One book, two movies: a worrying cinema trend?

Feature Ryan Lambie 12 Jul 2012 - 07:38

As it's announced that The Hunger Games: Mockingjay will be split into two movies, Ryan wonders, are we in the middle of a worrying trend?

Making blockbuster movies is an expensive business, and you can't blame studios for testing out all sorts of tactics to increase their financial returns. Warner Bros' unusual tactic of breaking JK Rowling's final Harry Potter book, The Deathly Hallows, into two movies was, from a financial standpoint, a stroke of genius.

Instead of adapting Deathly Hallows as a single, two-hour-plus picture, it was given the breathing space of two features – therefore doubling the potential box-office returns at a relatively minimal cost. After all, if you already have all the sets, props and actors in place, shooting two films back-to-back isn't going to cost, in theory, too much more than shooting a single film on its own.

From a sales and marketing perspective, it worked. The first movie made a little under a billion dollars, and served as a powerful advertising tool for the second, ending as it did on an Empire Strikes Back-like note of uncertainty. As a result, the second movie made even more money – some $1.3 billion at the cinema alone – making it among the most profitable films of all time. And placed against the outlay of making both movies – a total of $250 million – that's a huge return. 

Inspired, perhaps, by the success of Deathly Hallows, the final part of Stephanie Meyer's Twilight Saga was also planned as a two-part swansong, with part one appearing last year, and the final part due in cinemas this November.

Warner, it seems, has started something of a trend here. When a series of novels reaches its end, the best way to generate more hype and revenue is to adapt the final book in two halves. Lionsgate, we learned not long ago, are employing this tactic for Mockingjay, the third and final part of Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy of books.

Now, there are some who've argued that this approach to Mockingjay isn't such a bad thing – that with the extra couple of hours' breathing space afforded by a second movie, its screenwriters will be able to bring to the screen a fuller, more faithful adaptation of the book's events.

There are two problems with this approach. The first is that The Hunger Games was always conceived as a trilogy, with each forming one section in a three-act story. By breaking Mockingjay in half, its filmmakers will inevitably alter the structure of the plot: cinemagoers will sit through what is essentially a two-hour build-up, and will then have to wait for the best part of a year to see the pay-off.

This in turn means that whoever's charged with adapting Mockingjay will either have to find a way to end Mockingjay: Part One in a manner that's satisfying enough to make it work as a stand-alone movie, or simply leave it dangling, with a television-style "To be continued..." caption and fade to black.

Snapping a three-act narrative in half surely alters the logical build-up and release of tension that its author intended. A longer, two-film adaptation of Mockingjay could potentially be more faithful to the book scene by scene, but the traditional set-up, mid-point and pay-off will almost certainly be sacrificed in the process.

In fact, making a single story into a two-part movie effectively punishes cinemagoers, and rewards those who are patient enough to wait for the DVD or Blu-ray box set. It's the people who view these movies at home, and will be able to watch them back-to-back, who'll get the full, dramatic, three-act benefit. 

There's a second problem, in your humble writer's opinion, with the two-movie technique: it brings cinema closer to the storytelling style of TV. Over the course of a century, cinema has built up its own language, its own way of telling powerful tales. Just as a haiku plants a picture in the mind with a few lines of text, and a novel tells a story over hundreds of pages, so movies spend between around 90 to 120 minutes weaving their magic.

Movies generally tell self-contained stories during those 90 or so minutes. Those stories may be appended with a sequel or two, or have a prequel shoved on the front if you’re unlucky, but the original story stands on its own.

Traditionally, novels have been adapted to fit the language of film rather than the reverse, and as a result, some adaptations have fared better than others – some books simply don’t work as well on the screen as they do on the printed page. But finding a way to remain true to the spirit of a book, rather than transpose every scene to the screen verbatim, has long been the screenwriter’s art; from Gone With The Wind to Fight Club, there are dozens of examples of novels that have survived the transition brilliantly.

Adapting a novel for television is a different proposition, because television has its own style of storytelling, and the way we consume it is different. We’ve become used to its episode nature; watching a story unfold over one-hour installments has its own appeal, especially during a box set marathon across a rainy weekend. And as the production values of television have improved, and with it the talent it can attract, we've seen the arrival of series such as Breaking Bad, Game Of Thrones and The Wire – shows that actually expose the shortcomings of cinema. Series such as these have the legroom to introduce characters with long story arcs, and viewers can form bonds with them that are far more profound than in many two-hour movies.

