Just another case where Hollywood rushes to make a just released novel into a movie. I Am Number Four, which is already being made into a Steven Spielberg-produced film, looks expensive. The first in a six-book series pseudonymously written by the surprising pair of newcomer Jobie Hughes and memoir-fabulist James Frey.
“We were nine. Three are dead”
When their home planet of Lorien was invaded by the evil Mogadarians, intent on raping the planet of all its natural resources, nine special infants were sent to Earth for safe refuge. Human in appearance, the infants were to wait until their superpowers developed so they could then return to Lorien to restore the planet. But the raiders have pursued them to Earth for a final mop up mission. A special charm placed upon the nine chosen youths means they must be killed in numerical order, hence the title character (Number Four) is the fourth on the Mogadarians’ hit list. The nine separate, fleeing to various parts of Earth; it’s only when a burning scar appears on their bodies that they know one of their kind has fallen.
Number Four has spent his life on Earth with his older protector, a father-like figure who calls himself Henri. They move from town to town, trying to live anonymous lives and stay several steps ahead of the alien assassins. The death of Number Three prompts a fateful move to Paradise, Ohio, a rather paradoxically named place for the duo. There, Number Four’s powers will develop to the fullest, and he’ll receive help from long-lost members of his race. But he’ll also fall in love with a sensitive Earth girl and find his desire for a normal teenage life growing day by day. But the Mogadorians will finally catch up with him, placing not only his life in jeopardy, but that of Henri and Number Four’s new-found friends. The war on Lorien may have ended, but the battle still wages on Earth.
I Am Number Four is written with energy and fluidity. It moves at an impressive clip, and though it’s essentially just a collection of action set-pieces, it’s none the worse for that, even if logic and clarity tend to slip in the later sequences.
That slippage points to a larger problem. Rarely have I read a book that felt so made up on the fly. The forward momentum isn’t enough to disguise the fact that very little time seems to have been spent on the backstory. The science is laughable (everything from planetary sizes to evolution seems to have been written down as a best guess), until finally the writers just give up and call Lorien “magical”. Why are these aliens with superpowers bound by amulets and charms? Because they are, that’s why. I would certainly hope that this is a case of the authors being rushed rather than skimping because the book is “only” for teens.
This has far-reaching effects. I Am Number Four is a competent and entertaining thriller, but it has no deeper resonance, a resonance which was key to the runaway success of both the Harry Potter and the Twilight series. Even John’s teenager-as-alien allegory doesn’t work, because he’s handsome and confident, with superpowers and a beautiful girlfriend. Which is what teenage years were like for everyone, weren’t they?
I Am Number Four will probably be a hit. The movie will certainly help. But will it sell the millions the publishers are hoping for? I’m not sure, because it makes the possibly fatal mistake – both in the story it tells and the effort it expends in telling it – of not taking being a teenager very seriously. And teenagers, you may be surprised to learn, are likely to notice.