Asian Americans in Young Adult Book-to-Movie Adaptations

While it’s been a great year for Asian American talents in television with the orders of ‘Fresh Off the Boat’ and ‘Selfie,’ AA actors have also been landing some breakout roles in Hollywood blockbusters thanks to young adult novels.

Two YA movie adaptations with Asian American characters that especially caught my attention are Divergent and Maze Runner.

Based off of on the best-selling trilogy by Veronica Roth and directed by Neil Burger, Divergent is set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia that is divided into factions based on human virtues.  It follows the story of a 16-year-old named Tris who is a Divergent – someone who doesn’t conform to any one faction and is considered a threat to the government.  Along the way, Tris becomes acquainted with several people including her advisor Tori, who is played by none other than Maggie Q.


The Hawaiian native is known for her badass roles, particularly in the television series Nikita, and it’s upheld in Divergent as well.  Q’s character plays an even more significant part towards the end of Divergent and into its sequel, Insurgent, which would also be featuring more Asian Americans that is, if casting is done correctly.  One of the key characters in Insurgent is Jack Kang, leader of the Candor faction, who is described as “handsome, with short black hair and warm, slanted eyes, like Tori’s, and high cheekbones.”

The other significant series kicking off later this year is Maze Runner, written by James Dashner and directed by Wes Ball.  Similar to the dystopian nature of DivergentMaze Runner is about a boy who is trapped in a giant maze with a community of other boys, and their ultimate goal is to escape before their lives are taken.  Among them is Minho, a veteran Runner and one of the community’s head leaders, who is played by Ki Hong Lee.


You probably know of or have seen Lee in various projects, including several short films with Wong Fu Productions.  His casting for this role is a big deal, as Minho is one of the main characters and an overall fan-favorite among readers.  Throughout the story, Minho acts as the protagonist Thomas’ mentor and later becomes his best friend.  Hopefully Maze Runner will do well in the box office, so we can see more of Lee in the future.

Although these two potentially successful series could mean more screen time or opportunities for Asian Americans, there’s still a long way to go.  The LA Times recently listed “25 different young adult novels that have been adapted into feature films.”  While some films were more successful than others, upon additional research, very few of these adaptations feature an Asian American within the cast.  However, their roles are fairly minor.

Take Twilight for example.  Two Asian Americans were casted: Boo Boo Stewart as Seth Clearwater and Justin Chon as Eric Yorkie.  Hunger Games fares only slightly better with 3 Asian American actors playing nameless characters, who die very quickly with little screen time and no lines.

district 5 tribute boy
Chris Mark as the District 5 male tribute
district 7 tribute boy
Sam Ly as the District 7 male tribute
district 8 tribute boy
Samuel Tan as the District 8 male tribute

So, how is it that after all these book-to-movie adaptations over the last 20 years, there has not been one with an Asian as the lead role?  Yes, we’re making progress; yes, we do have Asian Americans who are involved in the production process; and yes, there is potential for the big films coming out this year.  But I’m still not convinced.

According to Diversity in YA, among the 123 young adult novels on Publishers Weekly’s 2013 Bestsellers List, only 12 titles have a main character of color.  Of color!  And among those twelve, there are only six individual characters – just four of them being Asian or half-Asian.

PW 2013 Bestsellers List - Diversity in YAPW 2013 Bestsellers YA novels - Diversity

With so many book-to-film adaptations making their way to the big screen, what will ultimately determine the possibility of casting more Asian American talents in the future is featuring more Asian American characters in the source material.

If the author’s writing lends itself to an excellent plot and relatable characters, then surely, it would lead to popularity among readers and potentially become a bestseller.  If the writing and popularity catch the attention of filmmakers, then there is a possibility of a movie adaptation.  From there, we can only hope for the best. After all, Hollywood could always cast an all-white cast, like Akira.  We all know how that went down.  In flames.

Have an Asian American talent in mind for a possible YA movie adaptation? Share with us in the comments below!

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