Ender's Game

It’s no great mystery why Hollywood keeps looking for material in the young-adult section of Barnes & Noble. When a YA series hits, it hits big. But for every Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, or Bella Swan, there are five Alex Riders; not every kid- or teen-lit character makes a profitable leap from page to screen. Below, we’ve singled out 21 movies, all based on popular book series for young readers, that failed to inspire a corresponding hit movie franchise. Narnia, which made it to three films, is exempt. Percy Jackson, which somehow limped to two, is not.

1. The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones (2013)

Cassandra Clare’s fantasy novels aren’t just a YA series; they’re practically their own library, with the six-book Mortal Instruments cycle (published from 2007 through 2014) giving way to additional series of prequels and sequels. It was only natural that her realm of half-angels, vampires, werewolves, semi-demons, and warlocks would expand into film, and kid-friendly franchiser Harald Zwart (Agent Cody Banks; The Pink Panther 2) was to shepherd the adaptation. Released toward the end of summer 2013 with plenty of promotional buildup (long-lead trailers, quasi-hip soundtrack), The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones landed with a faint thud, perhaps splitting its genre audience with the same weekend’s The World’s End and You’re Next. The film’s production company insisted for a few months following City Of Bones’ inauspicious debut (on more than 3,000 movie screens—and, shortly thereafter, on the list of the weakest opening weekends to result from a movie playing on more than 3,000 screens) that the planned sequel would move ahead. But those plans morphed into a TV series reboot, supposedly to give the mythology more breathing room. Shadowhunters may emerge sometime next year, presumably without stars Lily Collins and Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
Why it didn’t take off: Besides a laughable mouthful of a title, The Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones movie features a nonstop flood of exposition and taxonomy, straining to explain a convoluted world that includes just about every kind of fantastical humanoid creature short of centaurs, and calls them all by alternate names for maximum confusion. Maybe non-diehards weren’t in the mood for a mythology exam as they faced back-to-school blues. [Jesse Hassenger]

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2. Ender’s Game (2013)

Orson Scott Card’s 1985 sci-fi novel is a beloved classic, but by the time Gavin Hood’s film adaptation hit screens, Card himself was somewhat less than beloved. He had campaigned publicly against gay marriage and made numerous controversial statements in the process, angering fans and troubling producers and the film’s cast, who spent more time disavowing Card than actually promoting the film. While reviews were generally positive, audiences stayed away, and it earned just over half its $110 million budget domestically.
Why it didn’t take off: It’s impossible to tell how much impact Card’s controversial statements had on the film’s reception, but they certainly didn’t help. Of course, even if the film had been a smash, a series might have been tough to pull off. The second book in the series, Speaker For The Dead, follows an adult Ender, traveling thousands of years further into the future, meaning that neither star Asa Butterfield nor any of the supporting cast would participate without some serious rewrites. Card has written 16 Ender books and counting, but many of them follow supporting characters on their own journeys and only involve Ender tangentially. A sprawling film series was probably never a possibility. [Mike Vago]

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3. The Golden Compass (2007)

The first installment of Philip Pullman’s wonderful His Dark Materials trilogy, and arguably its best, The Golden Compass is a heady adventure that explores the darkness of organized religion and the wonders of steampunk fantasy. The world, an alternate Oxford, is both familiar and new; it’s a perfect playground for Lyra, the protagonist, to learn about her own history and the prophecy she is meant to fulfill.
Why it didn’t take off: The casting for The Golden Compass was flawless: Nicole Kidman played the icy Mrs. Coulter, Daniel Craig the powerful Lord Asriel, and Sam Elliott the Texan aeronaut Lee Scoresby. The film’s voice-overs and bogged-down plotting didn’t help with an already complicated plot. There could be more to it than just a flat, boring movie, though: Elliott has publicly blamed the Catholic Church for the lack of a sequel, saying, “The Catholic church happened to The Golden Compass, as far as I’m concerned.” Sadly ironic for a series of books that attacks organized religion head-on. [Laura M. Browning]

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4. Beautiful Creatures (2013)

