Gayle Forman’s young-adult novel If I Stay won’t be published until April, but it’s already being adapted for Hollywood by the studio behind the blockbuster vampire movie. Will it eclipse Twilight?
The night before Twilight opened in November, teenage girls all across the country pitched tents outside of movie theaters. Summit Entertainment—the film’s distributor—knew it had a goldmine.
The film enjoyed a $70 million opening weekend, catapulting the best-selling book series into an even higher stratosphere. To date, the Twilight books have sold over 22 million copies, author Stephenie Meyer has been named USA Today’s Author of 2008, and her four books locked down all four top spots on its best-selling book list.
“There was a question that haunted me for years,” says author Gayle Forman. “What would you do if the rest of your family had died, and you could choose to go with them? What would you do?”
As the dust settles from the film’s tremendous success, another tween star is looming: If I Stay, a forthcoming novel by Gayle Forman. Forman is an upbeat, Brooklyn-based mom who used to write social-justice stories for Seventeen. She has published one young-adult novel, Sisters in Sanity, and a travel memoir, You Can’t Get There From Here.
Sarah Burnes of Gernert Co., Forman’s agent, was also the acquiring editor of Alice Sebold’s bestselling The Lovely Bones, to which If I Stay has already been compared. If I Stay is due out next month and has already been optioned by Summit, and Twilight’s director, Catherine Hardwicke, has signed on to direct.
If I Stay is the story of Mia, a senior in an Oregon high school who is an avid cellist bound for Juilliard. On a snow day, Mia and her family drive to visit friends, and suffer a brutal head-on collision. Mia is left in a coma, and yet is fully aware that her parents and younger brother have died. She watches events unfold around her from her bed in the Intensive-care unit, and is left with the decision: whether to die with her family, or live in a world without them.
“There was a question that’s haunted me for years,” Forman told The Daily Beast about her creative process. “What would you do if the rest of your family had died, and you were cognizant of this, and you could choose to go with them? What would you do, if you had to choose? And one day out of the blue, Mia arrived—a totally fictional, fully formed 17-year-old cello player—to answer it.”
Similar to The Lovely Bones—which also features an out-of-body narrator—there was initial dispute over whether If I Stay was a YA book because of its sophisticated and tragic content. (ultimately, Bones was not marketed as YA). The book centers on the choice between life and death, a weighty subject for teens. And while If I Stay will now be released in the U.S. as a young-adult novel, it is being marketed as both YA and adult fiction in Britain—an attempt by its publisher to attract a wider audience.
Now that Summit has acquired If I Stay, the company faces challenges similar to those it confronted in the making and marketing the film of Twilight. Can it remain true to the book and yet broaden its appeal to an older audience?
In bringing Twilight to the screen last year, producers faced the classic dilemma of whether to adhere to Meyer’s original story or to assert creative license. Erik Feig, president of worldwide production and acquisitions at Summit Entertainment, told The Daily Beast that they didn’t want to risk disappointing Twilight fans by substantially reinterpreting the original story.
“We made the decision only because we were aware of a growing fan base,” Feig said of the choice to adhere closely to Meyer’s text. “A teen who is reading a great YA book is just so unbelievably in that world that they go to see the movie because they have the movie already in their head, and they just want to see it on screen. If that movie betrays the movie in their head, they’re angry.”
This is a cautionary tale for If I Stay. Because the book is not yet out, there’s no way of predicting what its fan base will look like–and whether or not it will be as passionate as Twilight’s. Summit now eagerly awaits If I Stay’s release in order to tap into its fan-base for insight into how to make the movie.
“The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that when you have a movie that’s set in high school, people who are in college don’t want to see it,” Feig said. He is considering adapting Forman’s plot so that Mia is a freshman at Juilliard – not a senior in high school – thereby allowing a slightly older actress to play her part and opening up the movie to older viewers.
Feig has praised If I Stay for its “crossover” appeal, knowing that the better-selling YA books and films are generally those which attract both teenagers and adults. Yet, while crossover seems ideal for booksellers and studio heads, it’s not always perceived that way by teens. “There are certain times when it gets a little creepy, seeing all the moms reading Twilight,” said Stephanie de Andrade, a 15-year-old from Sao Paolo, Brazil, who blogs about YA under the name “ Reviewer X”.
Indeed, part of If I Stay’s appeal, according to those who have read it, is the authenticity of Forman’s voice. She captures “teen talk” effortlessly, which is essential to attracting—and retaining—teen readers. “I’m 38 years old,” Forman said of her characters’ voices. “I can’t talk that way. I do talk like a Valley Girl, though, so I can write that way. It’s just arrested development.”
There’s a lingering misconception that young-adult books are the poor cousins of adult literature. The YA genre has long been viewed as a finishing school of sorts; if and when YA authors suddenly improve, maybe—just maybe—they’ll graduate to big kid lit.
“I noticed averted gazes and unabashed disinterest of literary acquaintances whenever I mentioned my novel was young adult,” Cures for Heartbreak author Margo Rabb wrote in the New York Times last year.
With the current economic crisis, the publishing industry has been shaken. Yet despite all odds, young-adult literature has not only continued to sell, it has thrived: According to the Association of American Publishers, sales of children’s YA paperbacks increased from 39.7 million copies in December 2007 to 54.4 million a year later. In total, YA paperback sales increased 6.4 percent from 2007 to 2008, and are projected to rise even further this year. “It’s one of the strongest categories in a challenging retail environment right now,” said Tina Jordan, the Association’s vice president.
Industry insiders like Paul Crichton, director of publicity at Simon & Schuster Children’s Publishing, speculate further about the popularity of YA. First, he explains, is what he calls the “ Harry Potter Effect”—middle-schoolers who started on the Harry Potter series have now matured into YA. Another possible cause is teens’ increased exposure to mature material on the Internet. “The YA market is growing up faster than in years past, because of news, blogs, and Internet content,” Crichton explains. “They’re now able to handle older material.”
Undoubtedly, Hollywood’s attention to the genre—and the film success of Harry Potter and Twilight—has helped refocus attention on the original books. Suddenly, the once ghetto-ized YA authors are earning respect and entering literature’s mainstream.
“No longer are they the farm team, ready to graduate to adult books,” said Farrin Jacobs, executive editor of HarperTeen, Harper Collins’ YA division. “ Twilight really did help. The grassroots appeal of it helped the market take notice.”
“Critics haven’t been in the YA section of the bookstore for a while, and they don’t realize that it’s changed a lot,” said the teen blogger de Andrade. “I think making movies is a great way of bringing attention to YA literature.”
Advance buzz on If I Stay suggests that the book has already had a deep impact on readers of all ages. One adult YA blogger, Persnickety Snark, wrote after reading the book: “I have had a continuous stream of tears running down my cheeks for the last few hours. My house mate asked 'why do you put yourself through it?' I had to think about it, for a fraction of a second, before I answered 'because every word is worth it'.”
Feig agrees. “I haven’t been able to shut up about it,” he said of If I Stay. “I keep saying to everyone, you have to read this book. It’s so good. I think it has the potential to have great word-of-mouth the way Twilight did.” According to Feig, the If I Stay movie will be released in 2010. And if all goes according to plan, it’ll be the hottest thing since teen vampires.
Isabel Wilkinson is a Daily Beast intern who attends Columbia Journalism School. She has written for New York magazine and Women’s Wear Daily.