TV & Movies

Anne T. Donahue Is Here for a Sweet Valley High Movie...

...with a few caveats

The cover of 'Slam Book Fever' from the Sweet Valley High series

This week, it was announced that Sweet Valley High was finally coming to the big screen, and Kirsten “Kiwi” Smith and Harper Dill will co-write the adaptation. So fortunately, in an era defined by (mediocre) reboots, this one seems promising. After all, Smith is the mastermind behind Legally Blonde and 10 Things I Hate About You (two of the greatest movies ever made, thank you), while Dill writes for a Fox family comedy called The Mick. And while all other information—a release date, the cast—is still up in the air, we can sleep soundly knowing Sweet Valley High will be funny, smart and (hopefully) include the bend-and-snap.

But if it really wants to make an impact, it needs a dark twist.

Let me explain. When we think about the year’s most impactful reboots, they’re intense. Wonder Woman is a powerful and emotional take on a graphic novel (and 1970s TV show), while Riverdale entrenches its town and characters into a film noir setting. Anne—the series based on Anne of Green Gables—is a gritty look at the beloved Canadian heroine (think: less puffed sleeves, more painful memories of being abused at the orphanage), and It is making a splash for quite possibly taking the latest incarnation of Pennywise too far.

But we’ve also been treated to a buffet of mediocrity. Baywatch, King Arthur, The Ghost in the Shell, and The Mummy all failed to make a mark on audiences, and may we never forget the tragedy that was Dirty Dancing Live. It’s easy to look at an existing movie or TV show and believe it can be modernized because we have the means to do so. In theory, The Rock as Mitch Buchannon is a dream, and Charlie Hunnam in Guy Ritchie’s take on a knight’s tale should work. But the best reboots don’t rely on big names or action sequences (or poorly-realized whitewashing like Scar-Jo in Ghost in the Shell). Instead, they’re built on storytelling.

Which is why there’s hope for Sweet Valley High.

On top of the script now being in the hands of two women I choose to trust, Sweet Valley High 2.0 also has the luxury of existing in a post-Riverdale world. And, like the Archie Andrews franchise, it can use that world to merge the teen experience with adult problems. No, not every reboot needs to revolve around murder (nor does it need Skeet Ulrich as the head of a biker gang) (but I definitely wouldn’t complain if they did), but neither high school nor adulthood is free of darkness. In fact, the most memorable teen series have always been twinged with melodrama or straight-up heartbreak, and the most memorable stories see protagonists as flawed, messy and even damaged. (You know, like real people.) Like the Sweet Valley High books, the original Archie comics were pretty bland, and one-dimensional, and most definitely PG-13. So there’s a lot of room for adding depth to the Wakefield Twins, and the world they exist in.

Which is where the year’s failed reboots went wrong. Baywatch didn’t take time to develop its characters, and Ghost in the Shell tragically miscast its lead. The Mummy failed to embrace the self-effacing humour that defined the original, and King Arthur… well, can any of us say anything about it, other than the fact that it exists? (Nope.)

And true, Sweet Valley High is a movie and not a TV show, which means that unlike Riverdale, it will have less time to develop characters and unpack a storyline. But that’s when we look to a movie like Wonder Woman or this year’s incarnation of Spider-Man, which masterfully showed audiences who their characters were and what conflicts they were facing within an a reasonable time span. (Instead of a too-long reboot like Transformers, which over-explained the backstory.) Plus, let’s consider what came before it: Legally Blonde told the story of a determined young woman who overcame systemic misogyny to graduate at the top of Harvard Law, while 10 Things I Hate About You summarized a Shakespearean drama with the inclusion of Heath Ledger singing, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.” There’s no reason Sweet Valley High can’t be made relevant in 2017 for viewers who have outgrown the Francine Pascal books.

As long as it doesn’t become a parody of itself. It’s fun to paint pop culture with a nostalgia-tinted brush, but we’ve seen where that can become a misstep. Nostalgia wasn’t enough to bring us to Baywatch, nor to breathe life into Dirty Dancing’s 2017 edition. (Nostalgia is not a plot point—it’s an accessory and an accent.)

Not that I’m worried. Anyone responsible for Elle Woods becoming best friends with Vivienne Kensington and leaving Warner Huntington in the dust is someone who will surely do justice to the legacy of Jessica and Elizabeth Wakefield.

More from Anne T. Donahue:
Anne T. Donahue on Prince William and Prince Harry’s New Diana Doc
Anne T. Donahue: One Year Post #KimExposedTaylorParty, Is KK Still Relevant?
Anne T. Donahue on What We’re Really Saying When We Say Jonah Hill Looks Good