SINGAPORE — The Teenage Textbook has been given a reboot and is back on screens in the form of a 13-episode TV series.
This time round, the classic Singaporean novel’s setting has been updated to become a polytechnic in the current day, instead of a junior college in the '80s.
Author Adrian Tan's best-selling 1989 novel The Teenage Textbook was followed with a sequel, The Teenage Workbook. The books told the stories of a group of JC students in a very funny writing style that was hard to translate onto the screen, but a 1998 movie starring Melody Chen and Caleb Goh tried anyway, and became a box office hit.
The Channel 5 reboot, Teenage Textbook: The Series – also available on meWatch – stars Xuan Ong, Gavin Teo, Chen Yixin, Krish Natarajan and Chris Mak.
Also in the cast are Tay Ping Hui, Keagan Kang, Amy Cheng and Darren Lim.
In this updated series, the teenagers of the story are still dealing with school, family and romance, albeit with some issues specific to our time such as social media. The fictional Paya Lebar Junior College in the books has been changed to Paya Lebar Polytechnic. The school settings were mostly shot at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.
We spoke to the producer and cast of Teenage Textbook: The Series to get the lowdown on the show, which premiered this week.
Updating story for the 2020s
August Pictures producer Emma Neubronner said the idea for a remake of the 1998 movie came from Andrew Pan, a digital marketing strategist who is an ardent fan of the books. He had contacted Adrian Tan to obtain the rights to make a second movie based on the books.
August Pictures eventually came on board and thought that the story would work better as a TV series instead. Pan joined the writing team led by head writer and story editor, June Tan, and wrote two episodes.
Interestingly, Emma was working as a distributor at Mega Media when they produced the Teenage Textbook movie, so she was familiar with the movie as well as Adrian Tan's book.
Emma said, "What we really kept was just the characters, but the book and the movie are very different from the series. It's just the characters that are similar, because it's been adapted to the modern day."
That modern-day approach extends to the diversity of the casting, said Emma. In the original books, all the main characters were Chinese. Now, the rich playboy Kok Sean has been rewritten as an Indian character, Sean Kumar, played by Krish Natarajan.
Adrian Tan, who had a cameo in the movie, once again has a cameo in the TV series – see if you can spot him in the first episode! The author wrote The Teenage Textbook when he was a law undergraduate, and is still practising law today. Asked whether Adrian provided any input to the TV production, Emma said, "Not at all. He was very trusting. He gave us the rights to the characters, and to how we wanted the story to be told. He didn't ask to see the scripts. He just gave us complete 100% creative freedom."
Brushing up on Gen Z culture
Typically of modern-day youth too, the cast of Teenage Textbook who joined us for our interview – Xuan, Gavin, Yixin, and Chris – said none of them had read the books, but had watched the movie in preparing for their roles.
25-year-old Xuan, who plays shy girl Lee Mui Ee, said of the difference between her role and the original character, "In the TV series, she's an engineering student. She's book smart in math and the sciences, which I don't think is that emphasised in the movie."
It was Gavin's first time in an English-language drama – the 27-year-old actor usually appears in Channel 8 shows. He plays Yeo Chung Kai, Mui Ee's on-again, off-again love interest. Gavin said, "I had to do my homework... I'm usually more comfortable in delivering Mandarin lines. I had to take a book and read articles, read it out loud. And I had to spend more time reading out my scripts in order for me to prepare better for the scenes."
Yixin, 21, plays the school belle, Sissy Song, who's now a social media influencer. She said one challenge for 20-plus-year-olds acting as teenagers was picking up Gen Z slang. "Most of the time I didn't really get the lingo and I was also learning on the way." She cited "GOAT" as a term that she didn't know at first (it stands for "greatest of all time".)
Interestingly, Gavin and Yixin, who's the daughter of veteran actors Xiang Yun and Edmund Chen, just announced that they've been dating in real life for some time now.
Teenage Textbook was also a first for 28-year-old Chris – his first time acting, that is. The Chinese-English 987FM DJ, who plays Eurasian heart-throb Tom D'Cruz, said he had always known he wanted to branch into acting, but didn't have the platform or opportunity to do so previously. "I'm just happy to make the first step with these guys. It was really fun."
Teenage Textbook episodes drop every Tuesday at 9.30pm from 2 March to 25 May 25 on Channel 5 and meWATCH.