- 13 October 2010
- By Gerard Wood
If you haven't heard about I Am Number Four consider this a wake up call because the wheels of the marketing machine are spinning fast and picking up speed. Written by Pittacus Lore (if you can believe it, which you can’t), the novel was published this year by Harper Collins and even before the print was dry the property had been snapped up by a film industry eager to find the next big franchise now that the Harry Potter saga is drawing to a close. The novel has more than its fair share of enthusiastic supporters, including director Michael Bay (Transformers) who believes that Number Four is "a hero for our generation", a sentiment shared by The Speculative Scotsman which puts us on notice that "this is the next big thing in genre fiction... I Am Number Four has zeitgeist written all over it". But it’s The Big Issue which best captures the hopes and aspirations of the execs and accountants at Harper Collins and DreamWorks when it confidently asserts that the series is "A franchise set to eclipse all memories of Harry Potter and moody vampires... Pittacus Lore is about to become one of the hottest names on the planet".
They could be right, but I doubt it.
I Am Number Four is the first in a planned series of six novels which chronicle the life of John Smith, 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.
With only one of six novels published and that one yet to make a significant impression on the reading public, DreamWorks appears to be taking a risk with this project, but clearly the studio believes the series ticks all the boxes on the checklist of Next Big Movie Franchise. So what exactly does it have its hands on? Marketed as science fiction, I Am Number Four is more truly a fantasy about the coming of age of a superhero and it’s probably no coincidence that the adaptation was penned by screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, creators of the Superman origin series, Smallville.
I struggled with the novel, which took me two months on and off to read for review despite the best intentions and several polite emails from the publicist. Pittacus Lore can certainly tell a story. Unfortunately there's little in it that we haven't come across numerous times before in fiction, on TV and film, it is tiresomely predictable as a consequence, and the plot is plagued by implausibility. In fairness to Lore the intended readership is clearly young adult, a group which can be more forgiving of such things, not least because Lore's novel could conceivably be one of the first places they encounter many of these characters and situations. However with so little novelty to offer the rest of us, it is hard to imagine that the series could possibly come close to the universal appeal of that other young adult franchise, Harry Potter.
I could go into detail about how the story lacks originality but that would be unfair to any young adult readers for whom this might all be new. Suffice to say that as a Coming of Age High School drama, I Am Number Four is formulaic and dependent on stock characters and situations, and the Superhero Coming of Age aspect of the tale is much the same, with every plot twist signalled well in advance or utterly predictable because it’s been done before.
Charges of implausibility might seem unreasonable given that this is a story about aliens with superpowers, but situations and events even within a fantastical scenario must be plausible if the fantasy is to have any credibility. Any number of examples could be provided but one should do. Henri and John's survival demands that they keep a low profile and yet Henri is quite happy to send John off to school when the boy's Legacies are starting to develop but are uncontrolled and manifesting as spontaneously glowing hands. Nah, no one will notice...
The only truly original contribution is the charm which protects the nine quite literally until their number is up: they must be killed in sequence so that while Number Two is alive, for instance, the enemy can’t kill Number Six. There’s no science to this, it’s magic pure and simple, and in the way of such things no explanation is offered for how the charm is enabled or enforced. Consider for a moment though what incredible power is required to affect the physical world in this way, to prevent an entire species from killing an individual until a certain condition is met. Surely any being capable of such a feat could contrive a better form of protection than this? Think of poor Number One. Not only is Number One not protected by the charm at all (there’s no Number Zero to be killed first), the charm is nothing less than a death sentence as soon as it is enacted. Here is a a weakness in the chain of protection which renders the charm practically useless. If Number One has no protection whatsoever, Number Two's protection is almost negligible, and so on.
Is this an oversight by the Elder who contrived the charm or an oversight of the author? I suspect the author. But really there’s no point dwelling on this. Despite the great significance placed on the charm it's nothing more than a poorly contrived mechanism to drive the plot forward: One is killed, then Two, then Three, oh dear, it’s Number Four’s turn. As long as we don't think about the implications, all is fine.
When all is said and done the novel is not unreadable, but its appeal must surely be limited to young readers who have not read widely and for whom this unoriginal fiction might feel fresh.
The most interesting aspect to all of this for me is the authorship. Even before reading the novel and learning that Pittacus Lore is Lorien's greatest Elder, it's fairly obvious that the unusual name is a pseudonym. In fact it's the nom de plume for two collaborating authors, newcomer Jobie Hughes and James Frey, writer of the notorious fake memoire A Million Little Pieces in which Frey chronicled his days as an alcoholic, drug addicted criminal. Oprah famously lauded the work until it was revealed it was more fiction than fact, at which point the media turned on Frey. As a writer and promoter of his fiction Frey clearly plays a game with the relationship between truth and fiction. In adopting the name Pittacus Lore, a fictional character in the novel, Frey plays a similar game to the one he played with A Million Little Pieces and it’s a neat trick that provides the work of fiction with an illusion of truth. Unfortunately Frey seems only to specialise in illusion - the illusion of truth, the illusion of novelty - and illusions don't satisfy any but the least demanding audience.
The big screen adaptation of I Am Number Four is directed by D.J. Caruso (Eagle Eye) and stars Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Teresa Palmer and Kevin Durand and has the enthusiastic backing of Michael Bay and Steven Spielberg who are producing the film for DreamWorks Pictures. A February 18, 2011 release date is scheduled.
Who knows, maybe as a big screen adaptation it will more successfully entertain?
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