Welcome to the YA Movie Countdown, our resident expert’s continuing guide to young adult book-to-film adaptations.
Francis Lawrence did it. He stepped in for Gary Ross and didn’t just churn out another quality Hunger Games adaptation --- he raised the bar even higher. But now that begs the question: can he do it again?
The odds were in Lawrence’s favor in every respect with Catching Fire. He had a built-in audience, a much bigger budget, all the star power in the world and, most importantly, impeccable source material. After reading the trilogy countless times over, Catching Fire is still the most fluid of the bunch and is absolutely brimming with cinematic quality. Even though Hunger Games is a close second to Catching Fire, from a book-to-film adaptation standpoint, the fact that Catching Fire was able to nix the world-building and hit the ground running gave it the edge, and writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt certainly used that to their advantage.
But now we’ve got Mockingjay. Ask 10 people which Hunger Games book they prefer, and I’d like to bet not a single one opts for Mockingjay. Mockingjay isn’t a bad book by any means, but it certainly isn’t as tight, engaging or smooth as the first two installments. Even though immaculate source material is more likely to produce a quality film, Mockingjay will be divided into two, and while the book may not have made one fantastic movie, its assets and flaws could actually facilitate the creation of two exemplary ones.
THE PIECES ARE THERE
Mockingjay trades the Hunger Games for a far more expansive battle: war. And because of that, Mockingjay does not have the luxury of working within the concise context of the Games. Whereas Hunger Games and Catching Fire rock a significant amount of momentum due to the build created by the impending Games, the Mockingjay narrative isn’t heading towards a predefined event.
However, even though you’re jumping from plot point to plot point with less foresight in Mockingjay, the absence of that distinct chain of events is vital to selling the breadth of the rebellion. This time around, it isn’t just 24 tributes vying for the sole survivor title; it’s the entire population of Panem and it’s only natural for there to be a multitude of components to the battle – the propos, the tactical effort, the physical fighting and more.
Sure, it’s possible that Lionsgate opted to turn Mockingjay into two films to further reap the benefits of this monumental success, but the material also called for it. The 390 pages weren’t enough to do all of Suzanne Collins’ ideas justice, but 300 minutes certainly could be.
It isn’t easy to accept changes to a beloved book, but if anyone’s going to do so with Mockingjay, we’re lucky it’s Danny Strong. Not only does the guy have two Primetime Emmy Awards for Game Change, but he’s also got two other highly impressive credits to his name: Recount and The Butler.
Strong is an acclaimed writer, but he’s also clearly got a flare for government and politics, and that’s perfect for the most politically driven installment of The Hunger Games. In Recount he deftly details one of the most controversial elections in history; in Game Change he chronicles the challenge of selling an inexperienced figurehead; and The Butler is all about a man who watches the state of the country change while he stands right in the middle of it. Sound familiar?
Strong has worked with the bulk of Mockingjay’s themes before and each and every time his scripts exhibit a great attention to detail, strong and thoughtful character arcs, just the right amount of momentum and also highly relatable elements to take with you well after the credits roll.
THE GREAT DIVIDE
Spoiler Alert: This section contains Mockingjay spoilers. If you haven’t read the book, please skip to “The Main Players.”
We know it’s coming, but where? Both films, Catching Fire in particular, cut out with strong cliffhangers and there’s a good chance Lawrence and co. will do the same in Mockingjay – Part 1.
Mockingjay is broken up into three sections – "The Ashes," "The Assault" and "The Assassin." Each makes up almost precisely one third of the book, so it’s highly unlikely the split will fall on a section divide. However, there is a particularly striking and unforgettable moment that happens to pop up almost exactly midway through the book – the scene where Katniss reunites with Peeta and instead of kisses from the tender boy with bread, he opts to choke her. Not only would that make for a downright vicious conclusion to Part 1, bound to leave audiences salivating for the next installment, but it would also give Strong the opportunity to tailor the script to match the mold of the first two films.
In films one and two, it’s mostly talk until we hit the Games for our hour of action. Collins does run with a similar format in Mockingjay, but Strong is going to have to turn that one big build into two. There are some firebombs early on, but like Hunger Games and Catching Fire, Collins saves the big fight for the end of Mockingjay and for the first movie, that’s just not going to work. You can’t have one film of plotting and then a second solely devoted to carrying out the plan.
Mockingjay as a whole has one big build and Strong is going to have to figure out how to divide that into two in order to make both Mockingjay – Part 1 and Part 2 stand-alone films. Should the cutoff come after Peeta’s rescue, the attack in District 8, the assault on District 13, and, if they show it, the rescue mission, could combine to make for an exhilarating final 45 minutes or hour for Part 1.
THE MAIN PLAYERS
Another reason that Mockingjay feels less refined than The Hunger Games and Catching Fire is the wealth of character arcs. In the first installment, it’s all about Katniss stepping up and making it through the Games. In Catching Fire, other characters get to exhibit change via their reactions to the new circumstances, but ultimately it’s about Katniss embracing her role in the rebellion.
In Mockingjay, however, gone are the days of worrying about the Games or President Snow’s reign. Everyone is hurled into the war, they’re all immediately affected by the current conditions and transform right as the battle progresses. In order to sell their arcs, Katniss, Gale, Peeta, Haymitch, Prim and Finnick, at least, will all need significant screen time in these final two installments. Considering her success in Catching Fire, Johanna could and should get more face time in Part 1 and the same could happen for Effie too, as it’s highly unlikely Lawrence will cut Elizabeth Banks for the large majority of the next two films.
Even though we won’t get 22 new tributes in the Mockingjay movies, Strong will have to make room for at least three new primary players. Julianne Moore’s Alma Coin will likely turn into a President Snow-sized role and you don’t cast familiar faces like Natalie Dormer and Lily Rabe as Cressida and Commander Lyme respectively unless they’re getting more to work with, too. The character that’s most likely to suffer the consequences of this epic ensemble is Boggs (Mahershala Ali). Yes, he’s pivotal to strengthening the rebellion and pushing the fight forward, but so is Katniss, Haymitch, Plutarch and Coin amongst others so, in an effort to keep the narrative digestible, some of Boggs’ contributions could be reassigned to more prominent characters.
Even though Mockingjay is the least successful book of the trilogy, it’s largely because of the expanse of the narrative and the excess of story components. Whereas the screenwriters behind The Hunger Games and Catching Fire were able to color within the lines and focus on doing the source material justice, Strong has the opportunity to expand upon what Collins wrote. Considering the wealth of highly engaging scenarios and concepts she squeezed into that one book but didn’t get the chance to fully flesh out, the double-film treatment could mean we’ve got two movies on the way that could both satisfy fans of the book, but also wow them with more depth and additional story layers.
The YA Movie Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday.
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