The Selection by Kiera Cass was already being called "the next Hunger Games" when The CW decided to turn it into a TV show. But then The CW put the project on hold, and has started reshooting the trouble pilot. And now that we've read the book, we can see why this is going to be a tough project to adapt for television — because there are some serious problems with this dystopian take on The Bachelor crossed with The Royal Wedding.
Here are some things The CW absolutely must change, if they want The Selection to be our choice for prime-time viewing. Spoilers ahead!
The Selection follows a young girl, America Singer, as she joins a semi-televised competition where the prize is marrying Maxon, the Crown Prince of Illea. Illea is a kingdom in North America that arose from the ashes of the United States of America / World War III / The United States of China.
Illea has an eight-tiered caste system (ones are in the royal family, eights are homeless) with vaguely meritocratic undertones. The vast majority of people are poor — but you can buy your way up into higher castes. Military service moves young men up to level two automatically, and yet they still have to have a draft (perhaps if it was a volunteer army they would be overwhelmed with volunteers?). And women, but not men, can marry into higher castes. And Illea has some fairly onerous gender and sex laws: premarital sex will land you in jail, the castle has a Women's Room where only women are allowed, and birth control is only available to the rich.
The royal family has two traditions for marrying off their offspring: girls are wed into strategic alliances, while boys find their wives via "The Selection." One girl from each province, a "True Daughter of Illea," travels to the castle to meet and date the prince. Yes, just like Hunger Games crossed with Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?.
America is a lowly five (the caste reserved for artists and musicians) who's secretly in love with an even lowlier six (the caste for servants). Her mother bribes her into applying for The Selection and her boyfriend, terrified of condemning her to a life of drudgery, dumps her. So even though she's not interested in marrying the prince, she gladly goes to the palace to nurse her broken heart. Also, because she goes to the palace, her family receives compensation which will keep them all from starving next winter.
So what should the CW to make this work better as a story, not to mention as a piece of television?
1) Codifying the Competition
You can imagine that the CW picked up the book for its tagline alone: "35 Girls. 1 Crown. The Competition of a Lifetime." It sounds like The Bachelor on steroids. Imagine if you offered the Mob Wives women the chance at a crown? They'd call it There Will Be Blood, From Where I Ripped Out Her Tacky Earrings.
But The Selection isn't invested in the drama or heavy symbolism that most viewers have come to expect from reality television. Many of the moments that producers pack dating shows with are missing. For instance, the television crew can be dismissed by Prince Maxon with a wave of his hand, making private conversations actually private. Also, when girls are sent home, it's done privately and with no fanfare. This makes the book more humane to its characters, sure — but without televised dismissals, cat fights and head-to-head competition what makes it reality television? The girls being interviewed on the Illea version of CSPAN? Not what teenagers want to see.
The first season will need to have something between fourteen and twenty episodes, and each and every one needs an exciting plot with a solid arc. They will probably at least televise the dismissals, just to amp up the tension. And I'm guessing the in-show producers or whoever will be given much more power. Camera confessionals will probably be out, since secrets seem very important to the plot and also saying mean things about the Prince is treason.
2) Adding Some Conflict
The lack of a clear antagonist — or really any clear conflict — hinders the book quite a bit, but it would be especially deadly on television. The vaguely bitchy girl Celeste causes minimal trouble for America, throughout most of the story, but never really poses much of a direct challenge. By making Celeste more of a direct antagonist, the CW could provide the opportunity for Celia Kate Massingham (left), who has been cast in the role, to learn the fine art of villainous scenery-chewing. Not to mention give America something to fight against every episode.
The other possible source of conflict could come from the groups of rebels who regularly attack the palace — but that part of the story needs a lot of punching up. Right now, the rebels are faceless, and their goals are unclear. Creating a particular rebel character will help sell the overall dystopian arc of the story and make the stakes beyond "marrying a prince" clear.
3) Upping the Makeover / Clothing Quotient
Surprisingly for a book about a woman competing to become a princess, there's not a lot of stuff about clothes or makeovers in the book. Do you really think that will fly on the channel behind Gossip Girl? Expect to see way more focus on makeovers, plus fancy dresses, fancy shoes, fancy hair, fancy hats and fancy jewelry. There will be veritable explosions of taffeta, silk and rhinestones. There will be so much glitter!
4) Explaining the Dystopia Better
America spends a lot of time explaining the caste system to the reader — but it still feels like a painted backdrop, more than a believable dystopia. There are no history books in this world and the rebels are looking for something — suggesting there's a dark secret at the heart of the whole society. Knowing why the rebels are so pissed off, and what they're looking for (especially since the royal family they'd like to overthrow seem awfully nice) would probably make the nature of this dystopia a lot clearer.
