Hollywood has long looked to the Young Adult book genre for material to adapt to the big screen. In recent decades, the trend of which YA properties make the leap from page to screen can be charted by the major successes: Harry Potter ushered in a wave of fantasy adaptations, Twilight was followed by vampire and/or romantic dramas, and The Hunger Games inspired studios to bring post-apocalyptic sci-fi adventures to theaters. Franchises that followed in the wake of The Hunger Games included 20th Century Fox’s The Maze Runner, Summit Entertainment’s Ender’s Game, and Lionsgate’s Divergent.
However, as the popularity (and box office gross) of The Hunger Games waned over recent years, so too has the public’s interest in fellow apocalyptic sci-fi films and franchises based on YA properties. Earlier in 2016, The 5th Wave – based on Rick Yancey’s novel of the same name – opened to poor reviews and floundered at the box office. Then, the third film in Lionsgate’s Divergent series, Allegiant – based on the first half of the final novel in author Veronica Roth’s YA trilogy – opened to less than enthusiastic reviews, and an even more disappointing box office, earning significantly less than previous installments.
Seemingly in response to the opening weekend box office, Lionsgate slashed the budget for the fourth and final movie in the Divergent series, Ascendant. And the latest reports about the status of Ascendant found Lionsgate planning to premiere the Divergent finale on TV – rather than release it in theaters – with potential for a spinoff television series to continue on in the post-apocalyptic world. In the weeks since the report, franchise star Shailene Woodley, who plays protagonist Tris Prior, said she was as surprised by the news as fans and hadn’t signed up for a TV show. But, most recently, Woodley said Lionsgate hasn’t “finalized any decisions” just yet.
Still, whether or not the Divergent series wraps up on film, television, or Lionsgate decides to reboot the franchise entirely and launch a television series based on Roth’s books, the box office returns of The Hunger Games, The 5th Wave, and Allegiant point toward a larger trend in Hollywood. Allegiant’s failure at the box office seemed to be a clear indication that the fad of YA dystopian sci-fi blockbusters had officially come to an end, but Hollywood is by no means done adapting young adult-geared novels. So, here’s what the Divergent TV movie/series means for YA properties.
YA Is Moving to TV
In recent years, there has been a general shift toward television for young adult adaptations. In 2014, The CW debuted The 100, an extremely loose adaptation of Kass Morgan’s novel, and though the show didn’t win over critics and fans immediately, it garnered a devoted following throughout its first two seasons. Although The 100 received deserved criticism in its third year for treatment of a main LGBTQ character, the network renewed the show for a fourth season.
Elsewhere on television, a number of YA properties were adapted to relatively successful debut seasons earlier this year; MTV’s The Shannara Chronicles premiered to largely positive reviews, tapping into an audience of casual TV fantasy viewers and fans of Terry Brooks’ novels alike. The response was enough to earn Shannara Chronicles a second season from MTV. Additionally, Syfy brought the gritty world of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians to life, offering a more adult take on a school for wizards as well as the reality for those practicing magic on their own. Like Shannara, Syfy ordered a second season of The Magicians, extending the YA property’s TV stay.
However, the most interesting case of a YA novel being adapted to the small screen is Freeform’s Shadowhunters that debuted earlier this year. Though the first season was a largely by the book adaptation of Cassandra Clare’s novel, The Mortal Instruments, Shadowhunters wasn’t the first time the property was brought to life. In 2013, Constantin Film adapted the first book in Clare’s series as The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, but the movie failed to impress critics or audiences, and earned a meager $90 million worldwide on a $60 million production budget.
As a result, Constantin postponed production on a sequel to City of Bones that had already been given the green light. Although the company later announced production would begin in 2014, the plans for a big screen sequel were abandoned in favor of rebooting the property on television. Now, Shadowhunters has been granted a second season on Freeform, continuing the story of Clary Fray and her supernatural world. In a similar situation, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials novels followed the path of first being adapted to theaters, as 2007’s Golden Compass, before making the jump to TV – in an upcoming series for BBC.
Although not the same case as the Divergent franchise wrapping up on television, Shadowhunters does offer precedence of a studio forgoing a big screen continuation in favor of a small screen adaptation. Certainly, there is a difference between a series that has completed and released three of four planned films theatrically and a franchise false-starter. That said, given the Divergent series stars’ comments on the final installment in the series – namely, both Woodley and co-star Miles Teller casting doubt on whether they’d return for a TV project – it remains to be seen how closely this franchise follows the path of The Mortal Instruments.
No matter whether Divergent does retain its stars while making the leap to television for a final installment or goes the Shadowhunters route and recasts the characters to pursue a new adaptation of the source material, there has been a noticeable shift away from blockbuster releases of YA properties in favor of developing TV series. Aside from networks like The CW, Freeform, and MTV – which generally cater to younger-leaning audiences – other providers like Syfy and, most recently, Hulu are working on YA-based series; Hulu recently announced development on a series based on Sarah J. Maas’ Throne of Glass novels (not to mention the streaming service’s adaptation of Marvel’s The Runaways).
