"Ender's Game" may not be the best-executed adaptation in the history of moviedom. But it's based on a major bestseller and a longtime fan favorite, so by all rights it should have made a boatload of money instead of eking out $28 million on its first weekend and going quietly into that dystopian night.
It’s hardly alone, of course. Why the young-adult boom has gone bust has been a hot topic in development circles in recent weeks.
There are rarely the kind of feeding frenzies in Hollywood of the kind that followed the first "Harry Potter" movies (and, to a somewhat lesser extent, the first “Twilight” movie). Yet the fruits of that effort keep turning up rotten.
“Mortal Instruments.” “The Host.” Beautiful Creatures.” “The Golden Compass,” if you want to go further back. “Percy Jackson” did OK the first time out; not so for its sequel.
Exactly three YA book franchises have become major hits in the modern era. “Harry Potter,” “Twilight” and, now, “Hunger Games.” And not just hits, but ridiculous blockbusters. “Harry Potter" movies regularly approached $900 million around the world. The five “Twilight” movies nearly tallied $1.4 billion just in the U.S.
When “Hunger Games” comes out later this month it likely will become the biggest-grossing movie in the U.S. this year. Indeed, it will become the biggest movie of the last five years outside of just two films -- “Avatar” and “The Avengers.”
It adds up to a kind of 1% for young-adult adaptations. There may not be a category in the modern era with such a disparity between hits and misses. Animated movies can go big or flop, but not like this. Superhero films have their own ebb and flow, but it’s different.
The closest you might get to a middle class with a YA title is "Chronicles of Narnia.” Barely. That movie kicked off with a huge ($745 million) debut in 2005 -- clearly part of the monied classes. But the next two movies each grossed barely half that and the series went away.
You could say that genre is responsible for this gap, but the movies run the gamut. You could also trot out gender, but most of them have a mix of male and female leads.
You could say you need an author name, but “The Host” had “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer, and look how that worked out.
You could even offer the old Hollywood trope that it’s the quality of the film, but then, you know, “Twilight.”
The only constants among the hits seems to be (a) a mega-selling book series and (b) (and here is where the producers of "Ender's Game" may have faltered) a current mega-selling book series.
Sales of Orson Scott Card's Ender Wiggins books rival that of "Twilight" historically. But that is history -- they haven't sold nearly as many lately. There's no formula for a YA blockbuster. But if you don't have a set of books that a wide swath of a current generation grew up with, your job gets a whole lot harder.
It's something of a strange notion in the book-to-film world, since on the grown-up side there’s a far lower correlation between mega-selling books and blockbuster movies. “The Lovely Bones” and “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” were hugely popular tomes that went nowhere as movies, while plenty of great films have rescued a marginal book.
“Divergent” comes next in the YA category, riding in next year on a new wave of hope. Director Neil Burger is a talented filmmaker. Shailene Woodley is a solid young actress. Veronica Roth’s first book in the series, set in a bleakly futurist Chicago, sold several million copies. Still, it’s not the 100 million+ stratosphere of “Twilight” or “Harry Potter.” And that could put it back with the 99%.
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