I Am Number Four: another Percy Jackson or rival for the Potter crown?

Books, Reviews, Screen

I Am Number FourPittacus Lore’s novel I Am Number Four was published in 2010, the first in a planned series of six books that will chronicle the adventures of an extraordinary young man with the very ordinary  name of John Smith. Even before the ink had a chance to dry, the novel was snapped up by a film industry eager to find the next big franchise now that the Harry Potter saga is drawing to a close. With only one of the six novels published and that one yet to make a significant impression on the reading public, DreamWorks Pictures might seem to be taking a risk with this property, but the studio clearly believes the series ticks all the boxes on the checklist of Next Big Movie Franchise.

Now that director D.J. Caruso’s adaptation has made it to the big screen, we’re about to find out if DreamWorks got it right or whether they’ve got another Percy Jackson on their hands. Percy who, you may ask? Indeed. The last few years have seen more than a few Harry Potter wannabes fail to make the grade despite the very enthusiastic (and costly) backing of the studios. Starring Alex Pettyfer (as Number Four), Timothy Olyphant (Henri), Teresa Palmer (Number Six), Dianna Agron (Sarah) and Kevin Durand (Mogadorian Commander), I Am Number Four has the enthusiastic backing of Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg who produced the film for DreamWorks Pictures.

So, does John Smith make the grade?

If you read our review of the novel, you’ll know that I’m not a fan of Pittacus Lore’s writing. Lore (collaborating authors Jobie Hughes and James Frey) can certainly tell a story, it’s just that there’s little in it that we haven’t come across numerous times before in fiction, on TV and film and as a result the story is tiresomely predictable. What is original in the story, such as a charm of protection which ensures that Number Four can’t be killed until Numbers One, Two and Three are killed in sequence, doesn’t strike me as particularly well thought out (you can read why in my review of the novel).

On the other hand what is striking about Lore’s writing is its remarkably cinematic style which would seem to make the novel ideal for a big screen adaptation. In reviewing it I found myself wondering whether a big screen adaptation might in fact be more entertaining than the written word, and now that I’ve seen the movie, I’m delighted to say that this is indeed the case. For what it is, a blockbuster action thriller, D.J. Caruso’s I Am Number Four is in fact great entertainment.

John Smith is one of nine young fugitives from the planet Lorien which was all but destroyed by a brutal race called the Mogadorians. Fleeing to Earth the fugitives live amongst us in hiding until they develop their Legacies, superpowers to the rest of us, and can take the fight to the enemy. It’s not known what Legacies a child will develop, but John Smith already harbours remarkable strength and speed, as well as the beginnings of stranger powers, including telekinesis and resistance to fire.

The Mogadorians track the refugees to Earth and hunt them down one by one, but the children have some limited protection in the form of a charm that ensures they can only be killed in sequence, one through nine. One, Two and Three have been eliminated. John Smith is Number Four.

John and his guardian, Henri, move from town to town, changing their identity, always ready to leave at the first hint of discovery. Much of the story takes place in the Midwest town of Paradise, Ohio, where John is once again the new kid at the local high school. But things change in Paradise. John’s Legacies start to develop, he discovers love for the first time, and the Mogadorians finally catch up.

Although the adaptation by Alfred Gough, Miles Millar and Marti Nixon sticks fairly close to Lore’s plot, it eliminates all but the most essential material for a thrilling adrenaline ride. Intentionally or not, this has the added virtue of skirting over much of the implausibility in the novel. The screenwriters have identified and extracted the essence of the novel which is essentially a fantasy about the coming of age of a superhero interwoven with that very American sub-genre, the high school drama. It’s surely no coincidence that two of the screenwriters employed by DreamWorks, Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, were responsible for the Superman origin series, Smallville.

The writers aren’t able entirely to eliminate the implausibility in the narrative, but (rightly or wrongly) we tend to be more forgiving of such things when passively sitting back and watching a story unfold on the big screen rather than actively reading it. And anyway, D.J. Caruso presents the whole thing with considerable charm – the actors are well cast in their roles – along with some thrilling action and spectacular effects. As long as we don’t think too hard about things (and we’re not really meant to), we’re sure to be entertained.

The second novel, The Power of Six, is due for release in August but if I were to take a wild stab in the dark, I’d hazard a guess that the movie will be more successful than the novel and that in future Pittacus Lore will find “himself” fast-tracking plot outlines for screenwriters to adapt into movies rather than writing novels.

I Am Number Four has an 18 February release in North America, 23 February in the UK and 24 February in Australia. I never  thought I’d find myself recommending this, but go watch the movie and leave the book on the shelf…

Seen it? What do you think? Is I Am Number Four another Percy Jackson or does it have real potential as the next big movie franchise?

Check out the trailer:

You can also watch it in HD on Yahoo movies.

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