Zombie Franchises is a series of occasional articles in which Ken Lowe examines one of the shambling intellectual properties that plods onward under sheer force of box office money. Be wary of spoilers for movies—and in this case, books—that have been out for a while.
The Mortal Instruments (or The Shadowhunter Chronicles, its larger fantasy world brand) answers the question on the minds of anybody who has become exhausted with the dying trend of mediocre YA lit movie adaptations: Is it possible for a franchise to somehow be dead the moment it’s greenlit?
(The answer is yes.)
Hollywood has this problem where it assumes that we, the audience, don’t actually like genres as much as we like media (the plural of “medium,” I mean to say). Thus, the insane (and mostly deserved) success of the Harry Potter movies drilled the odd idea into the heads of Hollywood execs that adapting books written with preteens in mind must be the key to big bucks—rather than, you know, adapting a property lots of kids and their parents were just delighted to read and analyze.
That decades-long obsession with adapting one specific genre of one specific medium hasn’t nearly resulted in the success they’ve hoped for in the nearly 20 years since 2001’s film adaptation of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (which is what Americans call the Philosopher’s Stone for reasons that make me tired). If you look at the money that movies like City of Bones, Divergent or The Maze Runner pull in, it’s never even approaching something like a Harry Potter or a Hunger Games or a Twilight.
And look at the trail of carnage that has followed in the wake of this dubious trend: Does anybody remember The Spiderwick Chronicles? If I didn’t remind you right now, would you ever have thought of Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief again? Do you regularly run into fans of Eragon (based on a stupid book), or of The Golden Compass (based on a great one)? Did you, like me, perk up in recognition at the mention of 2002’s Tuck Everlasting before remembering that it was actually based on the only other book besides Mansfield Park that scientists use as the benchmark for dramatic absolute zero, the point at which a story lapses into the dark-matter-like state of actually just being words on a page?
Up until now, Zombie Franchises has been a chronicle of individual properties that have lapsed beyond the point of repair yet trudge on regardless. This, instead, is a look at the death of a genre whose constituent properties don’t warrant individual examination. And as it kicked off a trend of these properties shuffling off to the ignominy of being on TV, I’m here to argue that The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones is the trumpet call that heralded the beginning of the end for them.
You know a lot of people who you’ve probably told in the spirit of sincere friendship that they should try writing a novel, and you may even be perplexed as to why they don’t. City of Bones is why. Deep down, every aspiring writer fears that he may be responsible for the next one. It is a work in which very few original ideas are anywhere to be found.
The screen adaptation doesn’t do much better, starting us in what is allegedly Brooklyn, in the home of Clary (Lily Collins), a girl who I think is either 18 but can get into a nightclub or 21 but isn’t living away at college. She begins scribbling on every available surface a symbol that looks like a Viking rune that means “uterus and fallopian tubes,” which is apparently the symptom of a “Shadowhunter,” half-angelic beings tasked with fighting evil and shopping only at Hot Topic. Her concerned mother (Lena Headey, who Game of Thrones must not have been paying enough) is spirited away by villains with unconvincing accents, and Clary and her nerdy and totally platonic guy friend Simon are taken in by the Shadowhunters.
Yes, there’s a love triangle between Clary, nerdy Simon and super-dangerous bad boy Shadowhunter Jace (Jamie Campbell Bower, notable in this article for having starred in several Twilight movies and in the first half of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows). No, Clary seems to have absolutely no say in a story that has people belting exposition and demands in her face in equal measure, barreling through a plot she hardly understands and which other characters seem disdainful of explaining to her or us. There are rogue Shadowhunters after her, is the point, looking for a relic her mother has hidden. Spoilers for anybody who hasn’t ever consumed fiction, but the bad guy, Valentine, is her father, but also the boys want to make out with her.
A closer examination of its plot, I think you can tell, is not necessary to understand the phenomenon. But the literary world was somewhat bemused by just how unoriginal it all was. Author Cassandra Clare was sued by another author, Sherrilyn Kenyon, alleging that Clare’s series borrowed liberally from her own. The suit even alleged that the publisher itself mistakenly printed volumes of the Shadowhunter books using art intended for Kenyon’s “Dark-Hunter” mythos. How, you wonder, could two series about shadowy sexy people fighting ’90s-edgy demons possibly be so similar unless it was malfeasance on the part of one of the authors?
It’s hard not to laugh at this, hard not to raise one’s head to the sky and start ranting about how mid-list shlock is so unoriginal that of course it’s going to violate the copyright or trademark of another. And that, really, is why it was so attractive for a studio like Screen Gems, which seems like it wants to make its action films by checking off a series of boxes and spending as little money as they can get away with. All they need is a brand—no matter what that brand may be. Just as long as there are some built-in tickets in there, a harried mother who relents and lets her kid have one night at the movies after a year of homework, or a boyfriend who is dragged along by his girlfriend against his protests.
Sadly, even that wasn’t enough to meet whatever low bar the studio had set to decide a sequel was worth it. City of Bones reviewed terribly with critics and audiences and barely made its budget back after accounting for overseas take—it may have not made it back at all, depending on what its marketing budget may have been. Plans for a 2015 sequel, City of Ashes, were eventually shelved.
Death and Un-Life
But this is Zombie Franchises. And while zombies don’t exist in the film version of the Shadowhunters universe (per a sour grapes throwaway line that I suspect was just to be contrary), the series itself certainly is one. Besides the copious amount of literature surrounding the brand—several trilogies of novels, with the next due out in 2019—there has, since 2016 been a TV show airing on an ABC affiliate, now in its third season as of this spring, adapting the same story and with none of the original cast members returning.
The same thing is reportedly set to happen to the Divergent series, which released three films you didn’t see and, as of late last year following the completely forgotten Allegiant, was in talks to be picked up as a TV movie as well. It’s important to note that these movies already had fully adapted the books on which they were based, but for some reason its studio thought that, despite its poor showing, the world both needed more of these characters but could only afford to option them for a TV movie. On other literary shores, Stephen King’s long-gestating Dark Tower series similarly debuted as a dud and talks also centered around possibly completely rebooting that as a TV show as well.
I get it. Everybody has, since 2001, wanted to get in on that Pottermore magic. And I get that ever since Warner Bros. had the gall to split the seventh movie in its series into two parts instead of just hiring actual writers to cut it down to size (and all of us, me included, were dumb enough to let them get away with it), studios have been looking for that magic franchise that can just keep going and going and going. I’m here to say that if it exists, it is not going to be based on a series about teens that stars 25-year-olds. The weirdness of Star Wars, the self-aware winking of Marvel’s Avengers, the intricate world-building and lived-in performances of all eight Harry Potter and the Portentous Maguffin movies, are all strong enough to hang a franchise on.
Movies like City of Bones and its underground tomb of fellow failed YA contemporaries can barely hang a black tank top, but apparently there’s some minuscule profit to be had even in that.
Kenneth Lowe is definitely a mundane. His work has appeared in Colombia Reports, Illinois Issues magazine, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and you can follow him on Twitter.