By Tara Aquino
If there’s one thing to take away from the failure of Hollywood’s adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s young adult fantasy novel The Mortal Instruments, it’s this: a hot young cast does not a hot franchise make. Attention, studios: There are other things besides the next Teen Bop heartthrob to hang on the wall that audiences look for in a young adult film. For instance, a gripping story, fresh aesthetics, and a credible cast and crew.
To be fair, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and Harry Potter had a lot going for them. The idea of adapting a YA trilogy into film was just starting to become a trend, and they were the top of the crop. They were able to set the standard.
Despite the atrocious writing, Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga had a major following before the first film opened. After the well-received Twilight, published in 2005, the series’ subsequent installments each spent time in the top 10 of the New York Times Best Seller list. Chances are you knew a friend of a friend who’d read at least one of the books. Not to mention, the film was the first of its kind. It wasn’t until after Twilight, distributed by Summit Entertainment, that subsequent bloodsucking series debuted on television, namely True Blood and The Vampire Diaries, both small screen adaptations of popular novels.
The same goes for Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. It was a critically adored, NY Times Best Seller that placed in Publishers Weekly’s “Best Books of the Year” in 2008. Despite being billed as “the next Twilight,” it differed in its edgy post-apocalyptic plot, one about a lowly heroine who engages in an all-out battle royale, only to become the symbol of an impending revolution. Brought to life by Lionsgate, the film was some tough shit and a nice break from the vampired inundation.
As for J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter, distributed by Warner Bros., it’s Harry fucking Potter. The franchise has its own amusement park now.
Before the film version of The Hunger Games even debuted in 2012, there was rumbling that audiences were sick of teen romances. Picking up a dystopian or supernatural YA series was already starting to feel contrived.
Come 2013, without letting audiences come up for air after the The Hunger Games, three new series were rushed into theaters: Warner Bros.’ Beautiful Creatures, Open Roads’ The Host, and Screen Gems’ The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones. Despite the three novels being listed as New York Times' Best Sellers, with the premieres so close together, it felt like studios were serving up store-bought, canned kids movies solely to One Direction fans. Audiences and critics were put off by the fact that studios were desperately combing the shelves for best-sellers to milk this YA shit for all its worth.
A major strength of the first three franchises is that the leads have become the new pop stars, the way boy bands and Britney Spears dominated the late ’90s. Tabloids, teens, and twentysomethings still can’t get enough of them. KStew and RPattz have become stars because of their awkward reluctance to stardom, and their always-fun-to-speculate-about romance. JLaw’s got her signature derpiness. And the Radcliffe/Grint/Watson trio is basically family to audiences who watched them grow up in the movies.
Oh, and then there’s 20th Century Fox’s Percy Jackson adaptations, which dropped between Twilight and THG. Consider that 98 degrees. It has its audience. After all, it managed a sequel. But the world isn’t checking for it like that. Its strength lies in its Nick Lachey, Logan Lerman: low-key, but enduring and poised for steady career, if his performance in The Perks of Being A Wallflower is any indication.
With the top tier taken, the three franchises that would follow are essentially the C-list pop groups that would crop up in the wake of NSYNC. They’re O-Town, in all its manufactured glory, and everyone forgets about O-Town.
That is to say, it’s a kiss of death to introduce a franchise without attempting to reinvent the genre. The Mortal Instruments, The Host, and Beautiful Creatures were essentially recycled garbage, made by an unimaginative handling of the preset formula: attractive cast + magic or post-apocalyptic world + romance. Their fatal blow being that they were hurried into theaters at a time when the world, and especially the target teen audience, was still too preoccupied by RPattz and KStew and all-Jennifer Lawrence-everything to care that The Mortal Instruments' Lily Collins and Jamie Campbell Bower were dating.
What does this mean for the upcoming young adult series? Take Veronica Roth’s Divergent, from Twilight distributor Summit Entertainment—its weakness is that its plot isn’t easily described. Something about a society divided into factions for some reason and some girl being an exception to those factions. Whatever—it looks a lot like The Hunger Games. However, it’s led by Shailene Woodley, who gained a following from The Secret Life of the American Teenager and earned respect from top critics in her starmaking turn in the Oscar-nominated The Descendants. Not to mention, she just landed the coveted lead role in celebrity author John Green’s hit novel The Fault in Our Stars and endeared audiences in another coming-of-age flick, The Spectacular Now. People are checking for her.
Bolstering the project even more is that fact that Kate “Never let go, Jack” Winslet has co-signed the film with a supporting role that’s heavily publicized in the promo (which was smartly premiered at this year’s MTV VMA pre-show). If Winslet gets to play Winslet, and not some hokey version of herself the way that Beautiful Creatures squandered the talent of Jeremy Irons, Emma Thompson, and Viola Davis, then Divergent should be dynamite.
And it sounds like author Robert Ness’ Chaos Walking Trilogy (from the same studio releasing The Hunger Games), set in a post-apocalyptic world where all thought is audible, is shaping up to be the Citizen Kane of these YA films. With Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future and Flight, to name a few stunners) circling to direct, the first book, The Knife of Never Letting Go, has got Charlie Kaufman (Adaptation, Being John Malkovich) penning the script. The two carry the promise of delivering a coming-of-age series that isn’t riddled with cliche, cheeseball dialogue, a major problem cited by YA naysayers.
The franchise with the greatest uphill battle is author James Dasher’s dystopian thriller The Maze Runner, another flick with a cast of virtual unknowns and directed/scripted by virtual unknowns (Wes Ball and Noah Oppenheim, respectively), brought to you by 20th Century Fox in its second shot at YA glory. Teen Wolf's Dylan O'Brien and UK darling Kaya Scodelario, known for the teen drama Skins, lead the film, which follows a group literally attempting to find their way out of a maze. Its biggest Hollywood cred is Patricia Clarkson. While we haven’t see much of the film, save for the occassional still, it sounds like another vanilla attempt to cash in on the YA hype. Hopefully the trailer proves otherwise—partly because O’Brien and Scodelario are true talents that deserve their big break—perhaps with a heavier, more mysterious aesthetic than the failures of 2013. That is, all we really ask is that the next young adult franchise not feel like an ABC Family movie.