The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones crashed and burned in theaters this weekend, ending up with a meager five-day total of $14 million, according to early estimates. Add it to the rapidly growing list of fantasy and sci-fi films for teens—including Beautiful Creatures, Beastly, I Am Number Four, The Golden Compass, Eragon, The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising, and more—that have disappointed at the box office. Even the Chronicles of Narnia and Percy Jackson franchises, which started promisingly, soon began to taper off.
But why? The success of the Harry Potter, Twilight, and Hunger Games franchises—Hollywood’s version of a holy trinity—seemed to prove that teen fantasy and sci-fi could be counted on to rake in the cash, especially when based on bestselling books. And yet, in recent years, more of these films have flopped than soared. Which leads one to wonder: Is there a fatal flaw in what looked like an ironclad formula?
The Mortal Instruments, after all, follows that formula to the letter. Its heroine, Clary (Lily Collins), is an ordinary teenage girl who has a run-in with the supernatural and thus discovers that she has a secret identity and special powers—that she is, in fact, The One who must save the world from evil forces, with a little help from her new group of similarly powered friends, two of whom are in love with her. Sound familiar? Precisely. With certain variations (as when, in Twilight, the love interest turns out to be the special superpowered one), this has served as the basic premise for film after film after film targeted at the teenage crowd.
And perhaps that’s the problem right there. Hollywood is notorious for trying to copycat its monster successes (no pun intended), but what started out as copycatting has turned into a glut. It’s not as if the hero’s journey is something new to Hollywood—on the contrary, it’s been a staple of the film industry since that industry came into being. But rarely have so many supernaturally themed permutations of it been force-fed to so narrow a demographic in so short a space of time.
It doesn’t help that this formula calls for movie characters to be perpetually astonished at developments that have come to feel stale to the viewing audience. Pop-culture blogger Cleolinda calls this “the People in Dracula Don’t Know They’re in Dracula problem.” She defines it thus:
. . . In a story, the characters don't know [what we know]. "Why would you go to the dark scary castle of a guy named Dracula?!" Well, because "Dracula" doesn't mean anything to those fictional people—not the way it does to us. So, as a reader/viewer, you sometimes have to fight this impatient disbelief that the characters do not realize they are talking to a household name of horror.
Similarly, young superpowered heroes and heroines don’t know what we know about them, so we have to watch them making the same kinds of discoveries and facing the same kinds of quests over and over.