If you hadn’t heard, 2013 is the year that a small indie production called The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, starring little-known commercial actress Jennifer Lawrence (am I saying that right?) stormed into theaters. In truth, the massive-scale production, bolstered by a months-long marketing campaign (step into a Subway sometime for a District 12 themed sandwich, because nothing screams “we’re actually starving” like footlongs), has earned over $600M worldwide to date, and is expected to reach $800M by the end of its theatrical run.
This is also the year that everyone and their producer attempted to find the next Hunger Games franchise and fell completely, utterly flat. Line ‘em up: The Host, Beautiful Creatures, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters and Ender’s Game all tried their hand at making the jump from page to screen, but nothing achieved anything near what Catching Fire created, both in terms of financial success and creative content.
So what exactly happened along the way that made these films such monstrous disasters? It’s worth looking at the fact that two massively successful franchises came before the Hunger Games cash cow: Harry Potter and Twilight. These three book series all have the distinction of drawing in a more diverse age range of readers than something like Beautiful Creatures, which one could argue caters almost exclusively to a younger-skewing teen girl audience. When you have everyone from the 10 year olds to the elderly hooked on what Katniss Everdeen is about to do next in the books (hint: kill a dude with an arrow), there’s an increased likelihood that you’re going to get that expanded audience coming out to see her story told up on the big screen.
With a less popular franchise, like the ill-fated The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, people aren’t going to come out to see the film in theaters no matter how great of a novel your 16-year-old cousin Brittany has told you it is. It turns out people just aren’t into seeing groups of plucky teens solve mysteries and battle supernatural forces when they haven’t been emotionally invested in a book series to back it up. That’s is a shame for the studio, which decided to listen to advanced buzz and greenlight the sequel while City of Bones was still in production, even casting Sigourney Weaver in a main role, before learning that their surefire hit only pulled in $9.3M during its opening and couldn’t make back even half of its $60M budget (oh my god guys, how embarrassing, now Sigourney totally knows).
Ender’s Game, the highly anticipated adaptation of the beloved Orson Scott Card novel finally arrived this year with a star-studded cast, a sizable marketing budget and an ill-timed homophobic rant from Card in the last couple months before the film’s debut. While the film wasn’t outright boycotted because of his remarks, there was a definite lack of turnout come opening weekend. Whether or not that directly resulted from his homophobia has yet to be determined. The film had everything that should make people show up to the theater: a young male lead, science fiction, action and Harrison Ford. Why did it fail?
The key, maybe, is in the timing. The first Twilight film became a phenomenon by setting a release date four months after the last book of the series was published. With the legions of hormonal girls and creepy middle-aged moms jonesing for their next fix of Bella and Edward, they stampeded into theaters to see the happy(?) couple do their sparkly thing on camera.
The first Harry Potter film came out while the book series was still in the middle of being completed, right in between the publication of books four and five. This brilliant move meant two things: devoted fans of the series could continue devouring the books while seeing the first novel on screen at last, and moviegoers who had never read the books could get hooked on the series and therefore stay attached to the films.
With Ender’s Game, the timing was off by a few decades, the adaptation coming from a 1985 YA novel. While there’s obviously nothing wrong with adapting a novel that’s not recent, it’s becoming apparent that if you want to make it in the YA racket, you have to strike while the iron’s hot. Look at Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters. The second novel in the Percy Jackson & The Olympians series was only published in 2006, and the 2013 film was a stale, confusing mess that vanished from theaters as soon as it arrived.
Of course, there’s something to be said about execution as well. The problems with Sea of Monsters didn’t just lie with the fact that the adaptation happened too late in the game. It lacked the power and depth of the Harry Potter films it so desperately wanted to emulate, instead relying on special effects to pad the movie out. Keeping up with the YA game doesn’t mean churning out films just to see if anyone will bite, which frankly, is what Beautiful Creatures felt like. At least with The Host, as forgettable a production as that turned out to be, it still had the backing of Stephenie Meyer to give the film some confidence for a grand opening. Apparently, though, the teens and weird moms have spoken and they’ll only give the Meyer bump to vampire related movies.
So we beat on into 2014, still searching for the next Hunger Games to compete against the franchise for total dominance. With Neil Burger’s Divergent coming down the pipeline, it’s only a matter of time before another stoically brave young woman must rebel against her dystopian society to actually save it … and possible find love. However, that production is already riddled with problems, so we may have another year of the Girl on Fire on our hands. That’s not such a bad time to live.