The Best YA Adaptations You Probably Haven't Seen

(Welcome to The Best Movies You've Never Seen, a series that takes a look at slightly more obscure, under-the-radar, or simply under-appreciated movies. In this edition, we take a look at the best adaptations you haven't seen of young adult novels.)

Young adult (YA) adaptations typically fall into two categories – those featuring characters named Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, or Bella Swan, and those that don't. The movies in the latter group aren't as well known and haven't made nearly as much money, and if we're being honest, a healthy percentage of them deserve that fate. There are plenty of other good ones, though, from The Perks of Being a Wallflower to The Outsiders, but I'm here to tell you there are also some great ones you've probably missed.

One such solid YA movie is 2015's Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials which in addition to featuring some fun 28 Days Later-like "zombie" assaults also includes some kick-ass action sequences. It's good! You can skip the dull first installment – teens are forced to run out of a maze, there, now you're all caught up – and just jump to this second film. Once you do that you'll be ready for the trilogy's concluding chapter, Maze Runner: The Death Cure, which opens this week. You're welcome.

In the continuing spirit of identifying YA movies that are deserving of more love, I've done what I do best, or at least what I do bi-weekly, and selected a handful of good to great titles that were released and quickly forgotten to time.

the chocolate war

The Chocolate War (1988)

Jerry is a teenage boy whose issues at home are about to create some issues at school. He's tasked by the school's elite student group to refuse selling chocolates for a fundraiser for one week, but when the week ends he continues to resist taking part. They order him to sell, and he refuses, and in the process he upsets the delicate hierarchy of the school's students and headmaster.

Robert Cormier's YA novels don't seem as popular these days in a world ruled by adventure franchises and stories about teens getting busy with vampires, but they remain every bit as biting and insightful as they ever were. This story about resistance to group think and the importance of individuality is a powerful one that hits like an emotional sledgehammer. Young Ilan Mitchell-Smith (Weird Science) anchors the film with a sympathetic rebelliousness, and the supporting cast is equally strong with memorably mean turns from John Glover, Wallace Langham, and Doug Hutchison. Some have criticized the ending as being more optimistic than the novel's, but I'd argue it's even more of a downer. An awesome, spirit-crushing downer.

The film is Keith Gordon's (Christine) directorial debut, and he does an effective job capturing the atmosphere of a boy's teenage years, from the anxiety to the doubt to the false hope, and he pairs his visuals with a stellar soundtrack including Peter Gabriel, Kate Bush, and Yaz. It hits a teen's fear of loneliness and isolation from the group especially hard. Gordon's adaptation of William Wharton's (Birdy) World War II novel, A Midnight Clear, is also well worth seeking out for its beauty and emotional power. (And well you're at it, go read Cormier's single adult novel, Fade. It's an all-timer.)

Buy The Chocolate War on DVD from Amazon.

lord of the flies

Lord of the Flies (1990)

A group of schoolboys wash up on a deserted island after their plane crashes into the ocean, and without a competent adult to lead them, the boys quickly descend into chaos. It's what comes next that terrifies, though, as that chaos gives way to a violent order.

Peter Brook's 1963 adaptation of William Golding's beloved novel is held in high regard, but this second go at it was unfairly maligned upon release as redundant and inferior. It's neither of those things, as the tale is both eternally timely and beautifully told. The book's themes come through well as the group's shift towards brutality and fear-based group-think happens naturally and believably, Piggy's arc strikes an emotional chord, and the island's lush, colorful beauty flies in the face of the boys' ugly behavior. The end chase and final shot are fantastic and build a strong sense of momentum that rises before crashing down into reality.

The cast of kids feature mostly unknowns, but two stand out for the careers that followed. Balthazar Getty takes the lead as the boy who holds fast to his morals in the face of a violent and cruel mob mentality, and a young James Badge Dale (pictured above) is the film's sensitive soul who would later go on to star in more action-oriented films like 13 Hours, Spectral, and The Grey.

Buy Lord of the Flies on Blu-ray from Amazon.

the bumblebee flies anyway

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway (1999)

A teen awakens in a hospital with no memory of what brought him there, and the answers don't come too easily. As he tries putting the pieces together, he also finds adults trying to impede his search and a teen girl who makes the answers that much more important.

That's right, it's another Robert Cormier adaptation, and no, I'm not sorry about it. This tale plays out as something of a mystery along the lines of another Cormier novel/film, I Am the Cheese, and it builds to a satisfying denouement. The boy's journey towards the truth grows complicated by his relationship with the girl, and young love becomes a motivator for him in unexpected ways. The story examines the things that mean the most to us, and why, and putting the burden of discovery on a teenager adds an extra layer of confusion, desire, and hope.

