We live in an age where every Hollywood studio wants to find the next 'Harry Potter' franchise. If they can't find a 'Harry Potter,' they'd be more than happy to settle for a 'Twilight.' If that doesn't work, show them a 'Hunger Games.' Adaptations of young adult novels are big business, and these three franchises have the billions to prove it.
This week, 'The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones' wants a piece of that business, and 'Divergent' will enter the fray in a few months. On paper, these are instant hits -- movies based on popular books with passionate followings that fit all the criteria of the blockbuster -- but maybe they shouldn't get their hopes too high up.
Last week, 'Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters' tried and failed to grab this precious audience, flopping hard and vanishing from the public consciousness faster than you can say, "dead franchise." But at least 'The Lightning Thief' got its sequel. The past decade is filled with stillborn young adult films, titles that looked like sure things before dying on the vine. We don't wish any ill will toward 'The Mortal Instruments' or 'Divergent,' but they should consider the path of history: a popular book does not mean a profitable and beloved franchise.
Here are 10 young adult adaptations you probably forgot even existed.
In many ways, it's not surprising that 'Inkheart' came and went in the winter of 2009 without making a dent at the box office. Children's fantasy films were saturating the multiplex, and Cornelia Funke's 'Inkworld' trilogy (the first of which was published in 2003) never reached the break-out status of something like 'Harry Potter.' Of course, you can also blame the fact that the film version starred Brendan Fraser, an actor who hadn't been able to open a movie since 'The Mummy Returns.' Although reviews weren't nearly as rough as some of the film's young adult brethren, 'Inkheart' barely made a dent at the domestic and international box office, quickly vanishing into the ether and becoming a standard in Walmart DVD bargain bins all over the United States.
'The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising'
When a beloved series makes its way to the big screen, the author of the source material is either on the front lines of the marketing or quietly hiding in shame. In the case of 'The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising,' author Susan Cooper made it very clear that she was unhappy with the production, which was the least of its troubles. Loosely based on the second book in Cooper's 'The Dark Is Rising' series, the film angered fans by making unnecessary and substantial changes to the book, immediately giving the film a toxic online buzz. With the fanbase soured, it limped into theaters following an uninspiring marketing campaign, where it bombed quickly and horribly. Would 'The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising' have performed better if it had stuck to the book? Probably not as the book is well-liked but not too widely read. At least it probably wouldn't have soured its target audience.
'The Spiderwick Chronicles'
Unlike most of the films on this list, 'The Spiderwick Chronicles' actually performed quite well at the box office ($162 million worldwide!). On top of that, it was generally well liked by critics and audiences (80 percent on Rotten Tomatoes!). All of this begs the question, why wasn't there a sequel? It's not like there was a dearth of material; Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black's series consists of eight books spread across various characters and locations. Was this a rare case of Hollywood deciding to quit while it was ahead? In any case, time hasn't been kind to 'The Spiderwick Chronicles,' and the lack of a real series or franchise has led to the film slipping between the cracks. What could have been a quietly successful series is now a footnote in the young adult fantasy craze of the late '00s.
In retrospect, the bombing of 'Eragon' seems pretty surprising. Christopher Paolini's book series was still popular, scratching the fantasy itch for countless young readers during their long wait between 'Harry Potter' books. Big-budget adaptations of young adult novels weren't as old hat as they'd be in a few years, and that's before you get to the fact that the marketing prominently featured a dragon, and you know that kids love dragons. However, 'Eragon' learned the sad truth about passionate fanbases: they don't always lead to a film being a hit. Although it ended up grossing a respectable amount worldwide, the film was absolutely savaged by critics, and fans were quick to join the dogpile. As Paolini's series began to disappoint its fans as it trudged on, readers dropped the books like a hot potato, leaving 'Eragon' as a forgotten adaptation of a mostly forgotten novel.
