The Folly of The Divergent Series

Don’t go chasing trends, y’all/Please stick to original ideas and unique points-of-view.

Back in March of this year, The Divergent Series once again stumbled onto the world’s filmic stage to provide us with Allegiant, the first in a two-part adaptation of the third and final novel in Veronica Roth’s poorly-written, nonsensically-plotted, and terribly-structured extended High-School metaphor masquerading as a book series.  Allegiant was not a very good film; in fact, it’s a really terrible and stupid and completely pointless waste of everybody’s time, which is par for the course with The Divergent Series up to this point.  But something kinda funny happened, this time around.  Whilst the film was slated by critics, as usual with the series, audiences also stopped showing up.  Prior entries in the series opened at the top spot with $50 mil+ hauls, even if Insurgent opened rather lower than Divergent and that’s with an additional 3D surcharge that Divergent lacked, but Allegiant crashed and burned into second place with just under $30 million, well below the third week of a Disney movie and with no other competition.

Allegiant would close with barely half of the worldwide total that Insurgent managed to rack up, and only just doubling its opening weekend domestically.  Audiences gave it a poor “B” Cinemascore, compared to Divergent’s “A” and Insurgent’s “A-“, and everybody collectively forgot the thing existed until 2 months ago, when Summit made headlines by announcing that the final instalment in the series, the one that was due to hit cinemas next June, was not only getting its budget slashed, but also now being turned into a TV movie.  A few months later, after everybody had finished collecting themselves from laughing hysterically at that news, series star Shailene Woodley, whilst out promoting Snowden, strongly hinted she wouldn’t be back for the conclusion, stating that “I didn’t sign up to be in a television show.

She would sort of walk back those comments in a Today interview earlier this month, but with the slight issue of the series’ other major stars – namely, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, and Miles Teller – allegedly needing complete contract renegotiations if Ascendant is going direct-to-TV and everybody else remaining dead silent about a film that should really be shooting right about now if it was a going concern, the writing is on the wall in 20-foot high bright-orange choreographed LED displays.  And, really, this complete mess really is the most fitting end possible for The Divergent Series, one that will only become more fitting if Summit really do push forward with those plans to make a spin-off TV series.

Hey, folks! Let's play "Which failed YA adaptation is this image from?"
Hey, folks! Let’s play “Which failed YA adaptation is this image from?”

Divergent was never going to last.  A lot of people could see that, and Summit’s failure to is what sealed the franchise’s fate long before this absolutely embarrassing public flame-out made itself known.  See, ever since Harry Potter strong-armed worldwide box offices for almost a full decade and became an official cultural phenomenon, Hollywood studios have been trying their damndest to discover, incubate, and then pimp out their own Harry Potter by throwing money behind whichever Young Adult book franchise they could get their hands on.  And although there had been numerous sporadic attempts in the wake of the initial success of Harry Potter – Buena Vista managed a genuine success story with The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, which also tried to ride the coattails of The Lord of the Rings’ similar box office dominance, whilst Fox’s Eragon, err, wasn’t – it wasn’t until 2007, when Potter had an unbroken 5 film hot-streak, wrapped up its novels in world-conquering fashion, and Summit unleashed the first of 5 Twilight adaptations upon the world – that the film industry really started to pay attention to the Young Adult Adaptation genre.  After all, once a phenomenon like Harry Potter has finished hogging the box office oxygen for itself, it’s time to try finding The Next Harry Potter or The Next Twilight to start raking in the big bucks!

This, however, is where many film studios go wrong immediately.  You cannot make The Next Harry Potter or The Next Twilight because The Next of either of those series will make itself known before you even purchase the movie rights.  Harry Potter was already a smash success even before Rowling sold the film rights in 1998, and by the time the Philosopher’s Stone adaptation started shooting in September of 2000 the series was a legit cultural phenomenon.  Ditto Twilight, which had actually wrapped its book series by the time the first film was released.  Both of these series commanded popular culture even before their big screen adaptations were filmed.  They had built-in audiences that weren’t just book readers, they were people who may only read one or two books a year.  These series were already Big Deals, and their films pushed them over the top into becoming full-blown phenomena.  Ergo, chasing The Next Harry Potter is a folly in and of itself because The Next [x] either makes itself known to you prior to you even opening up the chequebook for its movie rights, or had no chance of ever being so in the first place and you’ve just wasted a crap-tonne of cash on a total non-starter.

