrust into the world of adventure she has long sought. Romance ensues immediately, and complicates along the way — Elizabeth Swann (see? She even has the same last name as Kristen Stewart’s character!) kicks off with a love for Will Turner, but eventually shifts sights to Jack Sparrow. There are ghosts and monsters, plights of personal adversity and coming-of-age arcs, and a tinge more wackiness than you’ll find in many of these joyless endeavors…but just as many British accents.
Just as important as the content in the implication of Pirates in the inception of the YA movement is the way that the franchise bred and fed its fandom. It started out as a solitary adventure flick, perfectly amenable to child and adult audiences alike. A remarkable success off the bat, Pirates insisted on spawning more and more adventures, churning out chemistry and drama between Knightley and her male counterparts, investing in the construction of a soap opera where once there lived an arc plucked straight out of the scribbled notes from “Hero’s Journey” day in screenwriting class.
With Curse of the Black Pearl, Disney realized it had a seed, and catered to procuring the tallest, longest living plant it could manage. As a result, we have a fifth Pirates movie on the way, in the same fashion that we got two-part finales to the stories of Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, and Shailene Divergentberg. Pirates of the Caribbean may never have outright proclaimed itself to be a YA film, nor was it claimed as such by a then-yet-to-blossom fan community, but in its genetic code and its business mentality, it sure as heck fits the bill.
And now, in the thick of the YA genre’s empire, it is accepting that designation with pride: the casting of Scodelario and Thwaites is as much a confirmation of this as a press release stating it outright. So what do we expect from a newly self-proclaimed YA Pirates? Well, more love triangles, more angst… and hey, maybe Jack Sparrow will have a run in with a vampirious Francois l'Olonnais (that dude did have a taste for blood…).
Images: 20th Century Fox; Summit Entertainment; Walt Disney Pictures/Jerry Bruckheimer Films