Max and his cast of monsters in Where The Wild Things Are will arrive in theaters this Friday armed with a few box office good-luck charms: a director with a cult following (Spike Jonze), a celebrity cast (James Gandolfini, Forest Whitaker, Mark Ruffalo) and a beloved plot. But despite the hype, Max will have a lot to overcome.
Classic children's book characters may enjoy mainstream adoration and cultural ubiquity, but they have an inconsistent track record on the silver screen. In 2007, Warner Brothers' version of the classic Nancy Drew book series, which has sold more than 100 million copies since it was first published in 1930, earned a paltry $26 million at the box office. Frances Hodgson Burnett's classic A Little Princess brought in just $10 million at the theaters in 1995. Even big stars aren't a guarantee: Miramax's 2004 Ella Enchanted, starring Anne Hathaway, collected just $22 million.
There have been winners, however. The biggest cross-platform success is Shrek. The big, green ogre has been a box office blessing for DreamWorks, spawning three films that earned an average of $343 million each at the domestic box office and a thriving franchise. Although William Steig's 1990 book never became a leading title, the film's popularity propelled several movie tie-in books to land on the category's bestseller list.
In second place on our list of most successful screens stars from children's literature is Dr. Seuss' legendary character the Grinch. The green creature with a heart "two sizes too small" was introduced to generations of children and adults in 1957 in the pages of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which has sold over 3.5 million copies since. The character became a big-screen star in 2000, portrayed by Jim Carrey. The film earned $260 million at the domestic box office.
Rounding out the top three is Larry Daleyfrom Night at the Museum. Milan Trenc originally published the story as a picture book in 1993, to be followed in 2006 by a bestselling, novelized version penned by Leslie Goldman. The film version and its sequel, starring Ben Stiller as Larry, the hapless father who becomes a night guard at the American Museum of Natural History, earned an average of $214 million at the domestic box office.
To compile our list of the most successful children's book characters on the big screen, Forbes considered movies released after 1980 based on children's books with prominent lead characters. Adaptations of young adult fiction for the over-12 set were not considered. Rankings are based on domestic box office earnings; in instances involving one or more sequels, box office results were averaged in order to gauge the overall "star power" of each children's character. (While the production of a sequel is a clear indication of a character's proven financial potential, an increase or decrease in popularity is evident using an average, rather than cumulative box office totals.)
Three of the top 10 characters come from the pages of Theodor Geisel classics. Better known as the venerable Dr. Seuss, the author created such cross-platform top performers as the Cat in the Hat and Horton. His books have been translated into profitable television shows, musicals and animated features in addition to the live-action films that have thrived at the box office in recent years. In addition, the titles have remained on best-seller lists decades after they were published.
Dr. Seuss is an exception to the rule of children's book adaptations. According to Box Office Mojo, in the last 25 years, the top 50 film adaptations of children's books have earned an average of $98 million, while the 50 top-earning films based on comic books and cartoons have brought in an average of $148 million and $180 million, respectively.
So why does Hollywood continue to churn out kid-fiction films? Simple: merchandise. With steady ancillary revenue from coloring books to sleeping bags to adult T-shirts, classic characters bear incredible brand value.
So even if Wild Things doesn't top the weekend box office, at least there's hope that consumers will fall for those stuffed Max slippers.