Will JK’s Cuckoo call at the box office?

Donald Clarke isn’t sure if the pseudonymous crime writer can duplicate the cinematic success of the fantasy novelist

Fri, Aug 2, 2013, 00:00

What do we make of the bidding war currently raging around the latest pseudonymously published novel by JK Rowling? We’ll tell you.

Some time ago this column devised an aphorism we thought so clever we still laugh ourselves to sleep repeating it. Here it is. There are only two JK Rowlings and one of them is called Stephenie Meyer. That’s to say, just two writers of young-adult fiction – Ms Rowling and the creator of Twilight – are capable of generating sure-fire box-office hits.

This was worth saying. Again and again, studios bought books they thought were “huge with teenagers” in the hope the film adaptations would sell lunchboxes until kids travelled to school by jetpack.

Remember the unhappy versions of Christopher Paolini’s Eragon, Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising and Darren Shan’s Cirque du Freak? No. Well, that’s because you didn’t pay to see them and caused the poor wee studios to lose a great deal of money and cancel a bunch of sequels. I hope you’re pleased with yourself. Even Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials failed to generate more than one lonely adaptation and that series really is a modern classic.

Eventually, early last year, Lionsgate finally appeared to achieve a breakthrough that made junk of our dictum. Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games was a genuine hit. In our defence, we will point out that the film performed quite modestly outside the US. Nonetheless, we must concede that the rule needs some modification. There are, perhaps, two and a half JK Rowlings.

So, the real author of Robert Galbraith’s The Cuckoo’s Calling is worth pursuing. Right? After all, she is one of the 2.5 Rowlings. Heck, she’s the one that’s actually called JK Rowling.

Not so fast there, imaginary interlocutor. Firstly, the utter, dismal failure of The Host, a film taken from a Meyer novel, confirms that it is those particular stories, rather than their authors, that spur the industry-altering commercial phenomena. More significantly still, Rowling is moving into the much less translatable world of crime fiction.

When the geeks inherited the earth and decreed that all we care about is men in masks, a whole range of once-profitable genres got shunted to the sidelines. Underpromoted by studios, now seen as TV fodder, the straight-up crime thriller – acted out by beings without superpowers – is even more moribund than the romantic comedy.

The old-fashioned mystery is less saleable still. Lee Child and James Patterson are among the best-selling novelists of this (or any other) time. Yet two recent eponymous films based on stories featuring their heroes – Jack Reacher and Alex Cross – both failed at the box office.

In short, the studio will have a heck of a time making Ms Rowling’s latest effort into a Harry-sized hit. Let us put it another way. There’s only one Dan Brown. I suppose that counts as good news.

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