Is The Darkest Minds the death knell of the YA fantasy film genre?

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Aug 24, 2018, 4:00 PM EDT

I am an absolute sucker for the YA fantasy genre, especially the big screen adaptations that have littered film schedules for the last decade, but recently it seems like the genre is suffering a slow and monotonous death.

I’ve been coming to this conclusion for a while, but The Darkest Minds might just be the death knell. The film, based on Alexandra Bracken’s YA novel, continues the dystopian themes made popular by The Hunger Games, The Maze Runner, and Divergent franchises, and its lead even had her big break in one of them. Amandla Stenberg, who played Rue in the first Hunger Games film, now stars as Ruby, a 16-year-old who develops superpowers along with thousands of children but is forced to go on the run from the maniacal government.

Like most of these stories there’s a love triangle; in The Darkest Minds, Harris Dickinson’s Liam and Patrick Gibson's Clancy both vie for Ruby’s attention but the romance never quite reaches the same level of chemistry showcased by Katniss, Liam, and Peeta or Bella, Edward, and Jacob.

Add in a rather tired and baggy negative that not even a supporting adult cast featuring Bradley Whitford, Gwendoline Christie, and Mandy Moore could help strengthen, and you’re left with a weak adaptation that never quite matches up to its predecessors or the bestselling novel it's based on. It’s no wonder that the film only scraped a measly $23.4 million at the box office, a loss for 20th Century Fox after the studio put down $34 million to make it in the first place. 

The Darkest Minds isn’t the first YA adaptation to disappoint both critically and commercially in recent years. Vampire Academy, based on Richelle Mead's series, made just $15.4 million worldwide against a $30 million budget, while The Mortal Instruments made $30.9 million more than its budget (but instead of a sequel, it was rebooted as a series on Netflix). 

Even the last Divergent film, Allegiant, only made $66 million in the US while the Chloe Moretz-led The 5th Wave secured just $34 million domestically. Each film’s foreign box office helped boost its final tally, but altogether it seems American audiences have fallen out of love for the genre.

This could be because of the exponential growth of superhero films. Marvel Studios recently celebrated the tenth birthday of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which began with Iron Man and has since spawned several solo franchises as well as crossover films that have brought in an even bigger audience. Avengers: Infinity War made over $2 billion at the box office, which is more than the highest-grossing Twilight and Hunger Games movies (Breaking Dawn Part 2 and Catching Fire) combined.

the hunger games

The Hunger Games solidified the YA fantasy film genre but nothing has quite lived up to its success

Star Wars has also diverted a lot of cinema-goers’ attention since the new trilogy began in 2015 and the arrival of The Force Awakens. Episode VII earned just a little more than Avengers: Infinity War and even though subsequent films haven’t quite hit the same box office mark, they are still raking in ticket sales and Disney has put plans into motion for another trilogy from The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson. That said, Star Wars and Marvel movies can’t be the only reason for the decline in popularity of YA fantasy films.

Sam Claflin, who played Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games franchise, thinks that one of the problems could be in the way these beloved books are being adapted. “I just think that the problem with any new fad is that it gets overdone and the quality starts slipping away,” he said. “I feel like, actually, the best thing for it is that there needs to be a bit of a break before people start working on the quality versions of said fads.”

This is not a bad idea, especially when you look at another film genre that has done something quite similar. Romantic comedies were all the rage in the '80s, '90s, and '00s but the quality started to slip as studios kept knocking out sub-par movies with problematic plots that audiences just weren’t buying anymore. Now, we’re seeing the rom-com make a comeback. 

Netflix’s Set It Up is an absolute joy and revolved not just around a young couple, but a middle-aged one too. Crazy Rich Asians and To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before dispense with the typical white girl leading lady and depicts both Asian and Asian-American culture, family and romance in a funny, endearing and utterly charming way. There are several more romantic comedies in the pipeline that have got people excited about the genre once again, like Destination Wedding, Nappily Ever After and Juliet, Naked, and this is what I want for YA fantasy.

The Lunar Chronicles

The Lunar Chronicles is itching to get the big screen treatment.

There are so many great book series that deserve a turn on the big screen, from Marie Lu’s Legend and Pierce Brown’s Red Rising series to Marissa Meyer’s The Lunar Chronicles and Nnedi Okorafor’s Akata Witch, but the creative talent adapting these books need to have enough time, money and support so that the quality of the book isn’t diluted in its transition to film. Maybe a timeout will give studios buying up the rights to these books the space to reevaluate past films so that the same mistakes aren't repeated and a slew of new YA fantasy film adaptations can bring the genre back to life.

If waiting a few years for this to happens means we’ll get the best versions of these movies, then I think most fans will happily wait. There's certainly a lot of YA fantasy fiction to keep them amused in the meantime and the hope of a brilliant adaptation to look forward to. Nine times out of 10 the book is better, but that doesn't mean the movie has to be a poor imitation.

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