I Am Number Four: the book that inspired the movie

The trailer looks exciting - if you're into that sort of thing. So is the book it's based on any good?

It really depends what you mean by ‘good'. It's readable, and the New York Times bestseller list shows it has a wide following (particularly among teen boys... and girls who like Alex Pettyfer).

The basic storyline: nine young people came to earth from the planet Lorien to escape the evil aliens who attacked their planet. The Lorienites are super humans who look like us but have special powers. The evil aliens pursue them to earth, but a protective spell means they can only be killed in order from the first down to the ninth. The protagonist of our story is number four, the first three have been killed already, and he's next.

He and his guardian take assumed names (John Smith and Henri) and move around frequently, trying to pass unnoticed. But at sixteen John's tired of running and wants to make friends, have a girlfriend and try to be normal. That lasts about a week before he starts to develop his special powers and his enemies track him down.

The plot is probably the best part of the story, but the style is jarring. There's lots of action (fights and battles, including a retelling of those in history), leaving little room for character or relationship development.

I can't help feeling, however, that the authors were trying to create a "Twilight" for males. There are some plot similarities: a super-human tries to blend in at a normal high-school, falls in love with a human and everything is great until the baddies turn up. And without crossing ‘the line' the love scenes are just as superficial and sentimental as Twilight, though the extent of the action means there are much fewer love scenes, so perhaps they'll do less harm.

The author has taken the pseudonym of one of the characters mentioned in the story. A little more research tells you it's actually two people, James Frey (the controversial author of the false ‘memoir' A Million Little Pieces) and Jobie Hughes (a recent creative writing graduate who seems to have done most of the writing in this novel). According to Wikipedia (that gold-mine of popular wisdom) they actually set up a young adult publishing company in 2009 which aimed to create highly commercial novels like Twilight. Telling.

So with that backdrop, here are some of the highs and lows.

There's the characteristic ‘hope in adversity' theme that features in most epics; maybe it wouldn't feel so corny if I were a teen.

Then there's the Twilight appeal of lover-boy's infatuation with his unbelievably beautiful (of course) classmate, and her rather sudden preference for him as well. The only ray of light was the paragraph explaining why she quit cheerleading and broke up with her previous boyfriend who was, naturally, the star of the school football team: she realised was becoming like him (i.e. mean and judgemental), drifting from her parents and friends, drinking and letting her grades slip, and she didn't want to be like that. John is different somehow, or so we're told.

I was a little surprised at Henri's advice to John about marriage: back on Lorien it is a complete and life-long union, "one of the gifts our planet gave us is to love completely. Without jealousy or insecurity or fear. Without pettiness. Without anger...". He views human loves as much weaker and often shorter, though John - in his infatuated state - didn't want to agree. But then my cynical self suggests that maybe it's just part of the wholesome Twilight, mass-market appeal.

The youth of the author comes through when he mistakes John's immaturity for strength of character. John thinks he is being strong when he physically coerces Henri into letting them stay in town because he doesn't want to leave his girlfriend and friend, though it puts them all in danger. He literally holds him up in the air until he agrees... highly mature behaviour. And when Henri just gives in without fight or even reasoning... it doesn't seem realistic.

There's also some quaint environmentalism: unlike the virtuous Lorienites, humans have been negligently killing the planet for years.

So there's a bit of everything thrown in, perhaps in the hope that most will find something to like.

The 2011 movie has John played by Alex Pettyfer (who looks 16 going on 30). It seems to have the 'all-absorbing' effect the book lacks, which may entice teens to give the book a try. And while I wouldn't call it good reading, perhaps teens who don't read much else will find it quite engaging.

Clare Cannon lives in Sydney where she is the manager of Portico Books.


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