Alcon Entertainment snapped up the rights to Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl’s Beautiful Creatures, the first book of four in their Caster Chronicles saga, immediately after the book’s release in late 2009. In a marketplace dominated by YA adaptations, it’s understandable why Alcon moved so quickly. The book has all the necessary ingredients for a YA hit: a fated, forbidden love affair between an average boy and a witchy woman; magical powers; and goofy, esoteric terminology. But Beautiful Creatures didn’t storm the public consciousness as a book, and when the film was released in 2013, it was an unknown quantity to a large swath of the target audience. Richard LaGravenese directed Beautiful Creatures from his own adapted screenplay and attracted a talented cast, including Emma Thompson, Jeremy Irons, and Viola Davis. Despite its handsome look, strong performances, and general faithfulness to the source material, Beautiful Creatures just barely recouped its $60 million budget.
Why it didn’t take off: There was a lack of enthusiasm around the film. The public wasn’t convinced this was a phenomenon they needed to catch up with. The diehard fans, meanwhile, had casting gripes that didn’t subside after they saw the finished product. [Joshua Alston]

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5. Eragon (2006)

The Inheritance Cycle, the four-book dragon-centric series that Eragon kicks off, was written by a teenager—at least in its early days. Christopher Paolini wrote Eragon at the age of 15 and after a successful self-publishing stint, the book was republished by Knopf in 2003, when Paolini was 20. Even bigger sales and three more books followed. Shortly after the first book sequel and just a year after the first Narnia movie, the film version of Eragon appeared, looking and sounding very much like an earnestly third-rate fantasy story penned by an enthusiastic novice. It opened to $23 million and finished with $75 million domestic (and a quarter of a billion worldwide!)—more than plenty of 2006 releases that pursued the same audience, from kid pictures (like Monster House) to action fantasies (like Underworld: Evolution). In other words, it did pretty damn well for an absolutely terrible movie. But perhaps sensing what they got away with, Fox opted not to press their luck with any film sequels.
Why it didn’t take off: Ripping off Star Wars is not necessarily the worst commercial strategy, nor an unusual impulse for a teenage writer, but seriously: Much of Eragon is a beat-for-beat retelling of A New Hope, slightly rejiggered for fans who always wished one of the main villains could be isolated far away from most of the other characters. Or maybe that was just one of John Malkovich’s conditions for his appearance as said villain. [Jesse Hassenger]

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6. The Spiderwick Chronicles (2008)

2008 was a simpler time. Back then, in the days before Peter Jackson started dicing up 300-page novels into multiple movies, condensing was still a viable page-to-screen adaptation strategy. Just look at The Spiderwick Chronicles. Following a trio of siblings who stumble upon a magical alternate world of faeries and goblins, the movie covers the plot of five separate books—a whole series of illustrated adventures by Tony DiTerlizzi and Holly Black—in a fleet 96 minutes. The film was mostly well received, and it doubled its $90 million budget in worldwide ticket sales. Somewhere out there, though, a Paramount executive is tossing and turning, his dreams haunted by the phantom box-office grosses of The Spiderwick Chronicles: The Wrath Of Mulgarath—Part 2.
Why it didn’t take off: Well, in a way, it couldn’t take off. All five installments are covered in one movie, leaving no place for a prospective series to go—except, perhaps, to DiTerlizzi and Black’s sequel trilogy, Beyond The Spiderwick Chronicles, which probably would have been greenlit if the film had done just a little better. [A.A. Dowd]

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7. The Indian In The Cupboard (1995)

Premiering the summer of 1995, The Indian In The Cupboard assembled an all-star team of behind-the-scenes talent to adapt Lynne Reid Banks’ novel of friendship, time travel, miniature collection, magic cupboards, and magic keys. Directed by Frank Oz from a script by E.T. screenwriter Melissa Mathison, the project was one of Kathleen Kennedy and Frank Marshall’s first projects following their split from Amblin Entertainment. Like Banks’ The Indian And The Cupboard and the four books that followed it, the film follows the adventures of a young protagonist, Omri, who discovers that one birthday gift (an otherwise ordinary piece of storage) has the ability to bring another (a plastic Iroquois warrior) to life. The big-screen Indian In The Cupboard captures the wonder and the thematic poignancy of its source material, but extensive (and expensive) green-screen work and a change of setting (from the Thatcher-era England of the source material) rob the film of personality and specificity. Unfortunately, a sequence in which Omri pits Darth Vader, RoboCop, and a T. Rex in a cross-property cupboard face-off was no compensation.
Why it didn’t take off: Flattened by some of the toughest summer competition of the ’90s—including Batman Forever, Apollo 13, and Pocahontas—The Indian In The Cupboard couldn’t come alive at the box office. The intimacy of Oz’s vision couldn’t match the blockbuster scale of the production, preventing moviegoers from witnessing later chapters in the Indian saga that feature a villainous gang of skinheads and some intense mythology cartwheels. [Erik Adams]

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8-9. Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) and Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters (2013)

