Launching a new take on the box office-saturated “Paranormal Teen Romance” genre in early 2013 was perhaps not a good idea. Twilight fans were still reeling from the end of their beloved franchise, The Hunger Games Mockingjays were busy gearing up to share what had become a hugely successful franchise, Divergent devotees were busy dream-casting, and Percy Jackson fans (fan?) were far too consumed with celebrating that their (his or her?) series was not dead. Even with strong shelf sales, Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s best-selling “Caster Chronicles” series didn’t seem poised to be the kind of cinematic juggernaut that could compete with Twilight and The Hunger Games and whatever would come next – it simply didn’t have the heat to push it over the top – which is a damn shame, because the duo’s Gothic romance spawned one hell of an underrated feature in Richard LaGravenese’s Beautiful Creatures.
The film was released last Valentine’s Day (Happy Birthday, Beautiful Creatures!), and while the Alice Englert– and Alden Ehrenreich-starring film lovingly brought Garcia and Stohl’s vision to the big screen with some well-planned tweaks, the film was still little seen and even less appreciated. The film made a relatively scant $19.4M at the U.S. box office, a take that was eventually bolstered by its worldwide dollars ($40.6M). While that was enough to give the film a final gross of $60M, neatly matching its reported budget of, yup, $60M, that doesn’t mean that it really broke even (most reported budgets don’t include stuff like marketing and the cost of the physical reels or digital files that are played in theaters) and it certainly doesn’t mean that the film was profitable.
When it comes to YA adaptations, the film places in thirty-fourth place on BoxOfficeMojo’s incredibly helpful “Young-Adult Book Adaptations Movies” list, placing it below the universally panned The Host and above the little-seen Inkheart.
The film itself was no critical darling, racking up a marginal 46% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, though most critics appeared to be impressed by its cast and the performances of its charming leads. Personally speaking, I failed Beautiful Creatures as a critic. I didn’t see it. I was instead dispatched to see Safe Haven, a film I didn’t like at the time and like even less now. I wish I had seen Beautiful Creatures instead. However, our own Rob Hunter did see the film, and gave it a surprisingly generous B- (and, no, Hunter is not the target audience for the film).
But Hunter also worried about the future of the film, writing at the time: “The odds are not usually with these YA franchise hopefuls, but the recent success of The Hunger Games and the inherent quality of Beautiful Creatures bode well for the legion of writers still stabbing away at their keyboards in the hopes of YA stardom…Beautiful Creatures is a fun, entertaining and suitably dramatic movie, and while the smartly atypical ending allows closure, there’s more to this story that I would like to see. Here’s hoping that millions of teenage moviegoers get it right this time too.”
Garcia and Stohl’s series is four books long – the final chapter was published back in October of 2012 – but there is no official word on a film version of their second novel in the series, “Beautiful Darkness,” news that has not pleased fans. A quick Google search of “beautiful darkness movie” turns up pages and pages of fans asking if the film will be made, along with an actual petition for hardcore fans to sign (as of this writing, the petition has less than 5,000 of its 10,000 desired signatures). The cast and crew of the first feature may have already moved on anyway – LaGravenese has five films in pre-production (two of which he is slated to both write and direct), while Englert has a miniseries in the works and Ehrenreich is in production on Melanie Shaw’s Running Wild).
The plot of the film is relatively simple – set in the small town of Gatlin, South Carolina, Beautiful Creatures finds its basic drama in the (literal) dreams of Ethan Wate (Ehrenreich), a popular and well-known Gatlin-ite who can think of little else beyond getting the hell out of town for college (and real life, at least as Ethan sees it). These metaphorical dreams are interrupted by Ethan’s nighttime ruminations, as his dreams have become overrun with a vision of a girl he’s never seen before. (Oh, yes, it’s Englert’s Lena Duchannes, and yes, she eventually shows up in real life.)
Lena is an outcast in tiny Gatlin for a damn good reason – not just because she’s perceived to be “different,” but because she actually is different. She’s a witch. No big deal. Eventually charmed by Ethan, Lena reveals her secret (and, as it were, the secrets of most of her family, all of whom are “Casters” like her) to her new paramour, along with the unfortunate news that, in a matter of weeks, she and her powers will be claimed by either the forces of Light or Dark. She has no choice, it’s just going to happen. This is one way to put a pin in a burgeoning romance. Of course, it doesn’t quite derail their relationship, but it sure comes close. Things eventually kick up into a full-scale Civil War reenactment (the South, you know), a major battle between light and dark, and the best part about the entire film – Lena’s sacrifice of Ethan. She doesn’t kill him – she erases all of his memories of their romance, in order to save him. It’s wrenching and weird and Gothic and romantic, all of the things that Beautiful Creatures is in its best moments, and it carries real weight and emotion.
Despite its mystical underpinnings, Beautiful Creatures doesn’t shy away from portraying the morning minutiae of actual teen life. Sure, Lena may be a witch (sorry – Caster) and Ethan may be from a relative wealthy family, but they are also frequently bored kids – the kind who go on a date to the town line to stare down the road (the road that goes away from Gatlin) and drink sodas on the hood of a car. Lena is shy but not over-the-top awkward about it (a frequent trope in such familiar YA outings), and Ethan is sparkling and funny (but not actually sparkly), and the duo feel like actual teens that just so happen to be trapped in a world of mystery and magic.
Englert and Ehrenreich exhibit a very lovely chemistry with each other, and the believability of their fundamentally unbelievable romance (witches, you guys, witches) sets them up as a YA couple actually worth rooting for (the pairs’ affinity for Charles Bukowski only helps) amidst wacky, swirling witchcraft. The film is quite notably rounded out with a stellar supporting cast (from Jeremy Irons to Viola Davis to Emma Thompson), and they only bolster the film’s overall quality – which is high, considering that this could have quite easily been just another forgettable YA adaptation. Beautiful Creatures is what every paranormally-tinged YA adaptation should aim to be – dreamy, romantic, able to hit real emotional beats, chemistry-laden, weirdly relatable, and just plain consuming to watch.