The Bible (1966): There’s a huge risk of embarrassment when it comes to franchises: If there’s little interest, you’ve essentially made a story with no end, or even a middle. In the case of John Huston’s mega-ambitious project, cranking out only one film worked out fine: After all, his source was episodic. Despite being an avowed agnostic who publicly mocked the veracity of Christianity’s holy book, Huston intended to film the entire Old Testament, presumably even the boring/skeezy/violent/racist/slavery-promoting bits. Alas, he only got 22 chapters into Genesis before belatedly realizing the heyday of the all-star religious epic was as dead as Abel.
The Lord of the Rings (1978): Before special effects caught up with J.R.R. Tolkien’s vision, mega-producer Saul Zaentz decided to tackle his masterwork practically, hiring reformed animator badboy Ralph Bakshi (Fritz the Cat) to use a blend of traditional animation and live-action rotoscoping. The result, which only gets part way through The Two Towers, was a hit—and yet execs were reluctant to bankroll the rest. Two years later a Return of the King film emerged, with Bakshi (and most of the cast) replaced by the inferior Rankin-Bass, whose take on The Hobbit remains hated.
Dune (1984): In which David Lynch killed what execs assumed was the next Star Wars and very nearly his career.
Master and Commander (2003): There are 21 complete novels in Patrick O’Brien’s nautical series, three of which served as fodder for the excellent first in what would have been a kickass Russell Crowe franchise. Alas, the film only grossed $93 million against a $150 million budget.
His Dark Materials: Credit Catholic League ghoul William A. Donohue for scaring thin-skinned parents away from The Golden Compass (2007), the first adaptation of outspoken atheist Philip Pullman’s anti-Narnia trilogy. Although you could also credit thin-skinned producers for largely gouging the anticlerical messages and hiring a bland director (Chris Weitz, later of Twilight: New Moon) to make a product that pleased no one.
I Am Number Four (2011): Unless producers are willing to shell out more for a series that opened behind fucking Gnomeo and Juliet ...