Most studios will attempt to hedge their bets, therefore, by keeping their budgets low somewhat.  If the film is a hit, they can then spin it out into an ongoing series, pump up the budget, and ride that wave to box office glory.  If it fails, then they can wash their hands of it without too much of a loss and go on trying to find The Next [x].  The Maze Runner series, despite not being a pop cultural hit of any real kind, is still a reliable success story for 20th Century Fox because its budgets have yet to rise above $61 million, so its modest returns still count as a win, whilst the complete non-starter of The 5th Wave only cost Sony $38 million to make so the studio can bank the international bucks and move on with its life.  The Hunger Games, meanwhile, cost a relatively paltry $78 million, was based on an actual phenomenon in the Young Adult literature scene, and debuted just two years after that series wrapped up its novels.  It was also unique, with a killer easy-to-sell premise, much like Harry Potter and Twilight, and, again much like Potter and Twilight, scratched an itch for the mainstream in a way they hadn’t yet experienced and was appealing and accessible to them.  Those kinds of crossover success stories are rare which, again, is why chasing The Next [x] is a folly unto itself.

The 5th WaveWhich brings us to The Divergent SeriesThe Divergent Series wants to be The Next Hunger Games.  It really wants to be The Next Hunger Games.  Its trilogy started producing novels as soon as The Hunger Games wrapped up (the first instalment debuted about 8 months after Mockingjay), it features a faction-based system set in the dystopian aftermath of a catastrophic world war where one class clearly corruptly rules over all the other classes in an oppressive manner, there’s a Strong Female Lead who will inspire a revolution, and plenty of action sequences to try and convince teenage boys that this series isn’t “girly” as if girl-targeted works are inherently worthless.  It’s even by the same studio, technically – Summit Entertainment, who also produced the Twilight films, is a subsidiary of Lionsgate, who produced the Hunger Games saga.  It has a cast full of super-talented young actors and actresses, supported by a murderer’s row of esteemed character actors, a tie-in soundtrack of original songs by professional artists, and it launched at the same weekend as the original Hunger Games (late March, just before Summer blockbuster season).

Summit, and Lionsgate by extension, really wanted The Next Hunger Games, especially since The Hunger Games had a set end date of November 2015 speeding into view and they perhaps realised in advance that audiences were going to (undeservedly) sour on that franchise once the two Mockingjay instalments were out in the open, and they wanted Divergent to be that The Next.  Initially, that appeared to be the case; Divergent bucked the long string of YA flops that occurred between that first Hunger Games and Divergent, and closed having made quite the pretty penny – $288 mil worldwide, and the 19th highest grossing film domestically of 2014.  To Summit, likely having seen the jump in takings that Catching Fire made on the first Hunger Games, this was all the proof they needed triple down on The Divergent Series, pumping up the budgets on the rest of the series to nine figures per film and pre-emptively splitting up the last book into 2 films cos that’s what Lionsgate-Summit does apparently.

But there’s where Summit miscalculated.  It’s not that Divergent was a terrible movie – lots of terrible movies make money and sustain franchises, and two of The Big Three of the YA adaptation world are terrible bad films anyway – and it’s not that the world of Divergent is so incredibly stupid – Allegiant, for example since I’ve already had the chance to detail at length how stupid Divergent and Insurgent were in my respective reviews, features these transport pods that look exactly like a puke-green-coloured shield ball from the 16-bit Sonic the Hedgehog games – cos audiences love stupid worlds.  No, Summit miscalculated because Divergent was a blatant Hunger Games wannabe.  Its very existence, every frame shared prior to its release, even its logline, practically screamed “poor-man’s Hunger Games,” and though the series isn’t actually too much like The Hunger Games – mainly because it’s lacking anything approaching an identity at all – that perception meant that its success came with an expiration date.

