With the relative popularity and success of such film franchises as The Hunger Games, Divergent, and now The Maze Runner, sometimes it feels like there’s at least one teen sci-fi/fantasy book series screening in theatres at all times.
So you might be surprised to learn that big-screen adaptations of sci-fi/fantasy series rarely make it past one installment. With Maze Runner: The Death Cure out in theatres starting today, The Maze Runner series joins Harry Potter, Twilight, The Hunger Games trilogy, and the Divergent trilogy as one of the only sci-fi/fantasy teen book series to be adapted into more than one movie. The Inheritance Cycle? An Eragon movie came out in 2006 only to never be heard of or spoken about ever again. Lorien Legacies? Alex Pettyfer starred in I Am Number Four and probably tried to forget about it as soon as possible. His Dark Materials? Don’t even get us started on The Golden Compass.
Some series (The Series of Unfortunate Events and The Mortal Instruments, for example) fail to impress film-goers but eventually find an audience when they move over to television. Others, like The City of Ember, just wither and die. There are no set rules for what separates a successful sci-fi/fantasy book adaptation from an unsuccessful one—if there were, we would have had three more Percy Jackson sequels by now. But Maze Runner and The Hunger Games surely have certain, special qualities that the other failed series we mentioned don’t—ones that we think future producers should nail down if they want their adaptations to make it past Movie One.
The Maze Runner has Dylan O’Brien. Divergent had Shailene Woodley. And while young movie-goers may have recognized Jennifer Lawrence from X-Men: First Class, they were probably more familiar with Bridge to Terabithia’s Josh Hutcherson or even The Last Song’s Liam Hemsworth when the first Hunger Games movie came out in 2012. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule—Harry Potter was popular enough to get by without a ton of star power. But if you want to adapt a series that’s lesser-known than Harry Potter (i.e. any other series), it’s best to pull in actors that teens and young adults already recognize.
Like it or not, all the successful film series we mentioned feature some sort of romantic relationship. In the Maze Runner film series, Thomas very clearly has feelings for Teresa (Kaya Scodelario). Love triangles (between Katniss/Peeta/Gale and Bella/Edward/Jacob, respectively) affect much of what happens in both the Hunger Games series and the Twilight series. And in Divergent, Tris and Four are romantically involved. Romance doesn’t have to be the focus of the story—The Maze Runner series is much more about Thomas’ bond with his fellow Gladers than his romantic relationship with Teresa, for example—but throwing in a couple of longing looks and stolen glances couldn’t hurt.
Thomas wouldn’t be alive without Brenda, Newt, Frypan and Minho and Harry wouldn’t be alive if it weren’t for Hermione and Ron. And as fascinating as it is to see Thomas mature from a young, clueless child into a gun-slinging adult, his adventures wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to watch if Newt and Brenda weren’t around to raise his spirits, bring him back down to Earth and tell him when he’s being too impulsive.
Whether it’s WCKD, Voldemort, or a coven of evil vampires, you’re not going to root for the hero unless the villain is wholly hateable. Maze Runner: The Death Cure spices things up by revealing that Ava Paige, the head of WCKD (the organization that trapped Thomas and his friends in the titular maze), may have had good intentions all along. But the film also confirms that Ava’s right-hand-man, Janson, is completely self-serving, drunk with power, and quite possibly psychotic.
Ok, so maybe the Twilight movies don’t make profound statements about humanity or politics or the state of the world as we know it like The Maze Runner or Divergent movies do. But for the most part, the best teen sci-fi/fantasy series aren’t just about romance or breaking into buildings or saving the world—they’re about exploitation, or privilege, or when to prioritize the well-being of an individual over the well-being of a group. Granted, people probably didn’t buy tickets to The Hunger Games because they wanted to watch a thoughtful film about the corruption of power. But films with solid overarching themes or messages usually resonate more with viewers, whether they realize it or not.
Maze Runner: The Death Cure is out in theatres today.