LOS ANGELES — The producers of the young-adult, sci-fi adaptation “Divergent” are fine with comparisons to “The Hunger Games.” Just don’t hold them to a $150 million opening.
“We’d be crazy not to be happy about the comparisons,” producer Doug Wick said in a recent interview. “The downside is people having ridiculous expectations.”
Based on Veronica Roth’s best-selling YA novel, “Divergent” hits theaters Friday, with a projected domestic gross of about $60 million on its opening weekend. That’s a lot less than the $152.5 million “The Hunger Games” made in its 2012 domestic debut.
“We want to be our own movie,” said producer Lucy Fisher. “The comparisons are great, but you can’t say you will duplicate a phenomenon. We always saw this creatively, as a movie with a very different heroine.”
“Divergent” is set in a dystopian future in Chicago, where everyone is divided into “factions” based on their virtues. The story follows 16-year-old Tris (Shailene Woodley), who chooses to leave her group for another. The film features a cast of stars-to-be, including Theo James, Miles Teller and Jai Courtney, as well as veterans Kate Winslet and Ashley Judd.
For Wick and Fisher, finding a film studio to invest in “Divergent” meant enduring a number of rejections before sealing a deal with Lionsgate and subsidiary Summit Entertainment.
“There was no readership yet, so no one wanted to do it,” said Wick, noting their pitch came before Roth’s sci-fi book hit shelves in April 2011. But the producers could foresee a best-seller — and a potential killer movie.
“It was authentic and Veronica really had something to say about making tough choices,” added Wick. “It also painted a great canvas.”
Lionsgate, the studio behind “The Hunger Games” films, and Summit, the studio that backed the wildly successful “Twilight” YA series, took a chance on the unread “Divergent.”
Roth’s books, including “Divergent” follow-ups “Insurgent” and “Allegiant,” have sold over 11 million copies. But high book sales don’t always lead to a movie blockbuster. Like most YA hits, a huge factor lies in the leading lady of the film — and that swoon-worthy leading man.
The film’s producers had planned to comb the globe in search of a young talent to play their heroine. “Our intention was to do an exhaustive search,” said Wick, who was responsible for casting Angelina Jolie in “Girl, Interrupted.” “We knew about Shailene through ‘The Descendants,’ but when we met her, she was going to do an urban survival course where they drop you in some part of the city, tie you up and you have to find your way back. She emerged clearly.”
For the leading male character, Four, they chose British actor Theo James. “We wanted someone who was manly, but also vulnerable,” said Fisher. “We kept saying, ‘Can’t we find the young Paul Newman?’ Theo was a complete and utter bingo.”
Though the “Twilight” and “The Hunger Games” series have sold over 100 million books combined, the film adaptations didn’t seem to have had as much anticipation as “Divergent.”
“‘Twilight’ caught everybody by surprise, so the buildup was a little quieter,” said Dave Karger, chief correspondent of online ticket provider Fandango. “Now the industry and the audience is looking for that next ‘Twilight’ or ‘Hunger Games.”’
But YA books-turned-films don’t automatically nail it. “Beautiful Creatures” and “Vampire Academy” each grossed under $10 million domestically on their debut weekend.
“Veronica Roth was able to walk that tough line of giving young adult fans the exciting story, but also the love story that they want,” added Karger. “The other YA film adaptations lately haven’t connected because they don’t feature that particular alchemy.”
So far, reviews of the Neil Burger-directed “Divergent” have been mediocre. Similarly, film critics didn’t much care for “Twilight,” either. Still, the vampire tale delivered for teen girls, who drive much of the ticket sales for YA films.
With its built-in fan base, “Divergent” should have a solid opening weekend. The big question is, will that social media-driven fan base spread the right kind of buzz to keep momentum going at the box office?
Cast members remain hopeful. ‘“Hunger Games’ did really well,” says Woodley. “So if they’re going to compare us to anything, keep on comparing us to that!”
Associated Press writer Nicole Evatt contributed to this report.
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