The third chapter of The Hunger Games film franchise, Mockingjay, will be released on Nov. 14. The film, which will be split into two parts, is currently in production in Atlanta, but Lionsgate Entertainment (NYSE:LGF.A) has already started whetting fan appetites by releasing a teaser poster online.
The Hunger Games is the latest popular book to be split into two parts -- a practice that prominently started with Time Warner (NYSE: TWX)/Warner Bros.' release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 in 2010.
Some may argue that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, weighing in at 759 pages (U.S. edition), worked better as two full films. Twilight's Breaking Dawn, which is also 759 pages long, also arguably needed to be split into two by Summit Entertainment (a subsidiary of Lionsgate).
But let's not be naive -- the obvious advantage of splitting final books into two is profit, by prolonging an aging, profitable franchise over the span of two years. Together, the two final Harry Potter films grossed $2.3 billion, while the two final Twilight films grossed $1.5 billion.
Splitting shorter books into longer films
Yet Mockingjay, at 390 pages, is a much shorter book than either Deathly Hallows or Breaking Dawn -- it's only slightly longer than The Hunger Games and marginally shorter than Catching Fire.
This fact shines a spotlight on Hollywood's practice of splitting shorter books into multiple films -- Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, released by Warner Bros., is the most extreme example, stretching a 310-page affair into three full films over the course of three years.
By comparison, Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is comparable in cinematic scale, was based on a three-volume series that totaled well over 1,000 pages.
Both franchises have been highly profitable -- The Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed $2.9 billion and the first two Hobbit films have already grossed $1.9 billion.
This is a radical departure from film adaptations of novels in the past. Whereas screenwriters and directors previously streamlined novels into screenplays by shedding excess side stories, they now write scene-by-scene remakes of the books.
For fans of the books, this can be a dream come true. But for other audiences, it can be tedious.
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, for example, tried to stretch its running time by padding the film with connecting scenes to The Lord of the Rings, prolonged action sequences, and a painfully long dwarf song.
Are books and films now equal to each other?
That leads us to another observation -- top franchises like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hunger Games have extremely dedicated fan bases.
The Hunger Games' official Facebook page is currently "Liked" by 12.7 million fans. Most of them aren't keen on seeing radical changes to their favorite characters on screen. Therefore, Lionsgate brought in Suzanne Collins, the author of the series, to help write the screenplay of the first film. Collins did not assist in writing the second film, which was written by Simon Beaufoy and Michael deBruyn.
My personal experience of watching the two Hunger Games films was the same -- it was exactly, scene by scene, what I pictured in my head when I read the novels. There were some additional scenes, such as those involving President Snow and the "game room," but it never deviated far from the text.
Unfortunately, that meant that some flaws in the book -- such as the cliche love triangle and the shallow explanation of life in District 12 -- were not improved upon in the film.
Should filmmakers radically change the source material?
Let's compare that to two other novels -- Winston Groom's Forrest Gump (1986) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922).
Both books were adapted to film by screenwriter Eric Roth in 1994 and 2008, respectively, in film versions that radically modified the source material.
In Forrest Gump, Roth eliminated excess plots such as Forrest going into space, landing on an island of cannibals, and becoming a wrestler. Instead, Roth kept the spirit of the novel intact and also added the line, "Run, Forrest, run!," which came to define the film.
In Benjamin Button, Roth stripped out nearly everything from the original story, leaving only the name of the titular character and the concept of reverse aging. He also stretched a 42-page novella into a nearly three-hour film.
Yet both the film versions of Forrest Gump and Benjamin Button are arguably superior to their source books. The Hunger Games films, on the other hand, are merely comparable to the original novels.
Why splitting Mockingjay could be a good move
When Mockingjay was published in 2010, it polarized fans. Some fans decried its bleak ending, which killed off several beloved characters, while others criticized its rushed pace and glaring plot holes.
The main problem in the novel was that the story was always told by Katniss in a first-person perspective. This works in the first two books, but it is an awkward perspective for the third one because the final act deals with a nationwide revolution in Panem.
That means the reader doesn't see any of the epic battles that eventually topple President Snow's empire -- they are merely reported on by Katniss from afar.
Therefore, Mockingjay might work better as two films -- in which the final battles are depicted more thoroughly and main characters are given more proper sendoffs.
Of course, two Mockingjays would represent two big paydays for Lionsgate, which has already grossed $1.5 billion from the first two films on a combined production budget of $208 million. The two Mockingjay films reportedly have a production budget of over $250 million and could easily top the box office receipts of the first two films.
The bottom line
Although it's really all about the money in the end, splitting novels into two or three films is not always a bad idea.
While some films can stretch out the source material too far, as The Hobbit has done, the Mockingjay films could benefit from two chapters, which could more fully realize the lofty ambitions of the novel.
What do you think, dear readers? Do you think Hollywood should continue splitting short books into long films? Let me know in the comments section below!