The odds were ever in The Hunger Games’ favor. Based on Suzanne Collins’s best-selling novel, the film opened in March 2012 to $152 million domestically, topping opening-weekend totals for the first Harry Potter and Twilight movies. Lionsgate’s property would generate three more films based on Collins’s books—2013’s Catching Fire, 2014’s Mockingjay – Part 1, and 2015’s Mockingjay – Part 2.
But a decade after The Hunger Games’ release, it can safely be said that it was also the last successful Y.A.-targeted book-to-film franchise of its kind.
Unlike the supernatural settings of its predecessors, The Hunger Games was a futuristic tale. Set in the fictional dystopia of Panem, children, or “tributes,” aged 12 to 18 were forced to participate in an annual fight-to-the-death competition. Two competitors from each of the country’s 12 districts would duke it out via live broadcast for the wealthy citizens of the Capitol, under the dictatorial gaze of President Snow (Donald Sutherland). This system would be rocked by District 12 tribute Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who volunteered to compete in the games in place of her younger sister.
Over the course of four films, The Hunger Games would gross nearly $3 billion worldwide, peaking with the $158 million domestic haul for Catching Fire—released the same year Lawrence won an Oscar. “I think one reason this franchise was so successful is that this generation feels they are fighting for their survival all the time—and that survival is far from certain,” The Hunger Games director Gary Ross told The Hollywood Reporter as his film reached its 10th birthday. “From climate change, to authoritarianism, their generation feels a real sense of dread and jeopardy.” He later added, “I think, sadly, the themes in this movie are only more resonant now than when we made it.”
Yet by the time franchise closer The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 hit theaters (Collins’s final book was split into two movies, following the money-making precedent set by Harry Potter and Twilight), the films’ box office draw had softened. The final chapter opened at $102 million domestically—$56 million less than Catching Fire—but still ranked as one of the year’s biggest movies.
“For years everyone tried to have the next Harry Potter and no one managed to do so, but that didn’t stop companies from trying,” Craig Dehmel, then head of international distribution for Fox, told TheWrap in 2015. “And in a sense, the Twilight and Hunger Games franchises were both born out of that pursuit.”
The first film both rode and inspired a wave of similar films as studios began clamoring to find the next Y.A. juggernaut. In 2013 and 2014, there were no less than eight teen-centered sci-fi/fantasy films based on best-selling books crammed into theaters: Ender’s Game, The Maze Runner, The Giver, The Host, Beautiful Creatures, Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, and Divergent.
These films all adhered to a similar formula: promising up-and-coming actors (Saoirse Ronan, Logan Lerman, Lily Collins) played heroic and/or divinely gifted teenagers with the power to stop a tyrannical leader and/or oppressive government structure. Some were set in the future, others in an alternate universe. Most lured in veteran stars for scenery-chewing supporting roles (Kate Winslet, Jeff Bridges, Viola Davis) or hedged in a watered-down love triangle. And all were angling for a piece of the Hunger Games pie.
Most of those franchises came and went, either fading into the good night (Ender’s Game), forging ahead on sequels with diminishing returns (Maze Runner), or finding better luck on TV (The Mortal Instruments spawned the three-season Freeform show Shadowhunters). But it was the Divergent series, based on Veronica Roth’s popular books, that was best poised to become The Hunger Games’ successor.
Summit Entertainment bought the rights to Divergent in 2011 while concluding Twilight. It would soon be acquired by The Hunger Games studio Lionsgate—merging the top companies responsible for the Y.A. trend. Given their track record and a cast led by J.Law manqué Shailene Woodley, the movie was expected to break through that year’s teen-dystopia noise. “We’re putting it out to our fans right now that we think this is the next big franchise,” Lionsgate CEO Jon Feltheimer said at the time.
But the copy-and-paste elements of the film’s source material hindered its reception. “This is plain generic-brand Hunger Games, and moves at a fatal creep because of it,” Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote in his Divergent review, later adding, “With action scenes that can’t raise a pulse, an expectedly chaste romance, and plodding, formulaic expansion of its mythology, Divergent has the drab sogginess of something reheated. If this dystopic Y.A. stuff is really going to have a life after Katniss has loosed her last arrow, the genre is going to have to figure out some new moves.”
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