9 franchise-starting young adult films that struggled

For every Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, there are those franchises that didn't quite set the world on fire...

Since Insurgent came out, I’ve been thinking about those less fortunate: the franchise wannabes. While Divergent may have succeeded financially, (a film that rode on the coat-tails of the even more lucrative The Hunger Games franchise) there are others who didn’t quite make it into the movie world’s big leagues. These are the franchise-starters that flopped, the films produced with the optimistic hope that they will bring in the readies and kick-start Hollywood’s latest franchise. Worse luck for them, really.

For the sake of simplicity, this list will zero in on YA franchise-starters, films adapted from a young adult novel or with that audience in mind. There are plenty of more mature films that struggled such as Prince Of Persia: The Sands of Time, The A-Team, and the granddaddy of them all: John Carter. But today we’ll be concentrating on the movies that tried to go down the Harry Potter route and didn’t strike box office gold.

Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events

This one did well for Paramount Pictures, so it may seem an odd place to start. It stacked up favorable reviews from critics on top of that yet a sequel never arose, and it’s a bit of a shame because Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events is really rather smashing.

Set in a curiously timeless steampunk city, A Series of Unfortunate Events concerns the orphaned Baudelaire children who are put into the care of their malevolent uncle, Count Olaf. It’s an accurate adaptation of the source material with a superbly manic and rubbery performance by Jim Carrey who voraciously devours the scenery in every scene he graces. Throw in some excellent support by Timothy Spall, Meryl Streep and Billy Connolly, and you’ve got an entertaining and agreeably dark kids’ flick.

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Does it have a future? In short: yes. After the notion of a follow-up film was rubbished, Paramount turned their attention to the small screen. They are now working hand in hand with Netflix to transform A Series of Unfortunate Events into a TV series from the binge-watching service’s original drama stable. If it comes to fruition then, with a guiding hand by author Daniel Handler (or Snicket, if you prefer), it’s sure to be a corker.

I Am Number Four

I Am Number Four by Pittacus Lore (alias James Frey and Jobie Hughes) is an excellent piece of YA fiction replete with engaging characters, juicy action scenes and a convincing plot. The film, on the other hand, is substantially weaker.

Despite Alex Pettyfer and Glee’s Dianna Agron giving their all, I Am Number Four fails early and fails often. It’s about an alien teen named Number 4 who comes to Earth with eight other members of his own kind in order to elude the invading Mogadorian race. He and his custodian, Henri (a game Timothy Olyphant) travel from state to state assuming false identities and trying to further evade the Mogadorians. Notwithstanding the film’s many flaws (including the omission of key connecting scenes, leaving a bitty final act), there is promise with definite sparks between Pettyfer as Number 4 and Agron as his high school crush. There’s also an wider universe enticingly teased towards the finish but generally I Am Number Four is messy, and it’s a shame considering what its roots are.

Does it have a future? At present it’s a no but a couple of years back director D.J. Caruso stated, “There’s been some talk in the past couple of months about trying to do something because there is this audience appetite out there … I think DreamWorks is getting those too so it’ll be interesting. I don’t know if I’d be involved, but I know they’re talking about it.” Since then there has been nothing and James Frey, who recently spoke to SideB Blog, offered nothing new, saying, “I don’t know [if there is going to be another movie], I get asked that all the time”. He also shut down the possibility of I Am Number Four following A Series of Unfortunate Events’ lead with a TV show: “We tried doing it as a TV show, it’s impossible. Its either there are more movies or none at all.”

The Golden Compass

It’s more than a little tragic that this one simply did not work out. Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman’s immortal fantasy rigmarole, His Dark Materials, made waves when it was first released in the mid-90s. Its seemingly negative depiction of the Catholic Church (renamed the Magisterium here) ginned up a lot of controversy, sparking off debates about its content and suitability. But when it made the leap from the page to the silver screen as The Golden Compass in 2008, the results were underwhelming.

In spite of Nicole Kidman’s superbly wicked performance as Mrs. Coulter and Dakota Blue Richard’s excellent debut, The Golden Compass simply doesn’t work. It lacks the piquancy of the novel, waters down the controversy and tries to compensate for its narrative incoherence with lavish visuals. Northern Lights is a book that needed a pair of surer, more daring hands at the wheel because a film without the bite of the novel is a film not worth making. Still, credit to Chris Weitz for having a stab at it. And the film did win an Oscar, too.

