This is tale of two movies, a pair of would-be blockbusters each drawn from literary sources, each aimed at drawing thousands to the multiplexes and making hundreds of millions of dollars.

One of them is a record-breaking success. The other, a record-breaking failure.

Why? Well, it's actually easy to explain.

The success is "The Hunger Games," which took in $155 million at the box office last weekend, the third-highest opening ever, not adjusted for inflation, a mark easily eclipsing the spring record of $116 million set in 2010 by "Alice in Wonderland."

The failure is "John Carter," a sci-fi action adventure that cost more than $250 million to make, has taken in just $62 million at the U.S. box office and forced Disney to take a $200 million write-off, pushing its stock value down 1 percent. That loss is likely to be the biggest in film history, again, at least in terms of unadjusted raw dollars.

"John Carter" failed for many of the same reasons that "The Hunger Games" has succeeded.

"John Carter" is based on Edgar Rice Burroughs' sci-fi adventure novels, which debuted a century ago. That's right, the main character and the basis for the story, which is set on a Mars-like planet called Barsoom, are 100 years old.

That doesn't bode well for contemporary knowledge of the Carter tales going into the film. Then throw in the fact that Burroughs' adventures have been picked over by filmmakers like George Lucas for decades, and there was little fresh to bring to the screen.

Then there are the stars -- or lack thereof. Taylor Kitsch, who plays Carter, was great on TV's "Friday Night Lights," but he's not going to open a movie. Neither is Lynn Collins of HBO's "True Blood" or, for all their acting ability, veteran character actors Willem Dafoe, Mark Strong and Ciaran Hines.

Add a troubled production and an animation director in way over his head with a sprawling live action/computer generated film, and you've got a perfect storm for movie disaster.

"The Hunger Games" is based on Suzanne Collins' best-selling young-adult novel -- a literary source that couldn't be hotter, likely creating a can't-miss franchise along the lines of the "Twilight" and "Harry Potter" films.

Collins' novel and the screenplay she co-wrote are far from original. "The Running Man," a Stephen King short story turned into a 1987 Arnold Schwarzenegger movie, has the same basic premise. A teenage love triangle is nothing new (see "Twilight") and there's plenty of borrowing from Nazi Germany, ancient Rome and futuristic dystopias like "1984" and "Brave New World."

But it's new to today's audience of teens and 20-somethings that propels box office openings.

"The Hunger Games" is also smartly cast, bringing in the Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence, an excellent young actress, to play the lead role and adding Josh Hutcherson, who's starred in the two "Journey to the Center of the Earth" films, as her counterpart in the games. Then the film is filled with superb actors, including the show-stealing Woody Harrelson, in its supporting parts.

Director Gary Ross, who made "Seabiscuit" and "Pleasantville," is far from an action master. His challenge was complicated by the need to get a PG-13 rating that clearly forced some pullback from the violence inherent in a film about teens killing one another.

But he does a solid job putting together what feels like two pictures in one -- the first, a dark sci-fi tale of a country dominated by a decadent city surrounded by poor provinces, the second of the Hunger Games themselves.

All of this is capped by a clever, well-executed marketing campaign from Lionsgate, leading to a major hit -- a film that's already well into the black, with its $80 million production cost and marketing budget easily covered by the opening weekend box office.

"The Hunger Games" isn't likely to best the $1 billion worldwide box office of "Alice in Wonderland." It only took in $59 million internationally last weekend -- a sign that it's an American phenomenon. But it will likely wind up with receipts upward of $500 million.

With three more movies planned from the other two books in the series, and an audience that skewed 39 percent male -- far higher than the "Twilight" pictures -- "The Hunger Games" is almost certain to wind up as one of the most successful movie franchises ever.

The fate of "John Carter," however, is likely to only become the answer to a pretty painful trivia question, replacing "Ishtar" as the response to "What is the biggest movie flop of all time?"

​Reach L. Kent Wolgamott at 402-473-7244 or kwolgamott@journalstar.com, or follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/LJSWolgamott.


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