'Cirque de Freak: The Vampire's Assistant'
Darren O'Shaughnessy's 'The Saga of Darren Shan' is a 12-part series consisting of four trilogies, telling the story of a young man who finds himself embroiled in a secret world of vampires. The film adaptation has the unwieldy title of 'Cirque de Freak: The Vampire's Assistant' and features the great John C. Reilly camping it up as the vampire ringleader of the titular traveling sideshow. Fans of the books were aghast at the film's focus on wacky comedy instead of the series' complex mythology. Audiences were aghast at the eyesore posters and irritating trailers. 'Twilight' fans were aghast at the thought of vampires that look like Reilly. No one won with this movie, and it's no surprise that the series has taken a cue from its undead heroes and remained buried.
It's obvious that everyone had 'Twilight' on their mind when they bought the rights to Alex Finn's 'Beastly,' which brings that classic tale of 'Beauty and the Beast' to a contemporary setting. However, you're probably scratching your head and muttering out loud, "What the heck is 'Beastly'?" which is all the evidence that we need that this film simply vanished without a smidgen of its existence left on pop culture. Starring Vanessa Hudgens and Alex Pettyfer (yes, again), the film was made for cheap and it shows, resembling a CW pilot more than an actual film. The fact that it was shuffled from mid-2010 to early 2011 didn't help matters, and it died at the box office with a terrifying swiftness. Although it was low budget enough to turn a profit, the few who do remember it think of it only as one of the weaker and sillier 'Twilight' riffs and nothing more.
We like to imagine that there's an alternate universe where DJ Caruso's 'I Am Number Four' was a pretty good movie and not an instantly forgettable teen-centric sci-fi tale that impressed no one. We like to imagine that James Frey and Jobie Hughes's novel, which they wrote as "Pittacus Lore," was given more time in development and wasn't rushed through pre-production, filming and post-production in less than a year to meet a release date. We like to imagine that the pretty cool sci-fi universe hinted at in the film was given room to breathe and was the start of a reliable franchise. But, alas, this rushed, charm-free bomb feels about as manufactured and corporate as any movie made in the past decade.
'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events'
If there was any film that looked capable of matching the 'Harry Potter' movie machine at the box office, it was 'Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events,' which looked ready to take ticket sales by storm in 2004. Based on the first three books in Daniel Handler's darkly comic and beloved series, the film emerged from a troubled development and production as a solid adaptation, slightly defanged but generally faithful to its source material. Alas, the film underperformed at the box office, but talk of a sequel still persisted, with Handler suggesting the series continue in stop-motion in 2009. Perhaps audiences weren't ready to embrace a family film franchise built around increasingly horribly things happening to the central characters. Perhaps audiences were finally tiring of star Jim Carrey, who had started to lose his luster around this time. Although the books went on to a well-received conclusion, the franchise stalled in its infancy.
'Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker'
If you think about 'Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker' for too long, you may start to get a little sad. After all, this movie looked like instant money in the bank. This was the mash-up of Harry Potter and James Bond that the world was demanding. The sadness expands beyond the surefire premise. This is not a standalone film; this is a film that everyone involved knew would be the start of a franchise. Star Alex Pettyfer knew he'd be playing this character for years to come. Watching 'Alex Rider: Stormbreaker' years after its release is like watching a confident runner trip right at the starting line. Sure, the 'Alex Rider' novels may not be as well known in the United States as they are in England. Sure, the film may have looked a little too 'Spy Kids' for discerning audiences. Sure, the finished film isn't particularly good. But still ... how do you screw this one up?
When New Line bought the rights to Phillip Pullman's 'His Dark Materials' trilogy in the wake of its incredible success with the 'Lord of the Rings' films, the studio thought it was sitting on top of the next blockbuster series. However, unlike J.R.R. Tolkien's simple, morally black-and-white fantasy world, Pullman's series proved trickier and more controversial. The path to the film's production was a mine field -- pressure to tone down the book's anti-religion stance resulted in changes that made fans (and the author) furious. Robbed of its bite, the final film is slight and forgettable, a beautifully designed adventure that lost its message in translation to the big screen. And it wasn't just an artistic failure -- the film's disappointing box office only exacerbated New Line's troubled financial situation, speeding them along on the road to bankruptcy. With no sequels and no fans, the film adaptation of 'The Golden Compass' is a footnote in its studio's downfall and little more.