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Does it have a future? It does not. A combination of the then inconstant economic climate (with New Line Cinema wary to put money into a sequel) and a box office return that failed to meet expectations results in no chances of an adaptation of The Subtle Knife, the second book in the trilogy. Last year Pullman said to the Daily Mail: “The girl who played Lyra is now an adult, and Daniel Craig is many times more expensive since he became James Bond.” You could say he’s stating the obvious but if anything it’s confirmation that Pullman has heard nothing about a follow-up to The Golden Compass.

Vampire Academy

Fantasy scribe Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy series is the type of fluffy, pseudo-gothic yarn that does not require a film adaptation. The characters aren’t really interesting enough to warrant screen counterparts, the plots are identikit and the world simply isn’t engrossing. But a couple of years back, The Weinstein Company hired Mean Girls director Mark Waters and his brother, Daniel (of Heathers fame) to manufacture a Vampire Academy movie. With that talent onboard, surely Vampire Academy could have been something special, something that stood out in the crowded field of YA fantasy films? The answer is a solid, definite no.

Movies with a colon inserted into the title are fairly indicative of both the studio’s faith in it and desire to produce a sequel. The full title for this particular feature is Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters. The sequel would have been called Vampire Academy: Frostbite, the third in the series called Vampire Academy: Shadow Kiss; you get the gist of it. If The Weinstein Company had had their way, the Vampire Academy series would have been earning them big bucks for a good decade (Richelle Mead ended up writing six books in total and that’s not including the spinoff series) but unfortunately for them that’s not the case and that’s down to the fact the first film is a shoddy production.

Hamstrung by a jarring, exposition-laden voiceover prologue as well as a script that, ironically, comes off as a weaker attempt to emulate Mean Girls (sexed up and with more blood), Vampire Academy never once finds its feet. The expansive backstory about different vampire sects might play out well on paper but here it’s forced down your throat in the opening ten minutes and it never picks up after that. Naturally, the obligatory-thespian-trousering-another-cheque-to-pay-for-a-new-conservatory (here, it’s the usually excellent Gabriel Byrne) is wasted in a thankless supporting role. Certain films on this list deserve another chance, but Vampire Academy is one that arguably should never have been made into a film in the first place.

Does it have a future? Not in the slightest and that’s in spite of the complacent cliffhanger ending to Vampire Academy: Blood Sisters. Initially, with more than a little wishful thinking and finger-crossing, a first draft of Vampire Academy: Frostbite was written up but after the first film bombed at the box office worldwide (amassing only half of its $30m budget) plans were suspended. The Weinstein Company, keen to spur on their latest franchise, decided to produce Frostbite on a lower budget with recycled money but only if the fans expressed enough interest (and Vampire Academy does have a lot of followers). A Kickstarter campaign was launched to raise funds but it failed to meet its target and plans for any follow-up were scrapped.

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Eragon

Eragon is, for all intents and purposes, whether deliberate or not, a Boys’ Own adventure. The lead – a young boy no less – is at first an unimportant farmhand, who spends his days pottering about without a destiny before a magical egg drops from the sky and his fate is sealed. This boy, Eragon then must go on a stock quest to discover his true place in the world, mature into a man, take on the malevolent ruler of the kingdom, get a pretty girlfriend and hand-rear a dragon to boot. The book, Eragon by Christopher Paolini, still stands up to this day as engaging, sub-Tolkien fare, but the film on the other hand accentuates the flaws of both whilst simultaneously delivering a dissatisfying adaptation.

There’s a snobbish distaste nurtured for teenage writers because of their age, and the unfavorable reviews Eragon received at the time of its release lambasted Christopher Paolini’s story. Eragon was Paolini’s fantasy (indeed, the main character was initially written autobiographically) and while the book is entertaining, it’s perhaps too generic (and that’s nothing to do with Paolini’s age). Because of this, it doesn’t ever really work and ends up coming off as an unusual jumble of elements taken from A Song of Ice and Fire, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope and a Brian Jacques novel.

On the upside, Jeremy Irons shoulders most of the drama as Eragon’s mentor, bringing a touch of gravitas with him. Fortitude’s Sienna Guillory co-stars as the love interest but she’s given little to do though, and everything plays out like a dull chess match, reaching an inevitable climax that massively baits a sequel. But overall, Eragon is frankly too vanilla, an attempt by 20th Century Fox to make a new, hit fantasy series with pretty predictable, uninspiring results.