For instance, the rich have cell phones, but no one seems to have computers. There's a suggestion that they have some sort of super-soldier serum, but maybe this just refers to vaccinations? Is the country small, or are future planes really fast? Some of these questions will have to be answered, probably by showing the world outside of America's view.
There's also a lack of clarity regarding how some jobs or industries have been changed by the caste system. For instance, magazines, movies and television all still exist, but it's not clear what that means. If factory workers are fours and servants are sixes, what would a magazine's production assistant be? Or a writer or director? There also seems to be weird overlaps — there is a two who is a model, but models historically are lower status than the designers who dress them or the artists who paint them. The Prince is into photography, but wouldn't that be a five activity? Teachers are threes, but America's mom homeschooled her, effectively becoming a teacher.
In other words, the world-building is really unclear, and the caste system doesn't quite hold up to close examination. You can skate over a lot of stuff in a book, but when there's an actual actor standing on set holding an actual camera in a world where caste is the most important thing, somebody's going to have to decide what caste he's in.
5) Getting America Out of Her Shell
America is a professional performer and has been since she was young. She sings and plays the piano and violin. This is great for The CW and Aimee Teegarden, the actress who will play America. They can add a little Glee vibe, and she can release a CD when the whole thing is done. Too bad America only performs once in the book and it's just a casual for a friend's party sort of thing, where the Prince happens to stop by. The CW is going to make this a much bigger deal and probably work her performing into the competition somehow. They will probably build suspense by changing up her audience too: first the other girls, then the Prince, then the Royal Family, then national television! It could be very exciting, and potentially add another arc to the show.
The book version of America is also an introvert who seldom takes the initiative. She mostly wants to hang out with her maids and play cards. Maybe chat with the prince. This does not a TV show make. A TV show needs someone who will fight the antagonist, maybe go snooping around, be caught in humorous embarrassing situations and cause trouble. The main character has to drive the plot, rather than sit around waiting for the plot to happen to her. For the show to work, America is going to have to quit being a wallflower and start being a go-getter.
6) Opening Up the World
TV shows are usually about ensembles, because you can get multiple plots and lots of different pairings from a group of people. The Selection, like a lot of YA books, is written in first person. If the bad guy is plotting, we don't see it. If someone else is on a date with the Prince, we don't see it. And in general, the book's supporting cast is kept at the level of one-dimensional ciphers, while only America feels fleshed out.
That means The CW is going to have to figure out which of the characters in the book are worth turning into regulars and expanding them. America's maids, Nancy, Anne and Mary, might be a good place to start — but we don't know a whole lot about them (except Nancy, who has PTSD symptoms and a sad backstory). Following the Prince is an option too, but we really don't know what he does all day beyond the vague "running the country."
But they may just invent some new characters. Since it seems likely that the reality show aspect will be increased in the screen version, we'll probably have people like producers and announcers to follow. Increasing the clothing and makeup craziness would help too — maybe America will end up with a team of stylists like Katniss has in The Hunger Games. The CW will also probably follow at least one of American's competitors more closely.
7) Raising the Stakes
And finally, there's the crux of the problem — America's not risking a whole lot here. The first check she receives for joining The Selection is enough to feed her family for a year. As soon as she's selected, she's turned into a three in the caste system. All the girls who go home from The Selection get marriage proposals on the spot. The book makes it clear that America's staying to wait out her broken heart, but that's not necessarily enough stakes to drive a story forward for an entire season.
Which means the CW is probably looking for all sorts of ways to raise the stakes of the competition. It'll make the country of Illea seem less pleasant than in the book, but that's dystopias for you. One easy way to raise the stake would be to… Major Spoiler Alert!
8) Get to the Love Triangle Sooner
It's a YA novel, of course there's a love triangle! Let's be blunt, in a world where people go to jail for pre-marital sex, there isn't the opportunity for lots of steamy make-outs. And steamy make-outs are a basic building block of angsty teen television. America and the Prince are not up to the level of steamy make-outs in their relationship. But America and her ex are. And if a girl cheats on the Prince, she can be executed for treason.
By getting America's ex Aspen on the scene before the final couple of chapters of the book, the CW can automatically raise the stakes, and exponentially increase the number of steamy make-outs. While America wears awesome dresses.
At this point, we can only speculate about what The CW can do to turn The Selection into a story that can fly on television — but it's clear there's going to have to be some punching up of the conflict, a more proactive heroine, and some better world-building. Not to mention more makeovers, and better outfits.