Elijah Wood takes the lead here, and while his big blue eyes do most of the work , and he delivers an emotionally dense performance as someone whose exploration into his past endangers his possible future. Rachel Leigh Cook plays the girl, and Janeane Garofalo shows up in a rare non-comedic role as a doctor who most likely knows more than she's letting on.

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway is not currently available.

youth in revolt

Youth in Revolt (2009)

Nick Twisp is a typical teen with an unfulfilled desire to fornicate. A vacation trip leads him to meet and immediately fall for a girl he hopes will help rid him of the dreaded scarlet 'V' he wears across his chest, but while she's cute, smart, flirtatious, and knows her Ozu from her Miyazaki, she also has a boyfriend and a different zip code. So what's a shy, gangly boy in love to do? Go rogue, obviously, by creating a more self-assured persona named Francois Dillinger.

As coming of age novels go, C.D. Payne's 500-page tome is on the heavy side, but the film is anything but. It's a fast-moving, laugh-filled comedy that gives literal body to the dueling nature of horny teenage boys. The goal is the same as any number of teen sex comedies – have sex! – but the path poor Nick takes involves fraud, deception, and massive amounts of property damage. Fans of the recent Call Me By Your Name might also appreciate a certain line of dialogue involving a tomato.

As great as the supporting cast is – Steve Buscemi, Portia Doubleday, Fred Willard, Justin Long, Rooney Mara, M. Emmett Walsh – the film belongs to Michael Cera and Michael Cera, who play Nick and Francois, respectively. He begins the movie in basically the same role he played in Superbad, but when Francois appears Cera manages to steal the movie not only from the other actors, but also from himself. His demeanor, expressions, voice, and even the way he carries himself all change visibly and dramatically from Nick to Francois. And he is hilarious.

Buy Youth in Revolt on Blu-ray from Amazon.

tomorrow when the war began

Tomorrow, When the War Began (2009)

When a foreign military invades Australia, the streets light up in battle, but it's not too long before the intruders gain the upper hand and take control. A group of locals slip through their fingers, though, and now those teenagers must find a way to work together and start fighting back.

This is a solid action film debut from director Stuart Beattie, who, before this point, was best known for writing Collateral, 30 Days of Night, Pirates of the Caribbean, and more. Okay, fine, he's still best known for his writing as this film went nowhere fast in North America, but the point remains that it's a fun little action picture. The teens are a mix of personalities who learn that they're bonded by their desire not only to survive, but also to fight back. Gunfights, explosions, and vehicular action keep things moving in between hormonal outbursts.

Yes, of course it's essentially Red Dawn with an Australian accent, but John Marsden's multi-book series offers up a far larger canvas against which to unfold the story. The film encompasses just the first book, and as it's been nine years the odds seem slim we'll get a sequel, but a second adaptation actually went the television route and might be worth seeking out.

Buy Tomorrow, When the War Began on DVD from Amazon.

beautiful creatures

Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Ethan is a teenager whose ambition and knowledge have outgrown his small Southern town, but his desire to leave hits a speed bump when he meets Lena. She also feels ready to move beyond her family, but as the two grow close they also discover secrets that connect them and make escape seem unlikely.

Of all the YA films that failed to connect with audience,s this is the one that hurts the most. I never read the books, but this is a terrifically entertaining movie that immediately gets right what so many of these films don't. Ethan and Lena are relatable from the very beginning as interesting, fleshed-out teens, and Ethan especially comes across as extremely likeable, smart, and humorous. Much of the film itself shares those traits with a casual likeability, some very funny jokes, and a strong production design capturing the beauty of Southern exteriors alongside some CG-assisted interiors.

It has a killer cast too with Alden Ehrenreich (Solo: A Star Wars Story), Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons, Viola Davis, Margo Martindale, and more. The talented and lovely Emmy Rossum also stars and is alone worth the price of admission (or a rental, as the case may be). It's a shame that films like Divergent and Percy Jackson got sequels but this gem didn't, as unlike those lesser creations, Beautiful Creatures never talks down to its audience. These teens are intelligent, literate, and engaging, and they never feel like cardboard cutouts playing "hero." Give this one a watch so you too can be depressed that we'll never get a sequel.

Buy Beautiful Creatures on Blu-ray/DVD from Amazon or rent via Amazon Video.