Following the massive success of Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight Saga, the young adult book genre began churning out enough supernatural romances that they warranted their own sub-genre. Similarly, after Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games became a best-seller, dystopian sci-fi series became the newest trend in YA novels – including Veronica Roth’s Divergent and James Dashner’s The Maze Runner.
On the film side of things, Warner Bros.’ Harry Potter movie franchise, based on the series by J.K. Rowling, inspired many movie studios to adapt a number of YA book-based properties to the screen, attempting to find the next big hit. The subsequent successes of Summit Entertainment’s adaptation of the Twilight Saga and Lionsgate’s Hunger Games film franchise continued to spur on studios attempting to cash in on the desirable, if fickle, young adult market.
In recent years, Lionsgate and 20th Century Fox have found middling success in their franchises based on Divergent and The Maze Runner, respectively. But, the latest YA release, Allegiant – the third movie of four planned in the Divergent series – has seen poor critical reviews and the worst box office returns of the franchise. Given the lower than expected box office performances of recent YA blockbusters on the whole, coupled with the shift of many YA-based properties over to television, Allegiant may well signal the end of this current trend of YA dystopian movie franchises.
The first film in The Divergent Series was a middling success among critics and fans, but the franchise has consistently declined with the releases of the second and third installments: Insurgent and Allegiant. Divergent fell into the middle ground of YA adaptations as a whole when it was released in 2014, and Insurgent failed to elevate the series. Divergent currently holds a 40 percent “fresh” rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and a 70 percent audience score, and Insurgent received a 29 percent from critics and a 60 percent from audiences. Allegiant has so far been the worst reviewed film in the franchise, and marks the series low with a 10 percent critic score and a 50 percent score from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes.
As for the series’ opening weekend domestic box offices, Divergent pulled in $54 million, Insurgent slightly less than that at $52 million, and Allegiant a significantly lower amount of $29 million. The third film in The Divergent Series opened at number two at the box office, unable to knock Disney’s latest animated feature Zootopia from its top spot. Unsurprisingly, the poor box office of Allegiant has had an effect on the final film in the franchise, Ascendant, leading to reports of Lionsgate cutting the fourth installment’s budget. Allegiant and Ascendant are both based on the third book in Roth’s trilogy, following the trend established by Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games of splitting the final novel into two movies.
The lackluster box office performance of Allegiant comes on the heels of Lionsgate’s previous YA-based dystopian sci-fi film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, underperforming as well. Comparatively, the Jennifer Lawrence-led franchise’s opening weekends included The Hunger Games with $152 million in 2012, Catching Fire with $158 in 2013, Mockingjay – Part 1 with $121.9 million in 2014, and Mockingjay – Part 2 with $101 million in 2015. Still, Lionsgate’s Rob Friedman stated the final Hunger Games film underperformed by between $50 and $100 million, chalking the loss up to the November terrorist attacks in Paris and the December release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens.
Though there are certainly many factors that could have led to the diminishing box offices of both The Hunger Games and The Divergent Series, at least one reason that should be considered is that audiences may be growing tired with Hollywood’s handling of YA-based blockbuster fare. Many YA properties follow the Chosen One trope and other storytelling clichés, especially those that hit shelves in the wake of Collins’ dystopian trilogy. So, when a book is boiled down into the main key plot points – leaving room for the big action set pieces requisite in any blockbuster – many YA-based films follow too similar a story structure, with little to differentiate them from others in the genre. It may be difficult to chart on paper, but the diminishing box offices of YA-based franchises seem to be an indication of audiences growing weary of watching good-looking teens struggle to survive in a cruel (but PG-13) future.
While The Hunger Games marks the successful end of the spectrum in terms of box office and critical success for sci-fi YA adaptations, and the Divergent franchise largely falls into the middle, there have been a number of flops as well. The most recent is The 5th Wave, based on Rick Yancey’s young adult novel following a teenaged girl attempting to survive the many waves of an alien invasion. The film opened to $10.7 million domestically and has since only grossed $34 million at the US box office, though it performed better at the foreign box office, raking in $71 million.
Other YA-based sci-fi films to underperform in recent years include The Giver, Ender’s Game, The Host, and I Am Number Four. If other YA-based genre films are included, the list expands to encompass Vampire Academy, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, Beastly, Beautiful Creatures as well as both Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters. Given the list here, it’s fair to say Hollywood has seen more misses than hits when bringing young adult stories to the big screen. Additionally, many of these films were based on the first book in a full series of YA novels with studios aiming to build a franchise, but poor box office performances and critical receptions led to those plans being scrapped.
Of course, there hasn’t been a perfect recipe for concocting YA-based films that will hit it big at the box office – although the YA series that have sold more books are generally the more successful adaptations. Still, it seems the tide of YA adaptations is shifting away from movies toward television. January of this year saw the premiere of three new television series based on YA novels: MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles, Freeform’s Shadowhunters, and Syfy’s The Magicians. These series joined fellow YA-based TV show, The CW’s The 100, which premiered its third season.
Many of these television series may suffer from much the same plot problems as YA-based films – following a Chosen One storyline and including a number of tropes associated with the genre. But, the length of a TV season grants these shows more room to establish what sets them apart from their genre competitors. Plus, the use of the Chosen One narrative and the inclusion of love triangles or female protagonists with poor self-image is as pervasive and inescapable, if not more so, within the YA book genre as their film adaptations. At least on television, writers and actors have a chance to turn tropes on their head with quality storytelling and performances, whereas films don’t have the same opportunities within their two-hour timeframe.
Certainly, there are still young adult novels whose rights have been optioned by a number of film studios and put into various stages of development. For instance, Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen was optioned by Universal Pictures in 2013 and the studio was eyeing Elizabeth Banks (Pitch Perfect 2) to direct. However, while many of these books were optioned with an aim for blockbuster adaptations when The Hunger Games franchise was ongoing, there has been little movement on these YA-based movies in recent months.
As with any trend in Hollywood, the era of YA-inspired dystopian films ushered into theaters in the wake of The Hunger Games’ success must come to an end. Even if there is audience interest in more sci-fi/fantasy blockbusters based on YA novels, studios may be hesitant to fund big-budget adaptations due to the diminishing box offices of both The Hunger Games and The Divergent Series. Plus, with YA properties moving to television – The 100, Shadowhunters, and The Magicians have already been renewed for additional seasons – it seems the tide of this genre is changing.
The Divergent Series: Allegiant is now playing in theaters. The Divergent Series: Ascendant will premiere on June 9th, 2017.