In the face of this, movies surely have to keep reminding us why they’re unique, and play to their strengths. One of those strengths is their ability to engage in a relatively brief period of time. Unless we’re on one of those DVD box set marathons, we tend to dip in and out of TV shows – and if we’re watching them on old-fashioned telly, we’re wrenched out of them whether we like it or not by adverts now and again. Movies, on the other hand, have our strict, undivided attention in those two hours we spend in the dark.

By releasing three-act stories into chunks, we’re taking a step away from what movies do best, and returning to something more akin to the serial plays of early cinema – which were, ironically enough, killed by the advent of TV.

As Peter Jackson proved with his Lord Of The Rings movies, it’s possible to adapt even the most sprawling of literary works in individual movies. Not everyone was happy with the things left out of The Fellowship Of The Ring and its follow-ups, but few would deny that they were anything less than sublime pieces of blockbuster cinema.

How strange, then, that JRR Tolkien’s slim volume, The Hobbit, is being given the two-movie treatment. The brilliance of the Rings films leaves us in little doubt that Jackson has something marvelous in store, and we’re hoping that its screenwriters will have found a way to make the two Hobbit movies, An Unexpected Journey and There And Back Again, into a pair of effective stories which work on their own terms.

At the same time, The Hobbit, Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay and Deathly Hallows hint at a disappointing trend, where literary material is stretched wafer thin in the quest for more revenue. 

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The Twilight saga appears to be never bloody ending so what does it matter?

Umm. Seems to me that most movies which are adapted from books seldom manage to cram in all the available material. Whole plot threads and characters tend to be abandoned in the quest to streamline things for the cinema audience. So I have less of a problem with two-part adaptations. After all, a skillful adaptation and a well-honed film are the key components. If the story is strong enough to sustain two episodes -- great.

This almost seems to be a natural development of the effect of home viewing (where it's easy to watch back-to-back episodic films), and the increasing cinematic quality of high-class TV series. When the best TV dramas are as good or better than average films, so the feature film industry has to react to that competition. And as someone who watches 80+ films in the cinema each year, and probably as many again at home, I tend to enjoy bigger helpings of my favourite franchises.

All of which brings us in a neat arc back to where cinema started. Saturday afternoon adventure serials, anyone?

(Nice piece, Ryan. Thought provokling. Thanks)

I would argue with mokingjay that the book doesn't actually follow the 3 act structure but is two distinct halves with their own structure that can easily be split. I think if the narrative can be done well then it is fine to split the books. but it does depend on the book and the quality of screenwriter. I would like to see the films released a little closer together between 4 and 6 months, a year is two long.

I certainly don't disagree with the principle that this is a worrying trend if applied indiscriminately to works that don't suit it, but just as a minor point of order about THG specifically:

>The first is that The Hunger Games was always conceived as a trilogy, with each forming one section in a three-act story.

... in fact, the first book was written as standalone, and although the two sequels were conceived together, it's still arguable that the series doesn't work as a classic three-acter, due to not being originally intended that way. And certainly, Mockingjay - while a very good book - has some major structural problems relating to the fact that there's simply far, far too much going on, and so quite often it skims over pretty major events. Reading it, I thought "This should have been done over the course of two books", so frankly, I can't see splitting it into two films as a bad thing at all...

The Hobbit definitely shouldn't be two films, though. That's just silly.

The problem I have with this, is the fact that the third book doesn't have enough material for a 2 part movie. Its the thinnest of all three novels, and unless they are going to add in stuff where it seemed the author simply lost interest in the book and rushed to the ending, they are going to have to make up a lot of stuff for the movie.

I agree with the poster who said 4-6 months should be the time between movies as well. I never even bothered to see part 2 of Harry Potter because in the year in between, I lost interest all together.

And sorry, but I do not consider the Lord of the Rings a "sublime piece of blockbuster cinema.", I found that trilogy way to long honestly, they could have cut 1/2 out and it would have been way better. But thats my view, and I know others will say they should have added more, but thats what is great, we can all disagree or agree on things.

Why would you split the shortest book in the series into two movies? The first Hunger Games film was a massive disappointment for me. Overhyped and overlong. The idea of the future-world distopia never really rang true as no-one seemed that downtrodden or unhappy. The costumes were hilariously bad and the love story between the two involved in the game was not at all believeable (I thought she was just playing along to make sure he helped her because the lack of chemistry made it appear to me that she didn't really seem at all interested). Much like Twilight.

