Tweenage kicks: Twilight, The Hunger Games and… Romeo and Juliet?

Stand down, Twilight hunks... Romeo's going to be the next heart-throb, says Andrew Collins

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Remember the buzz around Douglas Booth’s appearance as Pip in the BBC’s Great Expectations last Christmas? It’ll become screams if the publicists behind the forthcoming Julian Fellowes-adapted Romeo and Juliet have anything to do with it. Booth and co-star Hailee Steinfeld – she who wowed everyone in the remake of True Grit – find themselves tipped to succeed Robert Pattinson and Kristen Stewart as the new crown prince and princess of the Tween demographic.

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“Fellowes’s Romeo will put Twilight stars in the shade”, ran one Daily Mail headline after four minutes of the film were premiered at Cannes. One of the movie’s producers, Ileen Maisel, gushed, “It’s a classic story that we want every teenager in the world to come see.”

This would not be the first movie to be marketed at teenagers. But the success of the Twilight franchise – first as novels sold to what’s known in the book trade as the young adult market, now as films – seems to be almost entirely due to Tweens. That is, the female age bracket who are, to borrow a phrase that’s probably being marker-penned across a thousand flipcharts as we speak, “too old for toys, too young for boys”. We might add, “too old for High School Musical, too young for Mean Girls”.

The age of Tweens is something of a moveable set of goalposts, but we’re talking about over-10s and under-14s. When I turned 14 in 1979, I was allowed to go and see my first AA-certificate film, National Lampoon’s Animal House. It may seem tame now, but it struck me as the rudest film I could imagine and was a rite of passage. This is not how Tween films work.

The general idea has been refined by the Twilight series, which began in 2008 and is currently up to part one of the fourth instalment, Breaking Dawn (with part two due in November). Tweens are fed a carefully mixed cocktail of harmless My Guy romance and an explicitly chaste kind of sexual promise, so that the intoxicating effect is aspirational and at the same time safe or as safe as any saga about vampires and werewolves can be.

When Twilight director Catherine Hardwicke turned to fairy tales with Red Riding Hood last year, she cleverly cast Mamma Mia! and Dear John romantic lead Amanda Seyfried, and Shiloh Fernandez, known to Twilight fans as the guy who almost came to play vampire Edward Cullen. Such button-pushing is key to sending out the right messages to this powerful demographic. I attended a screening packed with competition winners, who squealed with delight as the hunky cast took to the stage before the film. It was more like a pop concert. This year’s Kristen Stewart-starring Snow White and the Huntsman was similar.

The first Twilight made $392.6 million worldwide. Its fans became known as “Twihards”, of course, and had to be fed. Most recent sequel Breaking Dawn Part One made $705 million. It is little wonder that the CEO of Lionsgate, new owners of the franchise, hinted that the series would continue even after the literary saga reaches its conclusion – possibly on TV. He referred to the brand’s “ongoing value”, in the way that CEOs do.

The Hunger Games is another “young adult” franchise now in the process of bounding from page to screen… yes, a dystopian sci-fi saga, but this time with feminist “girl power” in the shape of the book’s teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, who must compete in a multi-player battle to the death. The Gary Ross-directed movie starring Jennifer Lawrence managed to dilute the violent action down to a 12A certificate – to the detriment of its narrative power, if you ask me… but a commercially astute move. It made $677.7 million, and the first sequel, Catching Fire, is due at the end of 2013.

Although Romeo and Juliet errs towards the soppy, the Tween market is not interested in pap. A hit British movie from 2008, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging may have had the words full frontal (which were part of the source novel’s title) excised for release, but, with its indie soundtrack and accent on kissing and being dumped, was anything but saccharine. The Tween market can’t be patronised. In Breaking Dawn, the two lovers conceive a baby, albeit on their wedding night. In Hunger Games, Katniss kills, but only to survive.

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Studio execs, perhaps with Tweenage daughters of their own, know exactly how to tap this lucrative market. This is surely why the current superhero reboot The Amazing Spider-Man has shifted focus away from the Daily Bugle, where Tobey Maguire’s Peter Parker worked as a photographer, and has Andrew Garfield pushed up against the lockers in high school and actually kissing a girl when he’s not in his mask. A superhero movie that’s not exclusively aimed at teenage boys? Who’d have thought it?