Does it have a future? Despite being pilloried by the press, Eragon still made an appreciable amount of money from tickets globally ($249.5m off a $100m budget) but it was the cold reception from the fandom that was to be Eragon’s undoing. Narrative changes made by the studio weren’t well received and because of this hostile reaction there’s been radio silence from 20th Century Fox on the matter of a sequel. Christopher Paolini has been courteous about the movie, repeating over the years that Eragon was the filmmakers’ interpretation of his novel, but there’s been little in the way in praise. Recently, the fandom has used a petition to express their desire for Eragon to be rebooted but, to me, it seems to be something of a poisoned chalice and it’s unlikely the studio will take the risk again for something that was, by and large, a flop.

Inkheart

In reading Inkheart, you can see that Cornelia Funke has poured her sheer love and adoration of books into this one novel. The chapters are bookended with different literary quotes and the plot is driven by the characters’ love of words. It’s about a young girl, Meggie whose father is a Silvertongue (someone born with the ability to read characters out of stories) and their dealings with the characters of one particular novel, both good and bad. Derivative it may sound, but Funke is a gifted storyteller and imbues Inkheart with real magic. A magic that, sadly, did not translate to the big screen.

Brendan Fraser was cast as Meggie’s father (and he was the man Funke envisaged while writing the book), and Iain Softley’s adaptation lacks the vim and heart of Funke’s book as well as committing the most heinous of crimes: squandering the talents of Helen Mirren, Andy Serkis, Paul Bettany and Jim Broadbent. Each are wasted and it’s a real shame because with a better script, a bit more vision and a stronger backing (there’s a tangible sense that New Line Cinema wasn’t fully behind this one) Inkheart could have been something really special. It turned out not to be.

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Does it have a future? There were rumblings at the time of Inkheart’s release, but it was financially a flop for New Line and it’s hard to imagine the majority of the cast returning for a sequel.

Ender’s Game

Despite many people’s allergy to Orson Scott Card and his toxic views, the big screen adaptation of Ender’s Game was something hotly anticipated by moviegoers around the world. The book was a solemn, chunky, clunky bestseller set in a future dystopian Earth (who would have thought?) still reeling from an invasion fifty years prior. The military has neatly chosen to recruit young people to fight another potential incursion and Ender’s Game follows one such cadet named Ender. The results are so-so, particularly as X-Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood’s interpretation of Card’s novel is not as nearly as thought-provoking as the source material.

Asa Butterfield (whose most recent project, the excellent X+Y is well worth checking out) stars as Ender opposite Harrison Ford as the gruff and stern Colonel Graff, who enlists him into International Fleet’s junior division. Hood keeps things barreling along but the sparkle and charm of the convincing yet unspectacular special effects wears off quickly and one of Ender’s Game’s biggest flaws is that doesn’t really seem to have much thought for the characters. Additionally, if you take away the glossy effects then you have a pretty standard piece of YA fare, albeit strengthened in the eleventh hour by Hood back-loading a plethora of ideas into its third act.

Oddly, Ender’s Game starts as something pretty dull then only begins to improve late in the day with some excellent concepts that could have flourished if they’d been given space to breathe. Gavin Hood has given us an efficient, moderately entertaining adaptation of Card’s book, but it lacks the brains of the latter, covering the absence up with middling special effects and ultimately fails because of this.

Does it have a future? The closest thing the book has to a sequel is Speaker for the Dead (also written by Orson Scott Card) and it skips a few thousand years after the first book to when Ender is 35 (don’t worry; it’s all relative). Hood originally wanted to film Speaker for the Dead back-to-back with Ender’s Game, but the studio already had doubts about the financial success of the first film and quashed the idea before it could get off the ground.

Those misgivings were rightly placed as Ender’s Game made $27m in its first weekend in US cinemas, ultimately drawing in some unremarkable takings worldwide. The question of a sequel was subsequently thrown into doubt and then the idea of following the first film up with Speaker for the Dead was officially abandoned. Eventually, Card announced he was writing a direct sequel to the novel entitled Fleet School. Whether this will transition to cinemas remains to be seen but with Ender’s Game’s lower-than-expected box office earnings, it’s very unlikely.

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The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones

Cassandra Clare is, perhaps, one of the most prolific teen fantasy writers at large today. Her greatest success thus far has been the Mortal Instruments series, a sprawling urban yarn boasting almost every fantasy staple under the sun: vampires, demons, demon-hunters, fairies, werewolves, normal humans christened silly names (here, non-magic folk are called the Mundanes; subtly hammering home the point), ancient fabled societies, a wicked rogue attempting to bring down the ‘magical’ world. Nonetheless, Clare has her reputation for a reason because the Mortal Instruments series is thrilling in parts, packing a twisty narrative through the six books and some genuinely well developed characters, even if it liberally transplants a lot of plot details from other, better fantasy series.

