Last week brought us Allegiant, the latest in the seemingly never-ending Divergent movies. And while the books are entertaining enough, the movies just don’t grab our attention. But when it comes to recent adaptations of Young Adult novels that have disappointed us, Divergent is hardly alone.
1) The Golden Compass (2007)
This one broke my heart, personally. The Golden Compass has a lot that would make a visually great film: giant fighting bears, creatures that shape-shift, a journey across the ice, etc. The stills from the movie looked sumptuous, while the casting sounded perfect (Nicole Kidman as the beautiful but morally bankrupt Mrs. Coulter was such a great choice). And yet, the movie was a disappointment. In order to cut down on controversy, the church element from the books was watered down into a general dangerous authoritarian group, which upset fans of the book and didn’t keep the religious groups from protesting. Then, the ending was changed so that it was more “upbeat” than in the book. Everything here started out fine, but went way off the rails.
2) The Giver (2014)
The Giver might have the biggest quality gap of any other entry on this list. Lois Lowry’s book is considered by many to be a classic. The Giver is about Jonas, a kid in a literally colorless world that is very regimented and controlled, and no one has strong emotions of any kind. Jonas gets assigned as the apprentice to the Giver, who experiences memories and emotions for the whole village. The book asks a lot of questions about what this “perfect” society gave up to get that way. The movie... happened. Honestly, the movie—by aging up the characters, adding a romance, a villain, and a lot of plot—took what was special about The Giver and turned it into a paint-by-numbers young adult dystopia.
3) Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010) and Sea of Monsters (2013)
So, The Lightning Thief was fine. Not explosively great, but okay. It didn’t make a ton of money, so why it got a sequel, who can say? But instead of taking the sequel as a chance to break out of the rut and really impress, they went even safer with the whole story—which meant doing the same journey, but slower. Rick Riordan’s books are fun and well-paced adventure books with a great sense of world-building, but the movies are just too basic to really stand on their own.
4) Ender’s Game (2013)
After all the pre-controversy surrounding whether supporting the Ender’s Game movie meant supporting the horrible political views and activism of the book’s author, Orson Scott Card, it turned out that everyone having that discussion was putting more thought into things than the movie did. Ender’s Game, a story about super-intelligent, hyper-violent children being trained to fight a war after being ripped from their homes, somehow ended up being about the adults. Oops.
5) Mortal Instruments: City of Bones (2013)
Man, 2013 was not a good year for young adult adaptations. Anyway, when the goal is gritty urban fantasy but you end up with “hilarious randomness,” you’ve probably failed. If you’ve made a movie where you have to have read the book to figure out the plot, you’ve definitely failed.
6) Eragon (2006)
While Eragon technically made money, it was also one of the worst-reviewed movies of the year. There’s nothing wrong with a generic hero’s journey as a starting point, but Eragon did nothing to distinguish itself. It was flat and boring, so the obviousness of the plot was on full display. How something with dragons managed that is beyond us.
7) Vampire Academy (2014)
This. Was. A. Nightmare. The book was about the unbreakable friendship of two girls, with a kind of metaphor for teenage life and slut-shaming built into the whole “vampire” conceit. The movie was none of those things. Maybe, maybe, they could have done a Mean Girls of the Night thing with their approach. Of course, they didn’t, and instead the whole movie feels like one of the old ABC Family made-for-TV movies. It’s flat and cheap-looking.
8) I Am Number Four (2004)
The book was actually described by one reviewer as a “popcorn-ready read.” So how did the movie completely fail? Well, by making a movie as cynical as the process that made the book. I Am Number Four was a novel from James Frey’s endeavor where writers can get up to $500 for writing something, anything, that suits the publisher’s needs. The movie was optioned before the book came out, and they just plugged in whoever was nearby to create a movie. That still could have resulted in something dumb but fun. Unfortunately, they only got the latter half right.
9) The 5th Wave (2016)
This movie starred Chloë Grace Moretz and came out this year and I forgot it existed. Rick Yancey’s book was good. What happened here?
10) The Divergent Series (2014-2016)
Let’s end with the movies that inspired this list. In a way, I almost admire the persistence of the Divergent movies. A lot of entries on this list were supposed to kick off trilogies or quadrilogies or septilogies or what have you, but their total lack of quality stalled them out. Not Divergent. Despite being as colorless as a glass of water—and as interesting—the studio has stuck it out and keeps making these movies. We’re supposed to get the last one next year! Each one brings with it the hope that everything’s suddenly improved. But this is Divergent, so even when things get marginally better, they don’t get interesting.