When it comes to young-adult films properties, it’s been a case of haves and have-nots. Billion-dollar juggernauts rise above the penny-eking whimperers, phenomena that take over the world are matched by one-and-done entries that fade faster than Syracuse in a postseason basketball tournament.
“Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” rode big book sales to hot openings: $70 million for “Twilight” at an earlier stage of the genre and $152 million for “Hunger Games” it was arguably reaching a peak in 2012, on its way to more than $400 million in box office.
Conversely: “Beautiful Creatures,” “Warm Bodies” and “The Mortal Instruments,” among a bunch of others, were duds that couldn’t even gross $70 million over their lifetimes.
Those numbers led some pundits to question the future of the YA genre and wonder how dependable a category it was in the first place. The most enduring and reliable film genres — Western, horror — became that way by churning out for-the-base but still decent-sized hits, garnering ticket buyers even when a new movie didn't become an exceptional, massive phenomenon.
This weekend saw the opening of “Divergent,” the dystopian Shailene Woodley picture that has already committed to two sequels. And for perhaps the first time in recent memory, the YA film genre has something that has eluded it: a mid-range hit.
The numbers for “Divergent,” the first adaptation of Veronica Roth’s bestselling YA series, come in at $56 million. It’s a figure that isn’t mind-blowing but hardly disappointing — a solid if not spectacular opening on its way to what will likely be a solid if not spectacular total.
For comparison’s sake, “Twilight” grossed $192 million, while “Warm Bodies” took in $66 million. “ Based on its opening weekend, ”Divergent” should end up at around $135 million — pretty much smack in the middle. (It's too soon to say what the international totals will be; it takes longer for a new franchise to catch on overseas.)
Why did "Divergent" work in the way that it did? It’s a bestselling book with a time-tested premise, following in “The Hunger Games” footsteps of unwavering young heroines in a dystopian world out to destroy them.
Why it didn’t work may, interestingly, lie with the same reason: the premise of "Divergent" is a little too time-tested. “It would have helped if we had never seen nor read any of these Chosen One allegories; 'Divergent' might have had a mark of specialness,” wrote Grantland’s Wesley Morris, who also noted that the film was “laying groundwork we’ve been over” and was “to 'The Hunger Games' as Mr. Pibb is to Dr Pepper — respectable, but deeply desperate.”
All on point. But something becomes a true filmic category instead of a bubble when it can occupy the middle ground--that's when studios stop betting the farm on (and, in turn, overmanaging) potential franchises, and also when movies can find their own level and audience without the boom-and-bust, hype-and-dismissal cycle of emerging genres. All of which is, needless to say, to the good.
“Divergent” won’t change the world, even its own dystopian one. But it does suggest that, like the characters the genre regularly cranks out, YA may finally be coming of age.
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