The folks at Criticwire have a weekly survey of questions for movie critics. This week’s question is especially important.
Q: Many of the positive reviews for “The Fault in Our Stars” boil down to either “It’s good for what it is” or “It gets the job done.” But in an essay at Slate that deals in part with John Green’s source novel, Ruth Graham says that one of the reasons more adult readers have turned to Young Adult novels is because it offers the pleasures of literary fiction without its challenges: “Adults,” she writes, “should feel embarrassed about reading literature written for children.” So, as a critic, what’s your feeling about measuring a movie—whether it’s “The Fault in Our Stars” or “X-Men: Days of Future Past” — against what it sets out to do as opposed to what it could do? (Likewise, do you damn “Orange Is the New Black” for not being “Oz”?) Do you take it on its own terms, or do you set your own?
One of the reasons more adult readers have turned to Young Adult novels is that they are so damn good. There is a reason that YA and graphic novel sales are flourishing while what is considered traditional “literary” fiction is collapsing on itself, smothered by its preciousness, pretension, and neurasthenic post-modernism. It is often said that if “The Catcher in the Rye” was published today, it would be categorized as a YA novel. And yet it is still read with thoughtful appreciation for its art and depth, even by those who believe they confine themselves to work with literary aspirations.
This is not to say that best-selling YA books are all literature, any more than best-selling books for adults meet that standard. But too often books are put in the YA category just because they are about teenagers. Well, so is “Romeo and Juliet.” Stories are about teenagers for the same reason that stories are about war and death and vampires and zombies and MacGuffins that have to be found or the world will explode in 24 hours. As Augustus says in “The Fault in Our Stars,” it’s a metaphor. The heightened emotions and discoveries of that time of life intensify the elements of a story to provide a dramatic framework.
Graham should be ashamed by trying to embarrass anyone who is moved by a work of fiction. One of the most liberating discoveries of my life was learning that no one’s childhood is long enough to read all of the great books written for children and teenagers. I reread my favorites with increased pleasure and deeper understanding. I read new authors with great appreciation, and keep in mind that one generation’s low culture is quite often understood to be literature by the next.
That said, all movies should be measured against their own aspirations and the expectations of the intended audience. Otherwise, all movie reviews would read: “Well, it’s not ‘Citizen Kane.’”