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A Brief History of YA-Epic Movie Adaptations

From sensitive bloodsuckers to boy wizards, we look at the Young Adult books that have grabbed for the big-screen brass ring

Summit Entertainment

The big-screen version of author Veronica Roth's youth-dystopia Divergent will bow in theatres on March 21st, and its producers are clearly hoping for another blockbuster series à la The Hunger Games—or the Twilight or Harry Potter films. The goal now is to make a giant, culture-defining juggernaut that will bring in boatloads at the box office and become a guaranteed-sequel moneymaker. There's something particularly appealing about the grail of the successful YA epic fantasy/sci-fi franchise, too, a kind of magic that comes only when you manage to embed a story in the consciousness of most of the children – and yes, young adults – in America and beyond. It's about as close as pop culture ever gets to creating religion, really; just think of how many times the young must ask themselves, "What would Katniss do?" It would horrify evangelicals just to think about it.

Check out Rolling Stone's Guide to 'Harry Potter'

That said, it's a tricky wicket, the creation of something that actually sticks in the bigscreen YA adaptation genre. The last few years have brought a mixed bag of results, and here are some of the lessons we've learned from both flops and blockbusters as we count down the big-screen YA epics from least to most successful.
By Michelle Dean

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7. ‘The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones’ (2013)

Cassandra Clare's tale of shadowhunters and downworlders actually began life as Harry Potter fanfiction — Draco-Ginny fanfiction, specifically — before morphing and climbing its way up the bestseller list. So it cast actors who either had appeared in the Potter franchise (Jamie Campbell Bower) or certainly looked like they could have (Lily Collins), and hoped for the best. But the film cost almost $60 million to make and, with its opening weekend garnering a little over $9 million, was an instant flop. You've probably forgotten about it already. It didn't really have much crossover appeal for adults; Salon's reviewer spoke for many of us over the age of 15 when he said, "It's safe to say there was a lot about this movie I didn't quite get." For some reason, a sequel is in the works. There are still a lot of suckers in film financing.

Lesson learned: Thinly-veiled, derivative fanfiction might be popular with readers, but people aren't necessarily going to pay $13 to see it enacted on the big screen when such a wealth of it can be obtained for free on Livejournal.

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6. ‘Beautiful Creatures’ (2013)

A sort of teenaged True Blood with a soupçon of Twilight handwringing (if you subbed in pagans for vampires), Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl's series wasn't just a commcerical success; it won an American Library Morris Award for best YA debut. Funnier than the melancholy Meyer vampire-sparkle oeuvre, it centres on a family of witches – sorry, "casters" – who, once they turn sixteen, must choose between the forces of light and darkness. The film version, which starred Jane Campion's daughter Alice Englert (whom one reviewer said had a "Jane Austen-gone-goth allure") was too campy to catch on and got clobbered, inexplicably, by a horrific Die Hard sequel on its opening weekend.

Lesson learned: They still haven't quite managed to monetize witches in this YA-movie market.

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5. ‘Ender’s Game’ (2013)

This Nebula- and Hugo-winning novel revolves a pretty depressing concept: The plot revolves around the training of children in military tactics, because their quicker reflexes are thought to be the key to winning a war against an encroaching alien force. So longstanding popularity among the sci-fi crowd or not, that storyline didn't exactly give the film a wide appeal. For another thing, it was more of a cult classic for adults, and not for the typical young adult audience. Author Orson Scott Card's openly homophobic views, aired during the film's production, certainly didn't help matters. The movie itself was inert at the best of times, and mostly saw Viola Davis and Harrison Ford telegraphing boredom as they amassed mortgage payments.

Lesson learned: You need something more than a long-standing brand.

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4. ‘The Golden Compass’ (2007)

Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy (this is an adaptation of Book One, Northern Lights) focuses on an oprhan who enters a parallel world full of spirit animals, cowboy aviators and flying witches. The books are widely praised not just for their adept storytelling, however, but for the dense allusions they make to other works — say, Milton's epic poem Paradise Lost. Which makes them subject to the Ender's problem: On some level, these books are "for" adults even as they're marketed to young readers. Worse, director Chris Weitz's concerns about American puritanism stripped the overtly religious overtones from the film – Pullman's an atheist, and the books are a critique of organized religion – and still, the Catholic Church continued to complain. Hence, no sequels are likely.

Lesson learned: You can take out any subtext or deeper themeatic philosophies which may offend powerful social-interest groups, sure, but it won't guarantee success.

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‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ (2005-2010)

There have actually been several adaptations of C.S. Lewis' beloved Narnia books over the years, and there are those that would argue that these most recent movies — The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005); Prince Caspian (2008); The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (2010) — are the not best ones. (I'm partial to a BBC serial from the late 1980s myself, whose animatronic lion still haunts my dreams.) Every generation gets the friendly satyrs, the White Witches and the Christ avatars it deserves, perhaps. The critics have been lukewarm on these latest CGI-heavy films, but they have grossed an enormous amount of money — over $1.5 billion between the three of them. These books were (and are) so much a part of people's childhoods that audinces may simply be involuntarily marching into theatres whenever they appear.

Lesson learned: Some brands just have that magic touch.

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The ‘Twilight Saga’ (2008-2012)

Well, who can explain why a sparkle-vampire and an actress with the flattest affect this side of Clint Eastwood produced such blockbuster success? Some people seem to have watched these films just to mock Robert Pattinson's disaffected performance as glittery-Edward, others really were into the kind of hot romance where you stare at each other in meadows a lot. Whatever the alchemy, it resulted in record-breaking advance-day ticket sales by the end of it – until Divergent, now, is putting a stake through that one's heart. 

Lesson learned: People will put up with a lot of bad acting where vampires are concerned.

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‘The Hunger Games’ (2012) and ‘Catching Fire’ (2013)

The current YA dystopia-par-excellence – kids in the arena killing each other so that everyone in the realm of Panem can remember the costs of warfare, you know the drill – had a message about the value of spectacle baked right into the plot. So it's no surprise that Hollywood's versions have achieved glittery movie magic, somehow kicking the perfect balance between satisfying fans and giving you the right popcorn fist-pump moments. Plus, they certainly picked the right kind of stars, with Jennifer Lawrence's upmarket tough-girl leading the way. These aren't great films, as some snobs may contend might say, but they are a great night out at the movie theatre. 

Lesson learned: Sometimes the glitter really is actual gold.

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The ‘Harry Potter’ Films (2001-2011)

It's doubtful that anyone needs a plot summary here: boy wizard goes to wizard school, discovers he is the chosen one and is also irrevocably linked to evil. The acting is admittedly a little stiff in the early films; in fact, it wasn't really until the third film —Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) — that the franchise loosened up and got interesting. Interesting directors like Alfonso Cuarón started getting hired. The performances improved. Every working British actor joined the franchise. The creators treated these adaptations as bona fide movies in and of themselves, rather than excuses for exploitative merchandising or big-bucks-generating accessories for the people who'd already bought into the books. And that's when the films started to really become annual blockbuster events.

Lesson learned: Even the most devoted YA fans aren't idiots; they need good movies to get hooked.

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