I’m a horror fan who teaches high school English, so a side effect of those combined characteristics is my knowledge of young adult (YA) fiction, and usually the darker stuff at that. I’ve read all of the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games books like most people, and I’ve come away with mixed reactions (typically, that the longer these series go on, the drier they become). Now, granted, the shelves at Barnes & Noble are not fully occupied by the best literature, yet YA has come a LONG way since I was in that particular age bracket. (Keep an eye out for 2014 film adaptations of some of the recent good stuff — Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and The Maze Runner, just to name a few).
Within this genre, you might have noticed a fast-growing section called “Teen Supernatural Romance” for which you can thank Ms. Stephenie Meyer and Ms. Charlaine Harris, among others, for. The most recent film adaptation to spring from this section is Vampire Academy, a film that, on first glance, looks like just another movie about how much high school sucks. (Yes, yes, I went there.) While I have to admit I’ve not read the six-book series by Richelle Mead, I’ve certainly heard of them and fell victim to the same soul-sucking exasperated feeling of, “Really? Another one????” Yet, I have to admit, this film about teenaged vampires and their private school in Montana doesn’t, well, you know, suck.
Rose Hathaway (Zoey Deutch, “Beautiful Creatures“) is one of a half-human, half-vampire breed known as the Dhampir, whose sworn duty is to protect the Moroi — mortal vampires who possess elemental magic powers and still need to drink human blood for sustenance, but no, “they don’t sparkle,” as Rose tells us. Her best friend is Vasilisa “Lissa” Dragomir (Lucy Fry, TV series “Mako Mermaids”), last of the royal Dragomirs, a Moroi who has yet to declare her magical aptitude (kind of a problem at this educational institution). Vampire Academy begins with Rose and Lissa being brought back to St. Vladimir’s Academy from which they escaped two years ago. We learn that Lissa’s parents and brother were tragically killed in a car accident she and Rose survived, and that Lissa is heir to the throne, and must be protected at all costs. As the girls settle back into their everyday lives of Guardian training (Rose) and magic elemental wrangling (Lissa), they are bullied and tormented by other students, because what would high school be without bullies and jealousy? (P.S. — a much better place, that’s for sure). We discover that Lissa’s life is being threatened in some very unsettling ways and a mystery emerges amid the dirty looks and Sunday services (yes, these vampires attend Sunday services at St. Vladimir’s). With the aid of her training, Rose works tirelessly to prove herself worthy of the title of Guardian, as it will someday be her full duty to protect her friend from a third breed of vampire — the Strigoi — a violent, immortal breed.
In many ways, Vampire Academy is a standard teen movie about high school — there are boys to deal with (of both the platonic and romantic types), unpopular friends to stick up for (do they always have to wear glasses and be motormouths?), and adults to mess things up (except that one really cute Guardian, Dimitri [Danila Kozlovsky, star of many Russian movies and TV shows]). Add a dash of supernatural beings, and you’ve got the type of book and consequent film adaptation that, I expect, will be enjoyed by many teenagers in the target demographic. That being said, as an adult with a penchant for the supernatural and for YA in general, I’ve definitely seen (and read) worse. It’s clear this film is adapted from a book, as its narrative flows in a clearly planned way you don’t often get from most contemporary teen films. There are misunderstandings and multiple problems to be solved, but loose ends are not left dangling here, nor are they swiftly tied up in unsatisfying, unbelievable ways. Rose is one of the strong-girls of the genre — no Bella Swan here, not even after Bella was (spoiler alert!) turned. While Rose has her romantic feelings, she’s not waiting around for protection by the boys, and she wields her still-developing physical prowess as deftly as she throws around some rather entertaining pop culture references for the older audience members (she calls a guy pal Duckie and asks her trainer, “Are you not entertained?!”).
There are a few twists and turns that will satisfy young viewers who’ve not seen or read as many of these stories as I have, but they’re pretty clear to the older set (i.e., any of us older than 25). Some fun appearances of Sarah Hyland (“Modern Family” TV series) as Natalie, the awkward friend, and Gabriel Byrne (“The Usual Suspects”) as Natalie’s father, the ailing Victor Dashkov, help round out a leading cast of relative newcomers to the silver screen. As someone meeting these characters for the first time, I was pleasantly surprised by how entertained I was by them and their story. I’m confident that readers of the series will be very satisfied by the adaptation, and general fans of the supernatural YA book/film genre will be very happy with Vampire Academy, and by the sequels sure to follow.