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How BookTok Can Help Write the Next Chapter of Teen Dramas

Book-to-screen adaptations are nothing new, but TikTok trends are influencing the young adult TV landscape in interesting ways.
  • Clockwise: The Summer I Turned Pretty Still; We Were Liars book cover; They Both Die at the End book cover; Heartstopper still (Photos: Netflix/Delacorte Press/HarperTeen; Primetimer graphic)
    Clockwise: The Summer I Turned Pretty Still; We Were Liars book cover; They Both Die at the End book cover; Heartstopper still (Photos: Netflix/Delacorte Press/HarperTeen; Primetimer graphic)

    These days, watching teen dramas feels a little like taking a trip to the library. Studios have always loved established IP, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that so many of today’s biggest YA shows are based on books. There’s Netflix’s Heartstopper, Prime Video’s The Summer I Turned Pretty, the recently canceled but still wildly popular Shadow and Bone, and the upcoming We Were Liars, to name just a few. Even Paramount+’s School Spirits was adapted from a not-yet published graphic novel. In recent years, Hollywood has also begun tapping into a new kind of literary source that just might hold the key to the future of teen dramas: BookTok.

    As you might deduce from the name, BookTok is a community on TikTok that’s dedicated to the discussion of books. It’s especially popular amongst fans of young adult fiction, with a large bulk of these readers and influencers being teenage girls or women. This isn’t just some niche internet thing, either — it’s having a real impact on reading habits. A 2022 Publishers Association study found that 59% of the 16- to 25-year-olds surveyed agreed that BookTok had helped them find their passion for reading, and 68% said it led them to read a book they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

    Bookstores and publishers are also paying close attention to the phenomenon. Barnes & Noble has an entire section on its website coined “Teens & YA: BookTok,” agents are tracking the latest #BookTok trends, and there have even been BookTok festivals. Some authors credit BookTok for launching their careers and giving underrepresented voices visibility; others worry that it prioritizes “going viral” above all else.

    Of course, YA book-to-screen adaptations have been around since long before TikTok was even an app. Cinema thrived on the genre’s popularity throughout the 2010s as studios produced numerous hit blockbuster franchises like Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Maze Runner. For better or worse, we’ve come full circle, with many of these now being adapted again for television. Disney+ launched Season 1 of Percy Jackson and the Olympians in 2023, Max is prioritizing a Harry Potter reboot slated for 2026, and Lionsgate recently greenlit an animated Twilight series.

    So what makes BookTok any different from past trends? While adaptations themselves are nothing new, there’s been a rise in adapting contemporary, less high-concept stories. Take Heartstopper, which is based on the graphic novels by Alice Oseman and centers on the unlikely romance between popular high school rugby player Nick (Kit Connor) and shy, openly gay Charlie (Joe Locke). The series quickly shot to the top of Netflix’s charts when it premiered in 2022, likely helped in part by already having a massive existing fanbase. Both the graphic novels and the show are incredibly popular on TikTok — the hashtag #Heartstopper has literally amassed over a billion views.

    A simple concept like Heartstopper’s might not have caught studio executives’ eyes a decade ago, but its success on BookTok demonstrates that young adult stories don’t necessarily have to be big and flashy to gain an audience. We’ve already seen that contemporary YA books like John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars can become hugely successful movies, so why not try the same thing with television? Hulu’s 2019 limited series adaptation of Green’s Looking for Alaska proves such novels can make for great teen dramas.

    BookTok has also helped shine a light on YA books that previously flew under the radar. Adam Silvera’s They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera experienced a sudden huge increase in sales five years after its publication. “I kept commenting to my readers, ‘Hey, don’t know what’s happening, but there’s been a surge in sales lately, so grateful that everybody’s finding the story years later,’” Silvera told NBC News in 2021. “And then that’s when a reader was like, ‘I’m seeing it on BookTok.’” The novel, which became a New York Times bestseller, is now being adapted into a Netflix series with Bridgerton creator Chris Van Dusen at the helm.

    E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars by E. Lockhart was initially published in 2014 and then notably landed back on the bestsellers list in 2020 — right as the novel experienced a resurgence on BookTok. A TV series adaptation is currently in the works at Prime Video, and former Vampire Diaries boss Julie Plec is behind the project. Once again, talk about coming full circle.

    Although trends have shifted with BookTok, many recent YA adaptations still contain a lot of the same elements that made past teen dramas so successful. Consider The Vampire Diaries and The Summer I Turned Pretty, both of which are based on novels. One is about sexy vampires, and the other is a coming-of-age love story that will probably make you cry. But despite their marked differences in tone and genre, both teen dramas still largely revolve around a love triangle involving two brothers, and they both explore universal subjects like adolescence, family dynamics, first loves, heartbreak, and even grief.

    It’s worth noting that Gossip Girl and the original Pretty Little Liars, which are often regarded as staples of the teen drama genre, were adapted from books as well. However, a key difference between these shows and recent hits like TSITP is that adaptations in today’s BookTok era seem to place more emphasis on being relatively faithful to the source material. While Prime Video’s take on The Summer I Turned Pretty contains some differences from Jenny Han’s novels, Gossip Girl, Pretty Little Liars, and The Vampire Diaries bear little resemblance to their respective literary sources at all. Maybe it’s simply because it’s becoming increasingly common for authors to be involved with adaptations, but it feels like studios these days are a bit more cognizant of the fact that these books come with built-in loyal fanbases.

    Taking cues from BookTok can also mean thinking outside the box and tapping into different forms of literary material beyond traditional books. Wattpad, a site where users can read and publish fanfiction and original stories, has positioned itself as a pipeline for streaming hits. The entertainment company has expanded into Wattpad WEBTOON Studios and Wattpad books, working directly with authors and executives to produce adaptations like Hulu’s Light as a Feather and Netflix’s After. The Kissing Booth film series and the YA drama My Life With the Walter Boys were also initially stories posted on Wattpad.

    Even Heartstopper had a nontraditional path, beginning with a webcomic on Tumblr and Tapas that gained a cult following. We’re not just seeing stories that started out as fanfiction or webcomics turn into traditionally published books, we’re witnessing them transform into hit shows and streaming movies.

    Of course, not every BookTok phenomenon is a guaranteed success for streamers. Peacock recently axed both One of Us Is Lying, based on the bestselling teen mystery book by Karen M. McManus, and Vampire Academy, adapted from the paranormal romance series by Richelle Mead, after just one season. The current teen drama landscape is admittedly uncertain as mergers and cost cutting continue in the face of industry wide changes, and former havens like The CW and Freeform shift away from the genre.

    In an ideal world, we’d also get more new, completely original YA shows instead of adapting Harry Potter yet again. But the reality is that Hollywood will always favor established IP, with studios more likely to greenlight a project with a built-in audience. And fortunately, the BookTok community has been very useful in highlighting such fanbases.

    If BookTok can continue to boost sales for authors (especially people of color and the LGBTQ+ community), keep teens invested in reading, and provide us with new hit shows, it just might be the winning tool we need to keep the YA genre going. The future of the teen drama landscape may be uncertain, but Hollywood would be foolish not to tap into this goldmine — assuming that TikTok doesn’t get banned in the U.S.

    Kelly Martinez is a TV Reporter based in Los Angeles. Her previous work can be found at BuzzFeed and People Magazine, among other outlets. She enjoys reading, spending time with her cat, and explaining the plot of Riverdale to people.