Much like the Vampire Academy adaptation, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones seizes its just over two hour runtime and tries to jam in as much plot as possible in order to appeal. Naturally, it fails tremendously on this level with an overabundance of potentially interesting arcs teased and a rather unpalatable dosage of raging teenage hormones. Lily Collins (a superb actress who has been woefully misused in the features she’s headed up: Mirror Mirror, Love, Rosie) plays Clary Fray, an arty New York teen who begins to notice one mysterious emblem cropping up through her daily life. She investigates, naturally, and uncovers her and her mother’s (Game Of Thrones’ Lena Headey is probably the most talented and most wasted cast member here) Shadowhunting origins.

Clary is destined to eventually hunt demons (this is aided by some helpful congenital angel’s blood) but first she must go on a quest closer to her heart along with another Shadowhunter, Jace Wayland (Jamie Campbell Bower) and her friend-zoned, preppy best friend (an excellent performance by an unrecognizable Robert Sheehan). The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones plays along to familiar fantasy beats and is lumbered with a heavy-handed script and an overstuffed mythos but that doesn’t stop it being entertaining fare nonetheless. Collins is a more than capable lead while Jamie Campbell Bower desperately tries to grump as much as possible to fill in the sullen-but-kind-hearted male love interest role.

Does it have a future? Constantin Film were confident that City of Bones would do well and gave a sequel (based on Cassandra Clare’s second novel in the series, The Mortal Instruments: City of Ashes) the go-ahead. But City of Bones opened to a lacklustre first weekend in the US and then continued to perform poorly internationally. This didn’t stop the studio though who pressed ahead with the sequel, even managing to rope in Sigourney Weaver and persuade the entirety of the first film’s cast to return (even Lena Headey). However, eventually the poor takings of City of Bones forced Constantin Film to put things into perspective, and problems with the script put the project on hold for 2013.

Things went quiet in 2014 despite City of Ashes formally being in pre-production. Finally, in the springtime director Harold Zwart announced his departure from the sequel and then in October, much to everyone’s surprise, a reboot TV adaptation was announced. Fans are pleased because this will give the books a place to develop at the right pace (see: Sarah Dobbs’ smashing piece on what the TV show should deliver) and the Mortal Instruments show enters production in May, overseen by Ed Decter (who has worked on the likes of Helix and The Client List). Its new home will be ABC Family, the birthplace of Pretty Little Liars and it’ll be called Shadowhunters. Fingers crossed they get it right this time.

Stormbreaker

Admittedly, this one is more skewed towards younger children and there’s a debate to be had over whether Stormbreaker is technically young adult, but the film is a lot more mature. Directed by Geoffrey Sax (of the Doctor Who TV Movie fame), Stormbreaker adheres strictly to Anthony Horowitz’s original plot (the author himself penned the script) and while it is considerably more enjoyable than a lot of the other films on this list, it’s easy to see why it was never followed up.

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Alex Pettyfer brims with charm and likeability as the slightly reserved but savvy schoolboy Alex Rider who discovers that his only relative (played fleetingly by Ian McGregor) was, in fact, an operative for MI6. Unusually for this kind of film, Alex takes his time before deciding to follow in his uncle’s footsteps, and is instructed by MI6’s frosty head to investigate an American businessman with a too-good-to-be-true plan to donate one of his brand new computer systems to every school in Britain. It’s a generic set-up for what The Weinstein Company evidently expected to be a runaway success (around the time of its release Stormbreaker was mooted as the next Harry Potter franchise) but there’s definite fun to be had, namely with Mickey Rourke’s moustache-twirlingly evil turn as the villain, and Clueless’ Alicia Silverstone as Alex’s nanny who gets a terrific fight sequence with Missi Pyle’s campy henchwoman.

Does it have a future? Despite the hoopla fostered around its release in 2006, Stormbreaker simply didn’t garner enough capital to satisfy The Weinstein Company so a sequel was a no-go. Anthony Horowitz said in 2009 that the books “do not translate well to the big screen” and he last mentioned it in a 2014 interview with The Guardian’s children’s books site, stating, “Stormbreaker was not 100% successful and coming to terms with that was a bit sad.” More’s the pity.