Vampire AcademyDivergent was a success because, in March of 2014, the public wanted more of The Hunger Games but had to wait another 6 months for that fix.  In the meanwhile, they had this thing that was vaguely like The Hunger Games and could tide them over until the real deal returned.  That kind of engagement is fickle and relies upon both the films actually making a genuine enough impression on their own merits to get non-book fans to voluntarily show up for the next instalment, and the public not turning against The Hunger Games at any point for any reason.  As you can probably tell, Divergent made its money but left little of an impression on anyone other than its already-devoted book-based fan club, and, although Mockingjay Part 1 was the highest grossing film of 2014 domestically if you disqualify American Sniper (which made 90% of its money the year after), the general public turned quite majorly against the finale of The Hunger Games, with that making less money worldwide than the original film did.

Thus, The Divergent Series’ fate was sealed.  Summit were relying on being able to turn Divergent into The Next [x], despite a string of examples proving that trying to force something into being The Next [x] doesn’t work, and they really couldn’t.  The book series was not a phenomenon and the fan-base alone could not sustain a film with budgets in the nine-figure range, it lacked any unique identity of its own or a fully-fleshed out world like Potter or Twilight or Hunger Games to entice viewers in once the coattails riding had ran its course, and the films themselves weren’t any good and provided zero reasons for those not already converted to make return trips.  The public knew that Divergent was a blatant trend-chaser, they can sniff those clearly from a mile away, and whilst they may sometimes get a minor hit out of them, said hit is fleeting and insubstantial, like Jason Clarke’s leading man career.

The fact is that the Young Adult subgenre is nowhere near the fertile money-printing ground that people would have you believe it to be.  Its very few success stories came from can’t-fail material – there’s a reason why The Fault in Our Stars is the John Green adaptation that broke $300 mil worldwide and gained a foothold in popular conversation at the time, and not last year’s Paper Towns – whilst those that keep on a-chugging despite never quite breaking through keep their budgets small enough to offset the fact that they’re not playing in the big leagues (The Maze Runner).  The success stories were already success stories before their films came along.  Couple that with the box office tide in general turning against these kinds of films over the past 12 months (did you know that that 5th Wave movie came out in January of this year), and the complete abject failure of Allegiant hardly comes as a surprise.

The HostBut Summit and Lionsgate continue on, anyway, desperately trying to prop the franchise up on life support despite it being brain dead because they’ve sunk too much money into it and they’re so close to the finish line, at this point.  Normally with these films, the audience either abandons it at the first go-around and you wash your hands of it (like that Giver adaptation the Weinsteins clearly wanted to become a series), or they stick the thing out to the end enough to justify the money you’re blowing on it (Hunger Games).  The Narnia situation that Divergent has found itself in is rare but fitting, what with Narnia also being a bunch of sub-par blatant trend-chasing movies (despite the novels being so much better than that) that arrived just as its particular genres were heading for a precipitous decline.  With its plans to move The Divergent Series to television, Summit are clearly hoping to emulate the trajectory of the failed Mortal Instruments film series – which cancelled its planned second movie after the first bombed horrendously, and instead retooled itself into a TV series that debuted this year, albeit with its entire cast replaced, called Shadowhunters – but, be honest, did you even know that Shadowhunters was a thing that exists until I just now told you?

It’s a desperate, pathetic, last-gasp thrash for The Divergent Series, a blatant attempt to hop onto another trend of questionable replicable quality, and I cannot think of a more fitting end for this whole folly.  Really, Divergent was doomed from the start, but it was truly doomed when Summit doubled down on its investment, misreading decent figures in an underperforming year as a sign that it had The Next Big Pop Culture Phenomenon on its hands, when it really didn’t.  You can’t force a Young Adult adaptation to become The Next anything if it isn’t already The Next something by the time you start filming.  A blatant trend-chaser never becomes the trend-setter, and The Divergent Series was chasing so many disparate trends that it never managed to develop an identity of its own – excluding those few really stupid parts, of course.  Nobody ever cared about Whatshername, Whojamaflip, Bad Villain Woman, Maggie Q from The CW’s Nikita, or Four, not really, and Summit’s desperate attempts to throttle some life into their inarguably failed enterprise in spite of that fact is hilarious and sad.  But mostly hilarious.

Callum Petch will sing it like the kids all hate you!  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

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