Ever since a boy wizard named Harry Potter became a sensation both on the best-seller list and at the box office, Hollywood has doggedly mined the pages of novels ostensibly aimed at young adults to find the next big blockbuster sensation. Occasionally, they hit the jackpot big time, like with The Hunger Games, Twilight, and this year's more modest YA hit Divergent (as well as The Fault in Our Stars, although it is highly unlikely that film will spawn a movie franchise).
More often than not, however, Hollywood's YA book quarry turns up not much more than box office fool's gold.
The latest example: The Giver, based on the beloved 1993 novel by Lois Lowry, just opened this weekend with an estimated $12.8 million — a figure lower than the box office debut of several famously failed YA novel adaptations like I Am Number Four, Eragon, and Ender's Game.
Part of that low figure can be chalked up to competition for the same audience from Guardians of the Galaxy and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, two genuine box office sensations culled from a different section of YA reading material (i.e. comic books). Attempting to launch a YA franchise in the middle of August is also a dicey play, given that so many teen and tween moviegoers are either on vacation or in the throes of preparing to go back to school. (The biggest movies released in August based on a traditional YA book series: 2001's The Princess Diaries and its 2004 sequel.)
But The Giver entered its debut weekend already on shaky ground, thanks to the decision by its filmmakers to make significant changes from the book — changes that appear to have alienated many readers who adored Lowry's novel. You can read my colleague Alison Willmore's damning catalogue of those changes here (first among them: aging up the protagonist Jonas from a 12-year-old boy to a 16-year-old young man played by 25-year-old Brenton Thwaites). But even the debut of the film's first trailer in March — which was entirely in color, even though the central premise of The Giver is that its world is in black-and-white — managed to put fans on edge that the experience they had so enjoyed while reading the book would not be present in the feature film version. Subsequent trailers that began in black-and-white and assurances from Lowry that the movie had "brought [the book] to a new level" did not appear to do much to shake that first impression.
For the filmmakers — including star Jeff Bridges, who also produced the movie and has been striving to make The Giver almost since it was first published — it is yet another example of getting stymied by the paradox of YA film adaptations: How to make a movie that will appeal to audiences who have read the book, and to audiences who haven't. Lowry's novel, set in a highly ordered dystopian society, is in many ways a direct predecessor to the worlds of The Hunger Games and Divergent, but to modern audiences unfamiliar with the book, its use of those tropes could appear derivative instead. (Call it the John Carter Syndrome.) And yet in other key ways, The Giver's plot in the book is far gentler than later YA novels with more action-packed plots that make for an easier transition into an effects-laden blockbuster hit.
Still, The Giver had the advantage of having spent two decades in the hands of young readers, building up a core fan base spanning at least two generations, a rare and valuable asset in a movie genre laden with adaptations of novels with far more questionably sized readerships. A movie version of The Giver that hewed closer to the book could have captivated that fan base and been the kind of Brand New Thing that breaks through with audiences — much like a boy wizard at a school for magic, a lovesick vampire and his teenage girlfriend, and a teenage girl thrust into a lethal reality TV show were also not quite like anything audiences had seen before.
Instead, The Giver was made into a movie more like other movies based on YA novels than the actual YA novel on which it was based. As this weekend's box office returns make clear, the result: The film appealed to no one.
Here are the estimated top 10 box office figures for Friday to Sunday, courtesy of Box Office Mojo:
1. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles — $28.4 million
2. Guardians of the Galaxy — $24.7 million
3. Let's Be Cops* — $17.7 million
4. The Expendables 3* — $16.2 million
5. The Giver* — $12.8 million
6. Into the Storm — $7.7 million
7. The Hundred-Food Journey — $7.1 million
8. Lucy — $5.3 million
9. Step Up All In — $2.7 million
10. Boyhood — $2.2 million