12:00 pm EST, November 17, 2015

Farewell to ‘The Hunger Games,’ the best YA book-to-film adaptation we’ve ever seen

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 hits theatres worldwide this week. But before we face one final battle with Katniss, let’s look back at what makes The Hunger Games franchise so successful.

There is no shortage of Young Adult book-to-film adaptations, but The Hunger Games films are some of the strongest we’ve seen. The films work not only as pointed social commentary, but as downright entertainment films. In addition, the clever adaptation choices we have seen throughout the series demonstrates a thorough understanding of the source material. Now, if we could just cancel that planned Hunger Games theme park.

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This article isn’t intended to disparage the Harry Potter or Twilight film series, or any other Young Adult book-to-film adaptations. Each of these adaptations have earnt the love of their fans for a reason. But we can look at The Hunger Games book-to-film adaptations and see that this series has succeeded in a way that the others have not. What is about these films that makes them, well, better?

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Telling important, powerful stories

The parallels between The Hunger Games and current world events have had no small impact on the way the films have been received. Because of the subject matter of The Hunger Games, we are allowed to talk about the series as “important” or “powerful” in a way that the mainstream simply doesn’t allow us to categorize Harry Potter or Twilight. Whether it’s right or not, there is no doubt that the subject matter allows us to elevate the tone of the conversation.

Indeed, when Mockingjay, Part 1 premiered in the midst of the Ferguson riots, we saw just how great of an impact these films have. Yes, the message of The Hunger Games has always been pertinent, but seeing “If we burn, you burn with us” scrawled on a on a St. Louis arch suddenly gave the films a new power. The Hunger Games films were so alive in our collective consciousness that protestors were not only inspired by their message, they also knew that the general public would understand the reference.

This isn’t surprising. The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins was inspired to write the series after channel surfing between reality television and war coverage. That contrast is now a common experience for many; we can watch reality shows about almost anything we choose, and are barraged on a daily basis with coverage from disasters and war zones around the world. The Hunger Games don’t feel fantastical in the manner that Harry Potter or Twilight does; The Hunger Games feel real.

So we know that the political and social commentary inherent in The Hunger Games has moved this series from the sphere of “entertainment”, which is so often and erroneously dismissed as lacking in value, and into the new arena of “commentary.” But if we can sidestep this cultural context for now, are there more reasons for the success of this franchise?

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Are we the Capitol?

The Hunger Games series walks the fine line of taste. At its essence, The Hunger Games attempts to alert us the danger of desensitization to violence and oppression, and argues against (to use the obvious analogy) the profiting of the 1% at the expense of the 99%. Yet at the same time, these are hugely successful films that are profiting from the depicting of violence for an audience.

It begs the question: when we watch The Hunger Games movies, are we the Capitol?

The recognition of this irony by the filmmakers has proved to be key to the franchise. The residents of the Capitol are exaggerated, but they are not unrecognizable from our own affluent societies. The rebels in the Districts might be fighting against the fictional Hunger Games, but we see in them the fears and frustrations of many oppressed groups across the globe.

The Hunger Games films should, and do, challenge us. We should recognize the uncomfortable irony of our situation as audience members. Yes, we can enjoy the films for their entertainment, but for all that we side with Katniss, we know that many of us live lives much closer to those of the Capitol. It’s a careful balancing act, and is one the team behind The Hunger Games has executed well (the tasteless Hunger Games theme park notwithstanding).

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Clever adaptation choices

On a very surface level, there is also the fact that these are simply good films. They are easily the best recent book-to-film adaptations we have seen. Other franchises might have made more money, or rank higher on Rotten Tomatoes, but a large contributor to both of those successes are the much larger fanbases of these books. The Hunger Games books were popular, but they aren’t Harry Potter popular (but what is?).

Take Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2, which raked in $381 million at the US Box Office, and achieved a Rotten Tomatoes rating of 96%. Yet when you read the reviews from critics, they are laced with nostalgia and celebration of the franchise. These aren’t Deathly Hallows, Part 2 reviews, they are (understandably) reviews of the Harry Potter series as a whole. It is the rare critic who could watch the final film in a franchise that has become an international sensation and slam it. Series like Harry Potter and Twilight were, quite rightly, buoyed by nostalgia and, well, hype.

