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Saturday, November 22, 2014

Why The Hunger Games Represents The Best of the Young Adult Adaptations

I'm going to go on the record and say that I enjoy The Hunger Games franchise. They're not great movies by any stretch of the imagination, but they're mind-numbingly enjoyable as shit. Now I most certainly am not a fan of all movies that are adaptions of YA novels, but I do enjoy The Hunger Games. I think I like the franchise so much because it fills the void that Harry Potter left behind. As a man in his late 20's, I grew up on Harry Potter. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was released when I was 10, the movie adaptation was released when I was 14, and the 8th and final film came out when I was 24. The Harry Potter books and films have literally been a part of half of my entire life.

The Harry Potter franchise works because it fulfills that innate desire that we all have to want to be destined for something better, especially among little kids. As a young boy, the character Harry Potter was not only told that he's a wizard, but he's the child of two extremely popular and skilled wizards and that he defeated THE most powerful wizard known to wizard-kind. Harry Potter was not only famous in the wizard world, but he was wealthy beyond his wildest imagination. Harry Potter was an incredible athlete, would constantly get away with rule-breaking (and often get rewarded for it), and ended up saving an entire civilization. What little kid reading a book series like this wouldn't be enchanted and compelled by this world? The Harry Potter franchise gave you hope that you could be whisked away into another world where your best wishes are granted.

The Hunger Games franchise follows along similar veins. The protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (portrayed by Jennifer Lawrence in the films), gets forced into a world where she gains immediate popularity and literally defeats everything in her path to win a literal battle along with the hearts and minds of everyone in her country. Obviously The Hunger Games franchise follows more in line with classic science fiction tropes whereas the Harry Potter franchise follows more fantasy tropes, but the basic tenants of the main stories are the same. A lot of what is in these books and films can be traced back to Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey.

Contrast the Harry Potter and Hunger Games franchise to Twilight. While I have never read a word of any Stephenie Meyer book or seen any parts of the movie that wasn't in a commercial, from my understanding, the basic formula of that movie can be chased back to Shakespeare. I know it seems sacrilege to put Twilight and Shakespeare in the same sentence, but all I am merely saying is that Stephenie Meyer tried to replicate what William Shakespeare did and package it for today's youth (and from my understanding, the writing in the Twilight books is just downright atrocious, but the franchise is popular because young girls are dumb).  The Twilight franchise is more concerned with the love triangle than trying to fulfill any escapism fantasy.

Since Twilight (and of course since Harry Potter), there have been other Young Adult adaptations and other films that studios have tried to make into tent-pole franchises. Most notably, Divergent, Ender's Game, The Maze Runner, and The Giver come to mind. Yet the only film to actually build a successful franchise (so far) has been The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games (the original film) grossed over 400 million dollars and is currently the 15th highest grossing film of all time. It's sequel, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, one-upped it's prequel and made almost 425 million dollars making it the 10th highest grossing film of all time. This latest edition, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I) already sold the most advanced tickets this year and is expected to make over 150 million dollars on its opening weekend.

Compare what The Hunger Games films have done with its other YA adaptation competitors. 2013's Ender's Game didn't even gross over $75 million. 2014's The Maze Runner ended up making a little over $100 million. 2014's The Giver came and went in theaters barely making over $45 million. Lastly, we have 2014's Divergent which ended up grossing over $150 million and already has its sequel's release date. Yet despite the Shailene Woodley vehicle grossing the most out of everyone else, it's still only the 263rd highest grossing movie of all time, right ahead of Neighbors, We're The Millers, and Terminator 3. And The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I) can make as much in its opening weekend as Divergent did during its entire theatrical run.

I think the reason for the success of The Hunger Games franchise is that it not only creatively follows in the footsteps of Harry Potter, but it also follows Harry Potter's movie making strategy. 2001's Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone starred three unknown child actors at its core, but almost everyone else was not only an established film actor, but an extremely well respected one at that. Actors like Alan Rickman, Richard Harris, Maggie Smith, John Hurt, John Cleese, and Warwick Davis were not only heavy hitters, but many of them were already Oscars winners. The franchise ended up casting many more greats like Gary Oldman, Ralph Fiennes, Helena Bonham Carter, Bill Nighy, Michael Gambon, Jim Broadbent, Kenneth Branaugh, Emma Thompson, and Brendan Gleeson. I could go on and on, but I need to stop somewhere!