Author Rick Riordan created a can’t-miss YA formula with his Percy Jackson book series, based on a boy who discovers that he is the lost heir of Poseidon. He soon meets up with other demi-gods, half-siblings, and creatures from both Greek and Roman mythology. Riordan’s transference of ancient legends to the present-day secured the series’ success through five volumes. It sounded like a shoo-in for a blockbuster film series as well, but a lot of what made Percy Jackson so magical on the page got lost in its clunky translation to the big screen, which relied too much on big effects and not enough on small character moments. The second movie, 2013’s Percy Jackson And The Sea Of Monsters, actually did better than the failed first (2010’s Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief), but Riordan’s followers complained that the cinematic versions held only a faint resemblance to their source material. When it was announced in spring 2014 that the third movie in the series had been cancelled, Percy Jackson fans were relieved instead of outraged.
Why it didn’t take off: Since the Harry Potter series set such a high bar for effective YA book-to-film fantasy-based adaptations: Percy Jackson fans had reason to be hopeful, then were crushingly disappointed. Also, the benevolent Cyclops sidekick played better on the page than the screen. [Gwen Ihnat]

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10. The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007)

Of all the young adult series on this list, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence might be the one least suited for a big budget movie adaptation. Slow and thoughtful, Cooper’s books are ultimately about the importance of tradition, and the often-passive, resilient role of good in the face of great evil. (To give an example of the pace at work, this is a series where one of the biggest moments of action or dramatic tension involves a bunch of people watching a man put his hand inside a clock). So when David L. Cunningham’s movie The Seeker, based on the second book in the series, presented thoughtful, British, 11-year-old hero Will Stanton (Alexander Ludwig) as a girl-obsessed, aged-up, 14-year-old American, complete with flashy superpowers to aid him in his video-game-ish quest for six lost artifacts, it was hard for fans of the books not to roll their eyes, leaving the movie without a base to draw upon. Despite the presence of genre and cult TV fan favorites like Ian McShane and Christopher Eccleston, The Seeker sank at the box office, earning one of the worst openings in movie history, and (thankfully) torpedoing any chances of Cooper’s The Grey King or Greenwitch getting a similar treatment.
Why it didn’t take off: The awful, generic title certainly didn’t help. But while it would be easy to blame Ludwig—who would later have far more YA success as the predatory Cato in The Hunger Games—for turning in a performance as an annoying, cookie-cutter teen hero, he’s really only doing what director Cunningham and screenwriter John Hodge asked of him. They’re the ones who deserve the blame for stripping out what makes Cooper’s books interesting, and leaving a generic, unmarketable mess behind. [William Hughes]

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11. The Black Cauldron (1985)

In 1971, Disney optioned all five books in Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles Of Prydain fantasy series, so there may have been plans for a series of films from the start. But by the time animation started—nine years later—Disney had combined the first two books in the series into what became a rare debacle for the studio. The Black Cauldron is an anomaly in many ways. It was the first Disney film to use CGI, a rare Disney film with no songs, and the studio’s first-ever PG animated film. New studio head Jeffrey Katzenberg and CEO Michael Eisner clashed over editing scenes too graphic for children, eventually excising 12 minutes of footage and most of Elmer Bernstein’s score, which left a few awkward cuts in the finished product.
Why it didn’t take off: Besides production problems and a story that deviates wildly from the books, Cauldron was seen as too dark by fans used to Disney’s usual light touch. The film wound up costing $44 million to make—tying with Cleopatra and Heaven’s Gate as the then-most-expensive film ever—and only earned half of that back. It’s now looked on as Disney’s commercial low point before The Little Mermaid sparked a renaissance four years later. [Mike Vago]

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12. The Giver (2014)

Jeff Bridges spent two decades trying to get a big-screen version of Lois Lowry’s 1993 classroom staple off the ground. Acquiring, losing, and reacquiring the rights, he eventually grew old enough to play the title role, which he originally envisioned for his father, Lloyd. The Giver, released last summer by the Weinstein Company, faithfully preserved the monochromatic imagery of its source material, which is set in a dystopian society where humans have been genetically modified to see only in black and white. But director Philip Noyce and screenwriters Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide made plenty of other changes—aging up their preteen hero, bulking up the love story, and adding in some superfluous CGI action scenes. The ending leaves room for more installments, but modest earnings ($45 million) and lukewarm reviews more or less killed any chance that Lowry’s three, less-popular sequels would make it to the screen. Bridges can take heart, at least, that’s he’s the best thing about the movie—a perfect choice for the wise, wizened Giver.
Why it didn’t take off: By twisting The Giver to make it resemble the various modern YA franchises it inspired, the filmmakers ended up with what looked, ironically, like a bad Divergent knockoff. And fans of the book could smell a hatchet job. [A.A. Dowd]

