Editor’s note: This is spoiler-free for those of you that haven’t read the books. To read our full review of Mockingjay – Part 2, click here.
The last Hunger Games movie, Mockingjay Part 2, will almost definitely be the best of the four films in the franchise and make a ton of money when it opens. But it really shouldn’t exist. Lionsgate split up the wrong book. If they wanted to extend the books to make one more film they should have split up the first book instead, a decision that would have led to four great films instead of the uneven franchise we ended up with.
For all of the action and excitement of The Hunger Games, it only works as a story because you care about Katniss Everdeen. Everything she does in the series stems from the relationships in her life. Yes, she becomes a revolutionary symbol against President Snow unintentionally, but it does not grow from a personal hatred or a desire to fight oppression. Rather, Katniss’ passion for the movement stems solely from a concern for the safety of those she loves. When she says to Snow, “I just wanted to save my sister and keep Peeta alive,” she means it—there is no pretense or secret want of glory. She is merely looking for peace in her own life.
What makes this harder? The Girl on Fire is not an easy person to love—just ask Gale. She’s gruff, awkward, obtuse, and aggressive. But in spite of all that, she is at her core a good person, and one worth investing in given that this is her story. This means caring about Katniss, and what she does is the single most important job of the people setting the stage for her story. You can’t shortchange the time needed to understand her, her world, and what she stands for. But to understand her means to understand the relationships and universe that define her.
Those important relationships and world-building are primarily developed in the first book. Unfortunately, little of this happened in the first film. Her father and mother are brief concepts rather than fully fleshed-out figures essential to Katniss’ experience. By ignoring her selfless protection of Rue and her respect for her young competitor, the development of Katniss’ relationship with Prim suffers. And Peeta? Well that might be the biggest travesty of them all. What happens with them in the arena shapes the story of Katniss as much as anything. The first film wanted you to get all of this, but it never earned it. They expected you to understand (because books), but never did any of the leg work required to find it.
So rather than split up the final book—which should have been one film—the better option would have been to split up the first. It would have allowed the filmmakers to do the world building that is so important for the context for everything that follows while still fostering the emotional education that is the real essence of the series. With a split first book, not only do you get a better first movie(s), but the rest of the films have less work to do and can tell the story without explaining why they are worth your time. You’ve done the work, you’ve given us what we need, and now you can work towards telling a compelling story that we are already deeply invested in. Do the job right the first time and we will care enough to come back for the rest of the films.
The first movie in a fantasy series is inherently difficult to pull off successfully, and The Hunger Games exemplifies a problem that film adaptations, especially fantasy ones, always seem to make—namely splitting up the wrong book into multiple films. This is by no means a new problem; ever since Warner Bros. split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two separate films, every YA franchise under the sun has looked to double down on potential profits by stretching their sagas even longer. That isn’t even necessarily a bad thing, but they can make their money and produce an exciting film simultaneously. In the case of The Hunger Games, this franchise finagling is especially egregious because the entire story relies on what happens in the first book.
When you are adapting a book for the big screen, you have to understand why it’s worth doing. Is it to show big battles? Is it to create a new world? Or is it to tell a story? Battles and scenery don’t matter if the people in them aren’t given equal weight.
Mockingjay Part 2 will almost definitely be the best film of the four and I can’t wait to see it. I just wish it never existed.