The Early Axe: 5 Successful YA Book Series That Never Made It Past Book No. 1 on the Big Screen

Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario in ‘Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters’ /Image © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox
Logan Lerman and Alexandra Daddario in ‘Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters’ /Image © 2013 Twentieth Century Fox

It used to be that young adult fiction was considered nothing more than a step between children’s books and regular fiction. Now, it’s practically a genre that stands on its own. Over the years the category has adopted more realistic themes and tones while also adding genre-playing plots that attract readers of all ages. It’s gotten to the point where more than half of the readers of young adult books are over the age of eighteen. And, as with any success in publishing, Hollywood came calling. This year alone we’re getting the film adaptations of the second volumes from two hugely popular YA series (“Percy Jackson and the Olympians” and “The Hunger Games”), as well entries introducing two other book series to moviegoers (the already premiered “Beautiful Creatures” and the still-to-come “The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones”). But for every “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” movie, there’s at least one box office bomb to match. Blame it on studio executives rushing to cash in on a fanbase and not giving the source material the respect it deserves (a common occurrence in regard to young adult fiction) or the complex story that works great in book form but doesn’t translate very well to film (another all too common malady for a YA book series). Whatever the reason, there are a ton of amazing and popular young adult series that tried to make the transition to a movie franchise but never made it made it past the first film. Here are six examples.

Series: The Dark Is Rising Sequence
Movie: “The Seeker: the Dark is Rising”

Before Harry Potter was informed of his secret magical birthright, learned to master his magical talents, and eventually searched throughout England for the secret items that were essential in his battle against evil, there were the adventures of Will Stanton in Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising books. Written from the mid '60s to the late '70s, the series is a pillar of young adult fantasy and earned the Newbery Award in 1975. Steeped in folklore ranging from King Arthur to Norse Myth, its premise revolves around a war between good and evil, known as The Light and The Dark in the books, which often requires the recovery of certain magical objects. The movie, which was released in 2007 and is based on the second novel in the series, advanced the age of the main character from eleven to thirteen (much to the chagrin of Cooper) and changed him to an American living in England. It also dropped most of the references to mythology and legend and added a flurry of flashy action sequences, angering fans of the book and failing to impress critics.

Series: The Saga of Darren Shan
Movie: “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire's Assistant”

If the three-volume Twilight series is a “vampire saga,” then we’re not sure what to call the Darren Shan books (in a cheeky move, the author Darren O'Shaughnessy gave his main character the same name as his nom de plume, Darren Shan). Spanning twelve books broken up into four trilogies and published in less than five years, the series creates an intricate vampire mythology while exploring themes of identity and death. The film adaptation, released in 2009, featured some major Hollywood names like John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, Willem Dafoe, and Salma Hayek, with newcomer Chris Massoglia playing the lead. While the filmmakers were relatively faithful to the source material, the movie failed to find much of an audience, possibly due to a cultural exhaustion of vampire tales. And even though the director and leads have all expressed an interest to come back for a sequel, there’s been no move by the producers to do so.

Series: His Dark Materials
Movie: “The Golden Compass”

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials books delve into themes and ideas that would strike many readers of adult fantasy novels as heady and complex. Parallel worlds, experimentation on children, an oppressive organized religion, and a character claiming to be God all feature prominently in the trilogy. (Oh, and talking polar bears are in there too.) The books won numerous awards and enjoyed a healthy following among young and adult readers, so a movie version was practically necessary. Then, of course, throw in a couple Hollywood stars, including Nicole Kidman as the villainous Mrs. Coulter, and you would think that you have a guaranteed hit, right? Not so fast. Almost from the beginning, the production was plagued with issues in the adaptation process with rumors that the script would water down the story’s pro-secular elements so as not to offend religious groups, which angered fans of the book. The fact that the 2007 film ended up changing the order of the narrative’s events, cutting out the bloodier scenes, and “bumping” the book’s last chapters from the movie’s ending also didn’t sit well with many fans. Several religious groups protesting the movie’s release, which was billed as a family film, didn’t help it along either. American box office returns were not that great, but overseas ticket sales were described as being extremely strong. Unfortunately, New Line Cinema (the studio that made the “Golden Compass”) had sold much of the overseas rights to initially fund the movie and thus didn’t get a lot of that foreign ticket sales money. The story goes that the miscalculation was the final blunder that sparked New Lines’ parent company, Time Warner, to merge the studio with Warner Bros. the following year.

Series: A Series of Unfortunate Events
Movie: “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events”

There was a time when the Lemony Snicket books were the most popular book series around. The thirteen books that tell the darkly humorous tale of the three Baudelaire siblings (orphaned in the first book) who spend the series bouncing from one bad situation to another, repeatedly (and often amusingly) use death as a plot point. The 2004 film, which adapted the first three books, was produced under the Nickelodeon Movies banner and starred Jim Carrey as the book’s villain, Count Olaf. The film actually did well with critics and audiences, earning a worldwide ticket sales profit that doubled the studio’s investment. And even though Carrey, who was not under contract to return, expressed an interest to reprise his role as Olaf, the second “Series of Unfortunate Events” movie never got the green light. There was the occasional talk of a possible sequel, mostly by the film’s director Brad Silberling, with hints that it would be done as stop-motion animation to deal with lead actors outgrowing the possibility of reprising their roles in another live action film. But nearly a decade since its release, it’s safe to say that the possibility for a sequel has met a grime demise.

Series: Alex Rider
Movies: “Alex Rider: Operation Stormbreaker”

The majority of entries on this list can best be classified as fantasy, which kind of makes sense in their appeal to young adults — a hidden world of adventure revealed to an otherwise normal kid is a respite from the boredom of everyday life. So an interesting play on that trope is its use in another genre, like a spy thriller. The Alex Rider series is often described as “James Bond meets Harry Potter.” And for the most part that’s about right. Following his uncle’s death in the first book, orphan Alex Rider discovers his guardian was actually a super spy for M16 and is promptly recruited by the intelligence agency as an operative. Author Anthony Horowtiz was able to mine the concept of a teenage spy for nine novels, four graphic novels, and a few short stories — all of which did well with young boys, a tough market for book sales. But it was the possibility of a film franchise that held the most promise. The 2006 film, an adaptation of the first novel, Stormbreaker, was intended to turn the series into a massive media franchise. Horowitz, who’d penned the screenplay, was even contracted to begin adapting the second book for a sequel movie. There was Alex Rider merchandizing, a major marketing effort, and intense press offensive. All of which lead to a huge box office bomb ravaged by critics and ignored by fans, thus killing any chance of a film series.