Everybody understands that TV shows can be canceled. It’s the risk you take in investing your energy into an intricately plotted drama like Lost or even an affable comedy like The Office, whose viewers are among the most loyal anywhere. Each episode is not a triumph of creativity so much as a gift bestowed by bean-counting network execs who have crunched the numbers and found them to be economically favorable. Movies, generally, aren’t thought of in terms of being canceled, but as more studios search for franchises, they often turn to the world of books — namely, popular series of books with multiple installments ready made for future adaptations.
Sometimes it plays out that way, as with The Lord of the Rings, which the studio made a fait accompli by filming all three parts simultaneously. The Harry Potter movies, which started coming before J.K. Rowling was barely halfway done with her seven-book cycle, have become a phenomenon unto themselves and will complete their run in theaters next year. And that Twilight series seems to be doing OK for itself.
But what happens when the first part of a would-be series isn’t a success? The multiplexes have been littered with just such examples in recent years, and The Last Airbender, released last weekend to truly putrid reviews and tepid box office, could very well be the latest. Here’s a rundown of some failed cinematic pilots, and what might have gone wrong:
Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief (2010)
It’s too early to say this franchise is dead, but the resounding shrug that met the big-budget adaptation of Rick Riordan’s series about the modern-day son of Posiedon doesn’t bode well. There was little in the way of anger or vitriol, just a very take-it-or-leave-it vibe, which is not what you want when you’re ramping up a franchise. Most of the reviews were in the so-so range, and it was hard to find one that didn’t contain some variance of the phrase “Harry Potter ripoff.” That’s a hard reputation to fight off when, in addition to being yet another story about a young boy who discovers he’s got supernatural abilities, you’ve got Chris Columbus — who directed the first two Potter films — behind the camera. Timing seems to be this series’ biggest obstacle, as it seeks to be the next Harry Potter when we’re not even done with the original yet.
Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant (2009)
John C. Reilly is a man of many talents, one of the more versatile and enjoyable actors around, but a suave, centuries-old vampire just isn’t in his wheelhouse. He’s only one of the problems in this shambled mess, which features a lot of neat cameos by the likes of Salma Hayek and Willem Dafoe, but little of the menace and flair that made Darren Shan’s series a hit among the teen set. Call this one a huge missed opportunity, having had the potential to be the perfect antidote for all those boyfriends who roll their eyes at the thought of repeated viewings of Twilight.
The Golden Compass (2007)
Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy carried a lot of baggage along with its bestseller status, not the least of which was its secular humanist (i.e. anti-religion) point of view. That, along with its difficult-to-easily-summarize plot (something about animal spirits and, er, a compass that is gold) made it a tough sell. Plus, having Nicole Kidman at the height of her box-office poison phase — let me know when that ends, will you? — didn’t help.
There definitely was some outcry from religious groups, but what made the whole brouhaha more strange was that the adaptation glossed over much of what they found objectionable about the books. Sounds like a classic case of trying to please everybody and accomplishing just the opposite, to the tune of recouping only $70 million from its estimated $180 million budget. Don’t hold your breath, fans of The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass.
The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising (2007)
Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising seems to find fans with each new generation of middle-school kids, so it deserved a proper cinematic treatment. What it got was this patchwork rush job that played like a second-tier Disney Channel original. The filmmakers played into just about every stereotype that goes with “Americanizing” a movie: They dumbed-down the source material, changed the plot to the degree that many fans found it unrecognizable and, yes, Americanized the main character, who is British in the books.
Ian McShane is always fun to watch, but even he can’t knock the generic tarnish off this one. Audiences agreed, only ponying up a pittance ($8.7 million) at the box office. Next.
Superman Returns (2006)
Bryan Singer’s reboot was met with a lot of goodwill, thanks to his reverence for the Christopher Reeve version and a general public hunger for a big-screen Man of Steel. He even treated his movie as an alternate version of Superman III, placing it as a sequel to the first two Richard Donner-helmed films. He found a Reeve doppelganger in Brandon Routh, left in the Marlon Brando parts, and even kept the John Williams theme and uber-cool opening credits.
But at a certain point, homage becomes worship, much like the way romance, when taken to its extreme, can become stalking. I’d say that happened when Lex Luthor emerged as the villain (again) with yet another cataclysmic real-estate scheme that pretty much mirrored that of the 1978 original. Singer also went overboard with the Superman-as-Christ imagery, and threw in some truly weird elements, making Superman a baby daddy and casting the far too young and slight Kate Bosworth as Lois Lane. It was the kind of movie that was fun enough to watch, but the more you thought about it (admittedly not a good idea in the cases of most comic-book movies) the more irritating it became.
The box office was stellar, eking past the $200 million mark, but not quite the worldwide phenomenon the studio was hoping for. Plans for a sequel never really materialized, and the latest word is that yet another reboot, overseen by Christopher Nolan and David S. Goyer — the team that so spectacularly brought Batman back to life — is in the works.
Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events (2004)
“Jim Carrey as Count Olaf” … That phrase alone seems promising enough, but for whatever reason, audiences weren’t lining up to see the gleefully dark children’s series brought to the big screen. Too bad. The movie is actually pretty decent, if a bit unfocused (not surprising, given that it squishes the first three books in the series into less than two hours). Meryl Streep delivers a characteristically strong performance, and it seemed as though a star was born in the young Aussie actress, Emily Browning, who was cast as Violet Baudelaire.
You can’t chalk this up as a total flop, but it just never really clicked, perhaps coming off as a bit of Tim Burton-lite. Maybe if Burton had directed it, and cast Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, we’d be having a different conversation.
The Lord of the Rings (1978)
Before Peter Jackson helmed the definitive screen version of J.R.R. Tolkein’s seminal fantasy epic, a few animators gave it a shot. Rankin-Bass, known for their timeless holiday specials like Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, started things off with the Rings prequel The Hobbit in 1977. Then Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) translated the first two books — The Fellowship of the Ring and The Two Towers — using his signature rotoscope style. The plan was for Bakshi to pick up the rest of the story in a future project, but the film flopped and everyone involved lost interest. Luckily (or not, depending on who you talk to) Rankin-Bass stepped back in and delivered its version of The Return of the King in 1980, making for a mishmash completion of the saga.
Bakshi’s Rings was thrashed about pretty good after its release, both by audiences and even the filmmakers. But it stands today as a fascinating curio, and one that gives you a rare chance to hear Anthony Daniels perform a character who is not C-3PO.
Photos: The Last Airbender: ™ & © 2010 by Paramount Pictures. Percy Jackson & the Olympians: The Lightning Thief: ™ and © 2010 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events: ™ & ®, © by Paramount Pictures. Superman Returns: © 2006 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.