Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Game Is Up

From the earliest days, movie producers saw the potential profit in sequels, series, and franchises: Tarzan, Nancy Drew, Frankenstein, etc. Some were designed as a series from the start while others spawned sequels only after the success of a stand-alone film (e.g. The Thin Man). Then there are the serials so popular in the 1930s and ‘40s that played before the main feature: short films with cliffhanger endings and a continuous story arc such as Flash Gordon, Batman, Green Hornet, and the late entry (1952) Commando Cody. George Lucas famously was inspired by these for his Star Wars series. Star Wars coincided with the arrival of home video players, which made discretionary home binge-watching possible for ordinary folks. The home-binge option has made serials more prevalent than ever. High among the sources to which Hollywood has looked for scripts have been comic books and Young Adult fiction.

This year three series based on YA books (Divergent, Maze Runner, and Hunger Games) with broad similarities have installments in theaters. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is the monster hit of the three and the final installment of its series. Though she certainly has made her mark in other films, Jennifer Lawrence became a superstar in The Hunger Games. I try to keep up with at least some pop-culture phenomena, so Monday night I went to a nearby multiplex to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2. (I noticed only when I got home that the Millennial cashier had, unasked, given me a senior discount: sigh.)

For those who have read the books, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 follows the plot pretty faithfully, with only such simplifications as are sensible to maintain cinematic pacing. Nonetheless, like the other installments, it is a remarkable visualization of the novels and worth seeing for that reason alone. Those who haven’t read the books but who have seen the previous three films know basically what to expect, and shouldn’t be disappointed. Anyone who hasn’t seen the first three, however, (a caveat for most series) will be completely lost. Recommendation for newbies: binge-watch the first three before stepping foot in the theater.

On one level The Hunger Games series is a teen-oriented adventure, but it really is more. It is deeply cynical on many levels, the political being just one of them. Katniss is not a typical heroine. She owes her hero-status to media-hype and she knows it. She is not a very nice person and she knows it. She is humanly inconsistent: she is willing to sacrifice for others, yet also is willing to sacrifice others for herself. She does self-reflect enough, however, to question her own moral choices and those of her friends. Should we conveniently excuse ourselves and our allies for acting the same way as our enemies just because it is a means to an end? What are the limits of loyalty and what is betrayal? At what point is victory too costly? It is unusual for a YA-based series to ask such questions and more unusual to offer the answers this one does.

Contrary to popular opinion we do not live in cynical times. These are partisan times, and partisans are true believers. It is not cynical to believe the worst of one’s opponents. That’s just toeing the party line as a true believer. Cynicism in the good sense involves recognizing unsavory natures and motives in oneself and one’s allies while seeing the goodness in one’s opponents – yet still making an informed choice among the shades of gray. So, the success of The Hunger Games with its more complex world view is surprising and encouraging.

Thumbs up, but not as a stand-alone movie: See the others first.

Essence of The Hunger Games world view:


  1. Even having seen the first 3 installments, my memory was rusty about some of the secondary characters, so binge watching is probably a good idea. As to Jennifer Lawrence, I have loved her in every movie I have seen her in, which includes "American Hustle" and "Silver Linings Playbook." I stand with the mockingjay!

    1. The series took 5 years to complete, so a memory refresher was probably handy for most viewers.

      Jenn hasn't lost her appeal or, fortunately, her willingness to work even though she now can buy Kentucky.

  2. The film has gotten mixed reviews, however I'll still go see it as I'm a fan. I don't know how I'll feel about splitting the last book until I see it. With the Hobbit, that final film didn't work for me, and I thought milking that book for four films was overreach. But again, if you're a huge fan of the franchise and story, you probably enjoyed it on some level.

    Collins' Huger Games novels have been compared to the Japanese film/manga, Battle Royale. Granted they have a similar plot, but I've enjoyed The Hunger Games more because the characters are fleshed out a bit more as well as the setting, plus as you said ask a few hard questions, and gets you to think about them later.

    Hey, yay for the senior discount.

    1. Well, movie-making is a business. The studio clearly split the last book into two scripts for no other reason than to milk the series. That said, there is enough happening in the last book to provide material for two movies, even though it could have been compressed into one had the producers so demanded. So, from a viewer’s perspective, the split probably didn’t harm that much.

      I’ve heard about “Battle Royale” but haven’t seen/read it. It is certainly possible that Collins did. There are other precedents too, e.g. “The 10th Victim” by Robert Sheckley (made into a movie in 1965) though the participants in those games are voluntary – the sole survivor gets fame and fortune. There also is the allusion to Theseus and the Minotaur, particularly the 7 young men and 7 maidens sent as tribute to King Minos; Mary Renault’s “The King Must Die” is probably the best modern treatment of the myth.

      Once again, I like that Collins hasn’t created a simple good vs evil contest. While the final outcome (*mild Spoiler*) of “Mockingjay” is about as good as one could hope given the previous civil war, it is hard to miss that it takes place amid depopulated rubble.