The Formula That's Ruining Teen Movies

After Harry Potter, Hunger Games, et al., maybe it's time to retire the Chosen One trope.

Constantin Film

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 morethat 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.

Blockbuster superhero films that appeal to general audiences can still get away with this, because general audiences tend to get more variety in their movies. But when it’s assumed to be pretty nearly the only thing that teens want to see, and it’s therefore given to them again and again, it’s not surprising that some teens might be starting to get bored. It’s been a while since I was a teenager myself, but as a frequent reviewer of Young Adult movies and books, I know I’m getting bored.

The Mortal Instruments is particularly disadvantaged because it tries to include just about every teen fantasy trope there is. It’s Harry Potter (the chosen one who’s secretly descended from a supernatural race) plus Twilight (romance with a brooding stranger) plus The Hunger Games (adventurous young heroine fighting for her life) with some jarringly distracting pop songs thrown in. So many explanations and definitions are required as Clary discovers the secret and highly complicated world of the Shadowhunters, that nobody has time for any sort of normal, character-developing conversation or reflection.

And that’s a pity, because the one thing the Mortal Instruments books really had going for them was their snappy dialogue. In the books, Jace, Clary’s primary love interest, was constantly exchanging witty banter with all and sundry. In the film, when he and the others aren’t busy fighting demons, Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower) mostly stands around looking like a model waiting for a photo shoot to break out. With that sort of change, the franchise has lost what might have set it apart.

Cassandra Clare, author of the Mortal Instruments series, has tried hard to make the fate of the film a sort of referendum on girl power. But when a movie is this derivative, and this poorly put together, it doesn’t much matter whether The One is a girl, a boy, or a house elf.  In fact—upcoming film adaptations of Divergent, Vampire Academy, and Maze Runner notwithstanding—it might be a good idea to let The One have some time off. The themes treated in these supernatural stories—the value of courage, the importance of finding your strengths, and of course the battle between good and evil—are timeless, but maybe there are fresher, more original ways to treat them. It might be that, far from wanting to watch other kids save the world time and again, kids would like to watch them just being kids.