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13. Lemony Snicket’s A Series Of Unfortunate Events (2004)

Lemony Snicket’s Series Of Unfortunate Events books were wildly popular upon publication, walking the line between hilarious camp and gothic horror for younger readers. After their parents’ death in a fire, Violet, Klaus, and Sunny Baudelaire are entrusted to a relative named Count Olaf, a dastardly fellow with no regard for the Baudelaires’ well-being. Snicket (a.k.a. Daniel Handler) created villains who were both hilarious and terrifying, and young heroes who were exceptionally resourceful and heartbreakingly human.
Why it didn’t take off: A large part of the books’ charm is captured in its tone, a word which here means “cheeky and instructional, but never condescending.” So why Jim Carrey—an actor known for facial melodrama—was cast as Count Olaf is a mystery for the ages. So much of the books ride on Count Olaf being an object of ridicule but also one of terror, and Carrey’s elastic interpretation left out half that equation. [Laura M. Browning]

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14. Cirque Du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)

After Twilight exploded onto movie screens in 2008, it was only natural that studios would cast around for other fang-based young adult fare to throw into the fire. It didn’t take them long to stumble across author Darren Shan’s Cirque Du Freak books, which chronicle a young man—also, confusingly, named Darren Shan—as he gets embroiled in a world of vampire politics and drama. When director Paul Weitz was tapped to direct a colorful adaptation of the first three books of Shan’s 12-volume tale, he managed to assemble a remarkably top-notch cast for the endeavor, including Salma Hayek, Kristen Schaal, Orlando Jones, Ken Watanabe, and John C. Reilly—hot off Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story and Step Brothers—in a starring role as the vampiric Mr. Crepsley. And yet, audiences just didn’t seem to care, bypassing Cirque Du Freak in favor of harder horror films like Paranormal Activity and the sixth Saw film, leaving it to open seventh at the box office and just barely failing to break even on its budget. Besides killing the franchise faster than a blood-crazed Vampaneze (don’t ask), The Vampire’s Assistant also tanked the career of its young star, Chris Massoglia, who’s barely worked since its release. (His co-star, Josh Hutcherson, has had slightly better luck in the young adult adaptation game.)
Why it didn’t take off: Any number of reasons, including but not limited to: vampire fatigue, people’s fear of French words in titles, and America’s ultimate unwillingness to extend its love affair with John C. Reilly into letting him open a franchise-launching film. [William Hughes]

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15. The Host (2013)

When producers optioned The Host—Stephenie Meyer’s first post-Twilight­-saga novel, about a teenage girl who rebels against the alien parasite that occupies her body (and also falls for some sensitive stud, of course)—the author was still openly, publically discussing the plan to make a trilogy out of the story. Assumedly, everyone involved in getting this YA twist on Invasion Of The Body Snatchers to the screen was banking on a new hit franchise. But Meyer never delivered the proposed sequels, The Seeker and The Soul. Not that they would have gotten adapted anyway: The movie, directed by Andrew Niccol (Gattaca) and starring Saoirse Ronan, more or less flopped, despite inescapable advertisements featuring that ubiquitous Imagine Dragons song. Also, the reviews were vicious.
Why it didn’t take off: In the five years that elapsed between the release of the book and the release of the movie, The Host’s fanbase may have simply graduated out of the YA wheelhouse. (The lack of any sequels to keep people invested couldn’t have helped.) Plus, the premise, a kind of love square in which two women share one body and pine for different men, might have been a little too high concept for the Twilight crowd—it lacks the primal simplicity of Meyer’s first franchise. [A.A. Dowd]

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16. Inkheart (2008)

Author Cornelia Funke often draws favorable comparison to J.K. Rowling; she’s written many wonderful YA and intermediate fantasies that find new ways of plumbing tales of dragons and storybooks. Inkheart is about a father and daughter who can turn stories into real life just by reading aloud; problem is, a real person disappears into the pages for every fictional person who comes to life. Though the plot follows some expected patterns, the book is still charming and a little scary, and still full of warm fuzzies about parental love.
Why it didn’t take off: Sometimes a book—especially one about books—should stay on the page. That lesson wasn’t learned here until after the first of the trilogy bombed at the box office, barely making back its $60 million budget in worldwide grosses. Director Iain Softley failed to capture the nuanced charm of Funke’s book, and in a story about bringing characters to life, that’s pretty essential. [Laura M. Browning]