So, although Lionsgate completing a blockbuster franchise on television may seem like an outlier in the realm of movies, it does factor into the current trend of YA properties – especially those within the sci-fi/fantasy genre – moving to TV. But, Hollywood hasn’t necessarily given up on big screen adaptations of YA series.
Differentiating From The Hunger Games
Despite the falling popularity of The Hunger Games in its final two movies (also a case of one story split into two which studios are now avoiding) and the massive dropoff with Allegiant, there are still a number of YA properties in development on the track to theatrical release. However, these properties seem to be attempting to distinguish themselves among the post-Hunger Games crowd. Last year’s announcement that Elizabeth Banks was in talks to direct an adaptation of Victoria Aveyard’s Red Queen described the project by relating it to Hunger Games, X-Men, and Cinderella. While The Hunger Games doesn’t necessarily hold the same kind of clout as it did following the massive success of Catching Fire, it is still the most recent big YA blockbuster.
That said, earlier this year, when it was reported that Fox had tapped Kung Fu Panda 3 director Jennifer Yuh Nelson to helm an adaptation of Alexandra Bracken’s The Darkest Minds, the production was pitched as a movie mixing superheroics with a coming of age tale along the lines of Stand by Me and a post-apocalyptic survival story in the vein of The Walking Dead. Although The Darkest Minds does venture into fantasy, it could definitely be categorized under dystopian sci-fi YA. So, it seems Hollywood, or those involved in these adaptations at least, is avoiding the comparisons to The Hunger Games and Divergent, signaling a shift to escape the shadow of both these franchises – especially given their respective current standings.
Even if The Hunger Games is used as a point of reference on a new project, it may be to differentiate the proposed adaptation from Katniss Everdeen’s tale. For instance, Kiera Cass’s The Selection has long been thought of as a cross between The Hunger Games and ABC’s reality dating competition series The Bachelor. Set in a dystopian society that chooses women from different castes to compete for a marriage with the land’s prince, The Selection also deals with social unrest and rebellion – a premise with themes that are easily comparable to The Hunger Games.
However, it was announced earlier this year that Thea Sharrock is attached to direct the big screen adaptation – even though Warner Bros. has yet to give the film an official green light. Sharrock is most well known for her work in the theater, though she made her directorial debut with tearjerker romantic drama Me Before You. Additionally, the film’s script was penned by Black List scribe Katie Lovejoy with a story described as “The Hunger Games without the bloodshed.” So, it stands to reason the project is headed more toward romantic drama with shades of political thriller rather than a sci-fi action blockbuster successor to The Hunger Games.
All in all, it appears that Hollywood is moving away from projects that too closely resemble The Hunger Games – or movies in the style of Hunger Games like Divergent and The Maze Runner. While there appears to be somewhat of a lull in big tentpole YA-based franchises, Hollywood may simply be looking for the next big hit.
What’s Next For YA Properties?
With the trend of movies following in the wake of The Hunger Games’ popularity, it would seem Hollywood is ready for another massive hit film based on a YA book series. Certainly, considering the number of YA novels hitting shelves each year, there’s bound to be a standout hit that would be perfect for a big screen adaptation. Or, Hollywood could venture into YA classics – The Chronicles of Narnia series is seeing a revival in the form of a fourth movie, The Silver Chair.
Until Hollywood finds a new tentpole that will usher in a fresh wave of YA properties, it’s likely studios will stick to small screen adaptations. The latest installments of The Hunger Games and Divergent made considerably less at the box office than their predecessors and whether or not that speaks to the quality of these movies (which may have suffered as final books were split into two films), it seems unlikely studios will be willing to put up large budgets for films that may not perform well at the box office. These kinds of movies simply aren’t viable investments anymore.
As a result, the majority of YA properties may be adapted to television in the coming years, where there is a lower budget (and lower risk). Plus, we’re currently living in an age of Peak TV – a term describing the vast number, and generally exceptional quality, of television series thanks to the boom of original cable and streaming shows. As networks and companies like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon build up their libraries of original series, they may look to YA novels for inspiration. Plus, as we’ve seen this year with Shadowhunters, The Magicians, and The Shannara Chronicles, the success rate for YA properties on television seems to be much better at this point in time.
Still, it’s doubtful Hollywood has given up on tentpole blockbusters based on YA novels. But, with the Divergent film series moving to television and seemingly indicating that the trend started by The Hunger Games has officially come to an end, the film studios seem to be holding out for a hero that will kickstart the next trend.
We’ll keep you updated on Divergent: Ascendant as more information becomes available.