2020 has been quite the year, for many obvious reasons. This extended period of political unrest and medical alert brought the world to a total standstill, and left most of us stuck at home for months on end.
During this difficult time of confusion and fear, many of us turned to romance books as a necessary salve, an increasingly crucial emotional escape from a world that left us with too many questions and not enough solutions.
For us romance readers, there’s certainly been a lot to choose from during this difficult period in our lives. Indeed, the genre is thriving, and not just in the publishing world.
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Romantic comedies received a new boost of life over the past few years, having previously been declared dead by Hollywood at large.
Crazy Rich Asians set box office records and made history for Asian representation on the big screen, while Netflix released a slew of titles that went wildly viral and cemented the streaming service’s reputation as the new go-to home for romantic comedies.
Audiences have fallen hard for movies like The Kissing Booth and the To All the Boys series, as well as the critically derided Hallmark Channel-esque festive movies A Christmas Prince and Love, Guaranteed.
Next, the platform will welcome the long-awaited TV adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels, courtesy of the one and only Shonda Rhimes.
We may be in something of a golden age for the genre’s presence on the big and (mostly) small screen.
And yet, there is so much ground left to be mined. Romance is a billion-dollar-a-year enterprise in publishing, but its status as a respected form of mainstream entertainment has never been confirmed. Blame misogyny and good old-fashioned ignorance for that.
Even when it makes bank at the box office, romantic stories in all their forms are dismissed as frivolous, not serious cinema. Even the current rom-com resurgence seems to come with an asterisk next to its name!
Romance is more likely to be welcomed by skeptics if its sincerity is punctured by laughter, a wink and a nod to the camera that it’s okay for audiences to not take things too seriously. It’s a shame because there’s so much out there we’d love to see adapted for the masses.
Romance is a richly-varied genre that encompasses the entire spectrum of storytelling. Contemporary, historical, or futuristic. Paranormal, fantasy, science-fiction, Western, action, horror, suspense, comedy. Chaste or erotic. You could be the most avid romance reader on the planet and still never get the chance to check out the entirety of what the genre has to offer!
That’s one of the reasons why it’s somewhat deflating that, when it comes to film and TV adaptations, romance novels tend to get the shaft unless they’re either so otherworldly successful that they can’t be ignored by the mainstream – see Fifty Shades of Grey or the Nicholas Sparks back-catalog – or they’re heavily comedic, so that guys won’t feel embarrassed by watching them.
We could be here all day talking about Hollywood’s myriad missed opportunities with romance – where’s the Iron Seas TV series, based on Meljean Brook's books?! What about a movie based on Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalal uddin?! – but for now, we want to focus on the dearth of adaptations that take romance 100% seriously.
No catty jokes. No wacky fourth-wall breaking moments. No hilarious sidekicks to deflate the tension. Just love.
Love is an inherently weird concept, one that humanity has spent millennia trying to figure out, to little avail. It’s a ponderous, confusing, and frequently horribly awkward emotion, one of such immense force that the ancient Greeks believed it could literally drive you mad.
Cultural portrayals of it are often timid, for fear of being too earnest or cloying; or they wholeheartedly embrace the schmaltz and risk turning off swaths of cynical voyeurs.
It’s one of the reasons that romance tends to be a subplot in larger stories rather than the main attraction: just give fans that smidgen of love, and it’s still satisfying as you focus on saving the world or battling the aliens.
The relationship dramas we do get are often deeply unhappy, interested more in the crumbling of a romance than its formation or staying power. That’s not a bad thing. Films like Blue Valentine (above), for instance, offer emotionally devastating insights into how something as potent as love can disintegrate under the force of real life and human folly.
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It's almost as if these tragic stories are seen as “serious” in a way that a happily-ever-after that takes the very act of falling in love honestly and sincerely never is. So, what we end up with are these two opposing forces in pop culture: romance is either a frivolity to be turned into a joke or side-mission, or it’s an opportunity for misery.
For lovers of romance novels that understand the multi-layered experience of finding someone, overcoming one’s various obstacles, and achieving lasting happiness together, that’s obviously a disappointingly limited series of options.
The film and TV industries have always been oddly hesitant about embracing such stories, as well as the financial boon that is romance publishing. They’re curiously OK with leaving all that money on the table, but they’re also seemingly fine with ignoring vast quantities of untold stories that appeal to underfed audiences.
It seems like a waste that pop culture at large has such a willingly narrow view of how romantic stories can or should be told. Falling in love and maintaining a relationship can be just as compelling as any hundred-million-dollar explosion-fest. The mundanities of such moments are chock full of untapped creative potential.
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Think of how incredible it would be to see a film based on Alisha Rai’s passionate novels, which explore the nuances and untold excitement of passion. Or, a TV series adapted from Alyssa Cole’s Off the Grid series, which prioritizes human relationships over lurid action in the face of a dystopian future.
Netflix is already ahead of the game with the sleeper hit Virgin River, based on the long-running series by Robyn Carr, a slow-burn romantic drama that’s as comforting as it is emotionally detailed.
We could be here all day discussing potential adaptation-worthy material, and still only scratch the surface of what’s out there.
Love is such an overwhelmingly important part of humanity, so why is it dismissed so quickly by the pop culture that claims to reflect our lives?
For Christmas 2020, we're asking Santa for a flurry of new movies and series that take happily ever afters seriously — in the holiday season, and beyond.
Featured photo: Євгенія Паньків / Unsplash