Between 'Potter' and 'Hunger Games,' a Spotty Decade for Teen-Lit Films

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The boy wizard's success led to a legion of young-adult book adaptations—many of which flopped.

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Lionsgate

It takes a certain amount of courage to promote the first entry in an big-budget, untested film franchise with the phrase "the world will be watching." But in the case of The Hunger Games—the Jennifer Lawrence-starring adaptation of first book in Suzanne Collins' young-adult trilogy of the same name, which debuts in theaters tomorrow—that courage appears to be warranted. How did Hollywood reach point at which a grimly dystopian young-adult series could take over the box office?

It all started with Harry Potter.

Though The Hunger Games can stand on its own merit, it's hard to imagine a world in which a Hollywood studio would greenlight a big-budget, multi-film series based on a young-adult novel series without J.K. Rowling's boy wizard.The key to Harry Potter's runaway, multibillion-dollar success—and the reason that every studio in Hollywood is so desperate to replicate it—is that it wasn't just one successful film. It was many successful films, which took place in an endlessly synergistic universe that could be capitalized on even after the studio was out of books to adapt. Eleven years after the first film's release, Harry Potter is still making lots of money for Warner Bros.

Hollywood doesn't exist in a bubble, and those 11 years were tumultuous times for the blockbuster. In the pre-Hogwarts world of 2000, the year's five top-grossing films included a turgid Tom Hanks vehicle (Cast Away), a gory Best Picture winner (Gladiator), and a high-concept romantic comedy (What Women Want). 2011's five top-grossing films tell a very different story: one sequel (The Hangover Part II), one threequel (Transformers: Dark of the Moon), two fourquels (The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides)—and one eightquel (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2).

The numbers don't lie: Harry Potter changed everything. And in response, Hollywood has turned the quest to discover the next Harry Potter into the film studio equivalent of the space race, with rival companies gobbling up the rights to any young-adult series that has even a whiff of that Harry Potter magic. The Hunger Games is the latest (and arguably greatest) contender for the Harry Potter Throne. But will it succeed where so many have failed? To find out, it helps to dive into the strange history of films based on young-adult fantasy novels:

A final piece of good news for young-adult franchise fans (or bad news, for those with young-adult franchise fatigue): Films based on Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, Rick Riordan's The 39 Clues, Catherine Fisher's Incarceron, Pamela Sargent's Earthseed, and Cassandra Clare's City of Bones are reportedly in the works. There are even rumblings about a reboot of 1984's The NeverEnding Story, which would make it the most aptly-titled series in cinema history. If The Hunger Games is a blockbuster success—and there's every indication that it will be—expect to see many, many more films based young-adult literature series in the years to come.

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Scott Meslow is entertainment editor at TheWeek.com.

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