The Hunger Games followed that same model. It cast Oscar nominees Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci in large roles, as well as other great actors like Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks and Toby Jones in prominent roles. While The Hunger Games also starred three relatively unknown actors at its core, it one-upped Harry Potter. Jennifer Lawrence already had an Oscar nomination under her belt for her role in Winter's Bone and Josh Hutcherson (who plays Peeta Mellark in the franchise) was recently coming off of his work in the Oscar nominated film The Kids Are Alright.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire added Oscar winner Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the criminally underrated Jeffrey Wright, and character actress Emmy winner Amanda Plummer. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I) added another Oscar nominee: Julianne Moore.

Adding Oscar winners and great actors to your Young Adult film adds legitimacy to it, especially because a lot of the dialogue in YA adaptations can be pretty terrible. Harry Potter had some pretty bad story lines and a lot of the dialogue in The Hunger Games franchise can be downright horrible, but the gravitas behind these great actors increases the overall quality of the film. Philip Seymour Hoffman has never mailed in a performance in his career and despite his character's role in this recent film, PSH is excellent. Stanley Tucci is another actor who not only gives 110% in every film, but he steals every scene he's in in these Hunger Games movies. His character's role is meant to be a side character at best, and yet he manages to sparkle on the screen.

These Oscar winners and great character actors also get a huge benefit from starring in YA adaptations as well. They are able to reach a much wider audience than they normally would and I'm sure the payday is quite nice. Starring in film festival Indies is creatively rewarding, but getting paid the big bucks to keep the lights on doesn't hurt either. And no one blames big names actors and talents for doing these YA adaptations. I don't think anyone thinks less of Julianne Moore or would have thought less of Philip Seymour Hoffman because they did these Hunger Games films.

Another aspect that the Hunger Games franchise copied from its Harry Potter predecessor is splitting up its last book into two movies. In a move solely designed to make more money and to milk the successful franchise for all it was worth, Warner Bros. split Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two films. From a business perspective it worked out splendidly, but from the audience's perspective it was a disaster. Part One was by far and away the worst film in the Harry Potter franchise because the first half of the book was boring and terrible. Yet it was necessary to set up the second half of the book where everything goes down, which is why Part Two was the best of the series. Splitting the last Harry Potter book into two films was still a terrible idea, because the movie studio put a creative break in the story line where one didn't exist beforehand.

The next successful franchise, Twilight, did the same thing as it also split up its last book into two movies. I have no idea if it creatively worked or not, but since Twilight is a creative pile of garbage anyways, I guess it didn't really matter.

Now we have the second most successful YA franchise since Harry Potter, The Hunger Games. Like its two predecessors before it, the last book in the series, Mockingjay, was split up into two films. Because this money-grubbing plan creatively failed twice before, I was fully expecting The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I) to suck. Yet to my pleasant surprise, it was probably the best film in the franchise.

I think the Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I) was a creative success for a number of reasons. First of all, the film stands up on its own despite the "Part One" in its title. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I) had a clear first, second, and third act (with a thrilling third act that was Zero Dark Thirty esque) with a definitive arc to its story. The film holds up in its own right while also clearly setting up the story and plot lines for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part II). Secondly, I think the main faults that appear in the "Part One's" in the Harry Potter and Twilight franchise are the main faults in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire. A lot of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part One and Twilight Breaking Dawn Part One (I assume) was a set up for the Part Two. That wasn't true with The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I). A lot of Catching Fire was the set up to Mockingjay so when we got The Hunger Games: Mockingjay (Part I), we were able to see a conclusion to the set up as opposed to an actual set up itself.

I have no idea what film will take "The Harry Potter Mantle" once The Hunger Games franchise ends in 2015, but I will say this, I am enjoying the ride while it lasts.



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