The Hunger Games saga concluded in November with a fizzle rather than a bang. The series bowed out with reasonable but not spectacular box office returns, vague whisperings of a prequel series and none of the aplomb or hysteria of 2011’s final Harry Potter film, which has enjoyed a place on the top ten highest grossing films list of all time ever since. Although critical and audience reception has been warm, it is obvious to me that the majority of the series’ fans were not crying out for a four film story. One is forced to question both how the monetary success and the overall quality would have been affected had Lionsgate stuck to the trilogy formula.
Last year’s The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014) was an interesting, if inconsequential blockbuster. Combining safe political satire and an exploration of propaganda and media with a handful of action set pieces it was a warm up for the big finale. Jennifer Lawrence delivered a fine performance as the manipulated figurehead for a desperate revolution, and her speeches, used to rouse the oppressed people of the dictatorial Panem, promise fire and bloodshed; essentially foreshadowing an epic and violent conclusion. But, it doesn’t feel like this was delivered.
Instead, any political tension was removed in favour for drab military set up or furthering of the romance between Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) which really should have been handled in the previous film. It appears that the filmmakers—and indeed author Suzanne Collins, as this remains an issue in the source material—can’t really grasp why it is that their audience enjoys this story. This becomes clear when we’re presented with a saccharine scene between the two leads for the film’s epilogue, rather than a culmination of the rebellion’s efforts against the destructive Capitol. Though the replacement of politics and propaganda with romance and elements of military thriller is executed fairly well, it becomes an issue when the action highlights that were promised consist of a CGI wave of black tar—albeit a good looking one—and an underground monster chase that seems to be lifted directly from James Cameron’s Aliens (1986).
The Harry Potter franchise (2001-11) had it right when it opted for a very contrasting approach to its two-part finale. This conclusion focused on, and resolved much of, the interpersonal character drama in Deathly Hallows Part 1 (2010) in favour of a far more bombastic and relentless action spectacle for Part 2 (2011). Seeming to take its cues from the horror genre, with a sinister and claustrophobic forest setting, nightmarish projections from a threatened Horcrux and a giant boa constrictor emerging from the neck of an old woman, Part 1 is a worthy addition to the franchise. It pushes the dark fantasy elements of Harry Potter to its limits before letting loose with a fun and frequently tragic final instalment.
Sadly, director Francis Lawrence didn’t seem to get the hint. Both Mockingjay Part 1 and 2 (2015) feature the same cast doing similar things, the same dreary, indefinably sci-fi settings and, most importantly, no actual Hunger Games, which were already underdeveloped in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013). An attempt was made to parallel the assault on the Capitol with the Games themselves, but as insistent as the line “welcome to the 76th Hunger Games” is, audiences were unconvinced. Strange traps and death commemorating cannons do not a Hunger Games make.
It’s worrying, then, that of the three attempts at a two-part franchise finale—Harry Potter, Twilight (2008-12) and The Hunger Games—only Harry Potter seems to have earned its stripes. Perhaps Twilight is an unfair comparison, as the series’ reviews throughout were far from glowing, but this ratio doesn’t bode well for multi-film spanning conclusions.
The Divergent Series (March, 2016), a shamelessly derivative amalgamation of Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, will release the first of its inevitable two-parter next year. It is aptly titled Allegiant; its themes of rebellion and individuality seeming a great irony now that it’s probably the most formulaic and trend-obeying franchise of recent memory. This release comes following lacklustre box office earnings for the previous two instalments, and we can look forward to not one but four superhero team-up movies from 2017 as both the Justice League and the third Avengers chapter both plan to release two films each across two years. It’s easier to forgive Marvel, as by 2018—the release date for The Avengers: Infinity War Part 1—they’ll have introduced so many characters that one film would certainly suffer from lack of development. However, there’s no excuse for DC, who will have introduced three, or more, of their main cast following next year’s awkwardly titled slugfest Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (March, 2016).
There is a reason why Peter Jackson was subject to criticism for his decision to split his Hobbit (2012-14) film into three long feature films, which grew steadily worse as the series progressed and are even compared to the Star Wars prequel (1999-2005) films in terms of how tainted The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) franchise now feels. If Tolkien can construct a sprawling and detailed fantasy narrative in nineteen short chapters, an accomplished filmmaker should be able to adapt it into a single film, and the same goes for The Hunger Games. A filmic uprising should not take four hours.
Double feature franchise films seem doomed to ridicule from both cynics and critics and it’s not hard to sympathise. Four hours of Mockingjay seems perfectly acceptable when spread over two years, but when meshed as a single product it doesn’t work. Projects such as Tarantino’s Kill Bill (2003-4) are worthwhile due to the distinct style between the two volumes, and the frankly impossible task of editing a well-developed revenge flick that features flashbacks, five primary antagonists, and extended tributes to old martial arts films into a single feature. Compare this to Mockingjay, with a linear narrative, a single antagonist who barely interacts with our hero, action sequences that are, at most, ten minutes in length, and it’s plain that the stretching of the Mockingjay arc is highly artificial.
With two-part films in this vein it becomes depressingly apparent that these blockbuster ventures are produced solely for financial gain. Yes, everyone knows this, and it’s a rather redundant point to make, but the least Lionsgate can do is pretend that this isn’t the case and make more of an effort to entertain. However, with the franchise retaining its’ sizeable, but by no means staggering box office success, it’s clear that the studio isn’t going to take this advice. For them, two more films equates to two chances to make a profit. I look forward to seeing The Hunger Games: Rise of Panem 1, 2, 3a and 3b in the near future.