The Best YA Adaptations You Probably Haven’t Seen

maze runner

(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.

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