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17. City Of Ember (2008)

Five years before The Host, Saoirse Ronan was the face of another YA adaptation franchise flop, City Of Ember. Based on the post-apocalyptic science-fiction novel of the same name by Jeanne DuPrau, the film casts Ronan as protagonist Lina Mayfleet, who with the help of her friend Doon Harrow (Harry Treadaway), discovers the necessary clues to allow them to escape their slowly decaying underground city. The series continued with The People Of Sparks, The Prophet Of Yonwood, and the final installment The Diamond Of Darkhold, only one of which was optioned for another film by Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman, though The People Of Sparks was never made. It’s a shame, as each built on the full blooded characters and ingenious setting of the first.
Why it didn’t take off: Although Ronan and the setting of Ember were both praised, director Gil Kenan’s rush to get through the material glossed over much of DuPrau’s engaging and explanatory plot, leaving many questions about the actual city of Ember unanswered. The result was a film full of pretty things to look at, void of the relationship-fostering material of the novel. [Becca James]

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18. Holes (2003)

Shia LaBeouf has become a joke—or, more accurately, a living, breathing meme—over the years, but all it takes is a rewatch of 2003’s Holes to remember that performance art aside, he has a lot of talent. It isn’t a perfect movie, but it’s a solid adaptation, one that honors some of the novel’s more reality-adjacent storytelling. Holes isn’t a fantastical book, but it has a fantastical feel to it, and tackles its larger themes with almost a tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. (The performances are what make it memorable; Sigourney Weaver’s Warden, in particular, stands out.) The film did fine if not exceptionally at the box office, and most critics agreed at the time that it was a faithful adaptation with a lot of heart to it. If anything, it’s the original source material that got in the way of more movies than the first film itself. Most people don’t even know about Small Steps, Louis Sachar’s follow-up to Holes, which takes place in the same world and features some of the same characters but not the first novel’s protagonist, Stanley Yelnats.
Why it didn’t take off: The second novel doesn’t take place at Camp Green Lake, so without the starpower of LaBeouf, Weaver, Tim Blake Nelson, or Jon Voight, the studio probably felt it wasn’t worth making the second film. And even if he could be involved, LaBeouf decided he wasn’t famous anymore. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

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19-21. Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker (2006), I Am Number Four (2011), and Beastly (2011)

Alex Pettyfer, the English actor best known as Magic Mike’s Kid, is the reigning world champion of failed YA adaptation franchises. After starting out as a child model, Pettyfer made his big-screen debut at age 15 as the title character in the teen-spy flick Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, having passed on starring in another failed YA franchise-starter, Eragon. (Fittingly, his only previous acting credit was as the lead in an ITV adaptation of Tom Brown’s Schooldays, the 1857 novel that launched a popular, proto-YA 19th-century sub-genre of stories about English boarding schools.) Stormbreaker, which was based on the first in a series of books by Anthony Horowitz, made a whopping $677,646 in the United States, with a combined worldwide gross that came out to just a little over half of its $40 million budget; plans for a series of sequels—already in development, with Pettyfer contracted to star—were immediately scrapped. Five years later, Pettyfer returned to the YA franchise game with the one-two of I Am Number Four and Beastly, released just weeks apart in early 2011. The former—directed by D.J. Caruso (Disturbia, Eagle Eye), produced by Michael Bay, and based on a series pseudonymously co-written by notorious memoir hoaxster James Frey—starred Pettyfer as an alien who is sent away to Earth to live incognito after the destruction of his home planet. The latter—a modern-day twist on Beauty And The Beast, based on the first in a cycle of books by Alex Flinn—cast Pettyfer as a very unconvincingly hideous Beast. Both made modest profits and were then quickly forgotten.
Why they didn’t take off: Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker, I Am Number Four, and Beastly have two things in common: They all star Alex Pettyfer, and they’re all bad movies. And though Magic Mike would prove that Pettyfer could be good when used right, all three movies—based on series with generic concepts and limited audience recognition—stake more on his hunky good looks than anything like acting ability. (This is especially problematic in Beastly, in which his character is supposed to be repulsive, but looks like Alex Pettyfer with scars and funky facial tattoos.) At least I Am Number Four has the benefit of some cool-looking camerawork from longtime Guillermo Del Toro cinematographer Guillermo Navarro, though that isn’t exactly the kind of thing that gets butts into seats. [Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

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