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'The Maze Runner': Can it solve the YA puzzle?

'The Maze Runner': Can it solve the YA puzzle?
Dylan O'Brien in "The Maze Runner." (Ben Rothstein / 20th Century Fox)

Like its protagonist — a boy who wakes up trapped in a giant, ever-shifting labyrinth guarded by biomechanical predators — the young-adult adventure "The Maze Runner" will try to navigate a series of imposing obstacles this weekend: a down year for moviegoing, a traditionally quiet month for new releases and, perhaps most forbiddingly, a landscape strewn with recent YA disappointments.

On the plus side, "The Maze Runner" does boast a rising star in Dylan O'Brien (MTV's "Teen Wolf"), and first-time feature director Wes Ball made the film on a relatively modest $34-million budget.

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Some analysts are predicting an opening weekend as high as $40 million for the adaptation of James Dasher's book, which would put it among the biggest September openings ever (Fox is managing expectations lower, projecting an opening of about $20 million). Reviews so far have been generally favorable, though not effusive.

If "The Maze Runner" finds an audience, the movie could spawn a lucrative new franchise for Fox. But it's worth noting that for every hit YA adaptation, there have been plenty of failures. Here's a look at some recent hits and misses. We're keeping the focus on adventure, sci-fi and fantasy offerings ("The Fault in Our Stars" and "If I Stay," fit the category from an audience standpoint, but not a genre one). The survey shows that "Maze Runner' does have a few movies to model itself after--but that a happy escape is not a path oft-taken by many of these films.

"The Giver": Miss.

Lois Lowry's 1993 novel laid the blueprint for the now-familiar story arc in which a lone young hero challenges the authoritarian control of a futuristic society. But by the time the film adaptation arrived more than 20 years later, movies like "The Hunger Games" and "Divergent" had already beat it to the punch. Reviews said "The Giver" didn't bring anything new to the genre, and the film has grossed a so-so $41 million domestically, on a $25-million budget.

"Divergent:" Hit.

Shailene Woodley's turn to lead a YA franchise became something of an anomaly upon its release in March — it was neither a huge hit like "Twilight" and "The Hunger Games" nor a dud along the lines of "Beautiful Creatures" and "The Mortal Instruments." "Divergent," a dystopian actioner, opened to a solid $56 million (on an $85-million budget) and went on to gross $286 million worldwide. Lionsgate is moving ahead with three planned sequels.

"Vampire Academy:" Miss.

"Twilight" and its parade of imitators must have bled the vampire genre dry, because by the time "Vampire Academy" (based on the Richelle Mead books) hit theaters, it opened to a dismal $4.1 million, far below the moderate $10 million that industry tracking had predicted.

"The Hunger Games: Catching Fire": Hit.

You've probably heard of this one. Powered by star Jennifer Lawrence, the second installment of the "Hunger Games" juggernaut grossed $864 million worldwide and scored strong reviews. Look for the first chapter of the franchise's two-part "Mockingjay" finale to set fire to the box office in November.

"Ender's Game": Miss.

Like "The Giver," the adaptation of Orson Scott Card's sci-fi classic took decades to make it to the multiplex (the book was published in 1985), and moviegoers apparently didn't think it was worth the wait. With a price tag north of $100 million, "Ender's Game" debuted to a mediocre $28 million and finished with $125 million worldwide; reviews were also mixed. "Ender's" underpeformance has put Lionsgate's franchise designs in doubt.

"The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones:" Miss.

The adaptation of the first novel in Cassandra Clare's six-book series about a teenager (played by Lily Collins) who discovers she is part of a clan of demon chasers proved quite mortal upon its release a year ago: Plans for a sequel were delayed and nearly scrapped after "City of Bones" grossed only $31 million domestically — just more than half the production budget. (The film grossed an additional $59 million overseas.) Ultimately, German financial backer Constantin Films announced that it would push ahead with a follow-up, "City of Ashes," with a reworked script and marketing strategy.

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