There have been so young adult movies based on popular literature in recent years that some audiences might think that the so-called “YA” genre is new. Ha! Hollywood history is actually littered with classy (and sometimes crass) adaptations of novels that were either intended for young readers, or gradually became accepted into the “Young Adult” genre as it became codified and popularized in the 1950s. Many of these young adult movies are great, but most can’t hold a candle to the classic young adult movies that have already found a permanent place in the pop culture consciousness.
With the latest of these young adult movies, Maze Runner: The Scorch Trials, hitting theaters on September 18, we thought now would be a great time to look back on the best films in the genre… many are very recent, but some are outright timeless.
Best Young Adult Movies: The Hunger Games
The ongoing series based on the novels by Suzanne Collins are a blockbuster sensation, featuring a cast of memorable characters and a heroine who takes a triumphant and dramatic stand against of oppression in a truly dystopian future. In world where celebrity is the most valuable commodity, and advertising is used to control the masses… wait, were we talking about the present or the future? Some problematic early action sequences and the distinct sense that the most recent film was padded push The Hunger Games movies down a few notches, but the release of Mockingjay – Part 2 later this year could either shoot this series right up the list, or knock it off altogether.
Best Young Adult Movies: Coraline
Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s beloved 2002 novella tells the story of a young girl who flees her humdrum family in favor of a fantasy realm where everyone is a lot more interesting, but soon discovers that her “Other Mother” has a terrifying agenda. Gorgeous imagery and eccentric, thought-provoking notions courtesy of the one of the finest fantasy authors of our time make Coraline a contemporary classic and certainly among the best young adult movies.
Best Young Adult Movies: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Rather than take the risk that Hollywood would sand the edges off of his 1999 epistolary novel, author Stephen Chbosky elected to direct The Perks of Being a Wallflower himself. It was a wise move. This coming-of-age story stars Logan Lerman (Fury) as a troubled teenager navigating life and love in high school in the early 1980s, and ultimately confronting a shocking trauma that Chbosky’s film doesn’t shy away from one bit. A wonderful cast, a rocking soundtrack and an unerring sense of honesty are just some of the perks of watching Chbosky’s impressive motion picture.
Best Young Adult Movies: When Marnie Was There
It’s only fitting that Joan G. Robinson’s 1967 young adult novel When Marnie Was There would also be the last film produced by Japan’s legendary Studio Ghibli: the novel is required reading for filmmakers at the studio that brought you such animated classics as My Neighbor Totoro and Spirited Away. The story of an introverted young girl who makes a mysterious, possibly otherworldly friend on summer vacation is haunting and emotionally devastating, but also kind and beautiful. Director Hiromasa Yonebayashi (The Secret World of Arrietty) films this lovely tale with thoughtful and atmosphere to spare.
Best Young Adult Movies: The NeverEnding Story
Wolfgang Petersen‘s timeless adaptation of Michael Ende’s fantasy novel only covers the first half of the book, but don’t bother watching the sequel (or rather, don’t bother watching any of them). The NeverEnding Story may be a magical adventure with dragons and magic and racing snails, but it’s also a disturbing saga about the far-reaching ramifications of losing our collective sense of wonder. A realm filled with fantasy creatures is being eaten away by The Nothingness, and only the imagination of the young boy reading their adventures can possibly save them. Incredible production design and visual effects that still hold up today bolster Peterson’s breathtaking vision of a world where our dreams are going extinct.
Best Young Adult Movies: The Spectacular Now
Tim Tharp’s novel turned into an expertly-acted drama about a teenaged alcoholic (Miles Teller) who sacrifices himself at every opportunity, at great cost to his own life and the lives of others. Along the way, he romances a wonderful young woman (Shailene Woodley), tries to rekindle his relationship with his old girlfriend and even helps her new boyfriend win her back. Director James Ponsoldt (The End of the Tour) tackles serious issues and touchstone coming-of-age moments with such a deft and distinctive touch, you might not initially realize just how universal The Spectacular Now really is. You will marvel at the absorbing storyline and expert performances either way, which is exactly why it earns a spot on our list of the best young adult movies.
Best Young Adult Movies: Lord of the Flies (1963)
Nobel Prize-winning author William Golding published his dystopian vision of children turning feral on a deserted island in 1954, and since then The Lord of the Flies has become required reading in schools throughout the world, and has been turned into two solid films. The 1963 version is more evocative, the 1990 version is more direct. Stick with the original. Directed by Peter Brook (Marat/Sade), the 1963 adaptation is gorgeously photographed in stark black and white, and it seems all the more savage for the classical presentation. It remains just as shocking today as it was when it was originally produced.
Best Young Adult Movies: Little Women
Louisa May Alcott’s beloved novel about the wonderful March sisters has been adapted over many times, most famously by George Cukor in 1933 and by Gillian Armstrong in 1994. Both films are wonderful, but the more recent version feels more earthy and lived in, like a cozy cottage in cinematic form. The saga about four young women on the verge of adulthood, fighting amongst themselves and persevering against all odds, retains its wonderful ability to jerk the tears and touch the heart. In the tomboyish Jo March, Oscar nominee Winona Ryder found her richest role, and her interpretation remains the gold standard, even above the fabulous Katherine Hepburn (yes, we went there).
Best Young Adult Movies: Harry Potter
The genius of J.K. Rowling‘s Harry Potter novels is in the story’s wonderful ability to grow up along with the reader, evolving over the course of seven books – and eight films – from childish wish fulfillment fantasy into an embittered drama about sacrifice and death. Individually, none of these blockbuster epics are particularly incredible. Taken as a whole they represent an astounding journey to adulthood, introducing audiences to a richly-realized alternate world of magic that, in the end, feels disturbingly like the troubled real world that Harry Potter – and the audience – so desperately longed to escape from in the first place. It may technically be eight films, but it’s counting as one on our list of the best young adult movies.
Best Young Adult Movies: The Wizard of Oz
If The Wizard of Oz had been made for the first time today, fans of the novels would never have forgiven the filmmakers for making so many egregious changes to L. Frank Baum’s original text. Fortunately, The Wizard of Oz was produced in 1939 by filmmakers who took serious chances and wound up creating one of the most delightful motion pictures ever filmed. A young girl longs to leave her dust bowl home, and winds up over the rainbow in a fairy tale world populated by magical analogues of all the friends, family and enemies she left behind. Unforgettable musical numbers, lovely production design and a then-revolutionary shift from black & white to gorgeous Technicolor cement The Wizard of Oz‘s place in the cinematic pantheon, where it continues to enchant new audiences in every passing generation.
Best Young Adult Movies: To Kill a Mockingbird
Harper Lee’s unforgettable, Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of racial tension in 1930s Alabama features one of the most iconic performances in motion picture history, in which Gregory Peck plays a beacon of dignity in a time period of socially accepted cruelty. (The part earned Peck the Academy Award for Best Actor, and justifiably so.) Robert Mulligan’s adaptation has been hailed as a powerful indictment of racism and a suspenseful legal drama, and is generally considered one of the best motion pictures in history. The book will be read for generations to come, and the movie will last just as long.
What do you think of our Best Young Adult Movies list? Are there any films that you think should have made the cut? Let us know in the comments below!