The Hunger Games movies get a harder time from reviewers. The Hunger Games is more difficult to categorize than other large Young Adult franchises, and therefore expectations for the films are harder to pin down. Is it a social commentary? A dystopian science-fiction story? A Young Adult romance? It is, of course, all of these things, but it is hard to meet or surpass expectations when you don’t know what they are supposed to be going in.

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The Hunger Games and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire received a healthy 84% and 89% respectively on Rotten Tomatoes. And then The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 dropped to 65%.

Most of these reviews came from critics who took issue with the split, or who didn’t like the fact that Katniss was no longer in the Games. They disregarded the fact that Mockingjay, Part 1 accurately and effectively conveyed the feelings of the book, particularly Katniss’ claustrophobia and feeling of helplessness in District 13 after two books (and two films) of being the center of the action. The first film in these split two-film finales is often slower, but Mockingjay, Part 2 was a absolutely a whole film, not half one. The film also took the bold and brave move of committing to the original source material to the extent of sidelining its own hero, for which it received very little credit.

This is something the franchise gets right again, and again. The Hunger Games films have certainly changed things in the process of adapting, but the emotional core remains central. When changes are made, they are for a purpose. The added scenes give us a greater insight into the rest of Panem, which a book told from Katniss’ perspective simply could not include. They build the world in a way that feels intentional and natural, and they add to the emotional depth of the story, rather than simply being extra action scenes with no real purpose (think The Burrow on fire in Half-Blood Prince).

Since Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows kicked off the trend, it has become unremarkable for book-to-film adaptations to divide the final book into two films. And yet Mockingjay is the first book to have actually warranted this treatment. The major criticism of Mockingjay was that the climax of the story felt rushed. The obvious answer when adapting was to give the events of the story more room to breathe. And so we end up with two films, the benefits of which will be clear when Mockingjay, Part 2 premieres.

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The future of ‘The Hunger Games’

Everything we have seen from The Hunger Games films so far indicates this to be a well developed and adapted film series, made by people who understand the message of the books. Every adaptation choice made by these films has worked in favor of the story — the same story as the books. And yet the films work separately, and can be enjoyed by non-readers just as easily.

I will be sad to see The Hunger Games go after Mockingjay, Part 2 premieres. But if Lionsgate chooses to continue showing us this world in future films, I am not adverse to the idea. Yes, they are doing it to make money; spoiler, this is a business. As much as any adaptation may also be a labor of love, let’s not delude ourselves that the Twilight series was not intended to make a big profit. The Fantastic Beasts films, which will offer a new expanded world of Harry Potter, are similarly constructed to make a lot of money.

The money is not a problem if the product is right. The key is in choosing where to go from here. Lionsgate must continue to carefully tread the line; they have already overstepped it once, with a Hunger Games theme park that is so outrageously out of touch with the message of the story they are telling many fans couldn’t believe it wasn’t an April Fool’s joke.

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I am vehemently disgusted by the idea of a Hunger Games theme park (in Dubai, of all places), but I will argue forever in favor of The Hunger Games spin-offs (more on them later this week). They seem like similar money-making exercises, but they are worlds apart.

We must have faith in the fact that every film in The Hunger Games series has preserved Suzanne Collins’ message. The films have expanded the world in interesting directions, and developed many of the characters in ways we never saw in the books. As compelling as Katniss is, I want to know more about these characters. When her story is over, I want to learn theirs.

It isn’t inherently incongruous with the spirit of The Hunger Games to continue the story in additional films; of course, it depends on the films themselves. But if Lionsgate approaches future installments with the same deft hand as these original adaptations, there is no reason for concern. Until then, let’s appreciate the culmination of this brilliantly told story when The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 hits theatres (and please, cancel the theme park).

‘The Hungers Games: Mockingjay, Part 2’ premieres on November 20

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