New versus Old

The Hunger Games has sold millions as a book, and then sold millions of movie tickets.  Like the Twilight and the Harry Potter stories, The Hunger Games created mobs and mania opening weekend.  What I’d like to know is why do only new books create a mania?  At least at the movies.  The John Carter of Mars books were hugely popular in their day, and they had nearly a century to build up fans.

Why didn’t all the John Carter of Mars fans come out for premier weekend of John Carter?  I read the Edgar Rice Burroughs John Carter books when I was a teen and found them thrilling.  I suppose there are few young people discovering them today, and without the kids you can’t have pop culture mania.  Or can you?  The best counter example is Lord of the Rings and Stieg Larsson Millennium series.  Not quite the same hoopla, but pretty big – adults don’t show their excitement in the same way as kids, but I knew an awful lot of bookworms my age gush about the Stieg Larsson books.

What do you do if you don’t have new books to make into blockbuster movies?  Can old ones do the job?  Larsson is an example of the new making a big entry splash, but Lord of the Rings does prove an old book can still generate some pop culture excitement.  The size of the mania seems related to the size and age of the audience.

Would there have been a mania for The Beatles without teens?  Disney spent a PowerBall fortune making John Carter and it flopped.  Didn’t they know movie manias require the endorsement of the young to make the kind of money they want?  Did Disney think they could create an instant mania?  Avatar did it?  Why?  Sometimes the mania hits without books preceding the movie.

I assume movie makers use books for a ready made audience.  So have they mined all the old best sellers of history?  Look at this list of All-Time Best Sellers at Wikipedia.  Six books have sold more than 100 million.    The all time top sellers at 200 million copies are A Tale of Two Cities and The Little Prince, although other people estimate Don Quixote has sold more than 500 million copies.  I doubt we’ll have open weekend mania if these books were made into films.

The real sellers are series books, with Harry Potter toping the list at 450 million.  Edgar Rice Burroughs did make a show with his Tarzan series at 50 million copies, but John Carter wasn’t listed.  Looking at the list shows some promising titles that haven’t been filmed, but overall the list looks well picked over by Hollywood.

Last year, Ayn Rand’s cult classic, Atlas Shrugged came to the movies at the old theater that I go to see art and foreign movies, where the parking is usually empty.  The lot was full for Atlas Shrugged, even though the film got horrible reviews.  Old books can sell new movie tickets, but it’s a hard sale, and the local news didn’t film adults waiting in line wearing costumes for Atlas Shrugged.  If they had worn Ayn Rand outfits, maybe the film crews would have been there.  Maybe movie makes need adults to act more like kids if want to make a killing in that first weekend.

Science fiction fans have been waiting half a century to see Stranger in a Strange Land or Foundation at the movies, and if they got big Disney sized productions would they do any better than John Carter without the backing of teenager movie goers?

Masterpiece Theater fans watch production after production of old classics, but how many fans does it have?  Downton Abbey created a bit of a mania for the baby boomer set but it was no Beatlmania.

Real fan mania requires both new and old fans.  That’s why some YA novels are read both the young and the formerly young.

Poor movie producers hoping to become billionaires just need to wait for the next new thing, whatever it might be.  That’s probably why they keep remaking movies, because waiting for new authors to write runaway bestsellers is kind of tedious.  Old pop culture doesn’t recycle very well.  The current boom in comic book productions seems to pay off, but how long can they keep that going?  At some point superheroes will jump the shark.

Hollywood must really be desperate if they have to make Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.  This is an attempt to combine the old with the new, even though vampires stories are really old, they’ve been through several recycling’s, but they are currently new again.  For awhile.  Just look at this trailer.  Is it new or old?  Will it sell or bomb?  Is it a new trend to repackage old history with new fantasies?

How many new stories are invented each decade that are so well loved they will sell millions of tickets the first weekend? And are there any old stories that can still do the same thing?

JWH – 4/3/12