It's not the length of Mockingjay that concerns me so much, as that it's pretty unrelentingly traumatic. The first two books at least have some levity toward the end but the thought of sitting through all that misery twice is kinda depressing in itself (also, losing structure again). I say that having loved the books (I even thought the downbeat ending worked for Mockingjay) but have no clue how that will translate into film.

On that note, i'm even more curious how they're adapting the Chaos Walking trilogy for film... Hunger Games was certainly raumatic but those books just about broke me...!

Lets be honest here. Its ALL ABOUT THE MONEY. No artisitc value or anything. Greedy Hollywood studios. And people wonder why there is video piracy.

You thought LOTR was too long??? You clearly are NOT a fan of the books then. Part 2 of Deathly Hallows was amazing and you're missing some great cinema there. You didn't go see it coz you lost interest in waiting?? The series went on for a decade! So, you waited 9 years, but couldn't wait one more. I'm sorry, but you kinda sound like you're a bit of a grouch, to be honest....

no no it wasn't

Whilst I agree in principle on a lot of the films mentioned I do feel the reason it worked well for Deathly Hallows was that the book was two distinct halves with different tones and pace which suited it to being split in two. The months spent, lost and on the run around the country takes you to about the half way point of the book, the second half is then a flurry of activity spanning just a few days. I've not read Twilight or Hunger Games, but from what people have said it doesn't sound like there is a similar justification for the split. As for the Hobbit, I am happy to reserve judgement 'til next December.

Deathly Hallows needed two films (Part 2 should have been at least half an hour longer, though).

Don't forget Kill Bill in your list of two parters.
Or Che.
Or Mesrine.
Or are they excluded as they're not young-adult orientated?

In ref to the Hobbit, aren't they pulling in stories from other things Tolkein wrote to pad it out a little?

It is a little odd with things coming out separately, why not just have a 3 hour film? I don't mind too much over all, just as long as I can get to see The Hobbit in the evening in 2D.

I think it's fair to say that generally when you watch a film of a book you don't expect it to be the same, so if they whack a great big hole in the middle of it, what's the issue creatively. It's already been rewritten, reordered, people's looks altered, multiple characters merged into one, or left out entirely...

Yes it's about cash and I have issues with that, but you can't really make the creative argument when so many films are piss poor adaptations of their books.

I'd probably agree with your cynicism when it comes to series like Harry Potter, Hunger Games and Twilight. Deathly Hallows, while perfectly enjoyable, could have been easily told in one film. But, I honestly believe that it was never Peter Jackson's way of thinking with the Hobbit films. Sure, the studios will be all "money money money", but I think Jackson has a genuine reason to produce a two-part film. He's piling in an awful lot of back-story to make this a true prequel to the LOTR series as well as just another story set in Middle Earth. I think it'll need the extra film to make the experience truly immersive. Of course, a year is a long wait between films. But, like with his use of 3D, I think Jackson is following this through this with 100% enthusiasm.

Deathly Hallows could never have been done in one film, without sacrificing many important sub-plots.

You could have chopped an entire hour from the first movie if you cut out the parts where they slop around in a tent, looking bored.

I think splitting a book into two movies can work well if the source material supports it. I always thought it a shame that Goblet of Fire didn't get the longer treatment.

Deathly Hallows worked as two movies, I think. The long wandering in the wilderness is important to the story. In the previous books, the conflict is built around the activities of the school in a single year, and the antagonists use the school and its activities against Harry.

This gives Harry a false sense of competence, imagining that he can solve his problems in the course of a school year, because the problems he's faced have been tied to the school year.

But in Deathly Hallows, Harry is out of school. He doesn't have Dumbledore to manipulate things, and he doesn't know what is going on. As he wanders, and tries to figure out just why Voldemort is so focused on him, and why he has to be the one to kill Voldemort, Harry grows more frightened and desperate. Harry needs to reach an emotional state where he internalizes "things are so bad, that it is worth it for me to die to end it, rather than to fight to survive." Without those months of fear and hunger, I don't think his acceptance of the necessity of self-sacrifice would be plausible.

So it works to have one movie being used to break Harry down, to the point where he stops looking for a way to survive a conflict with Voldemort and is ready to accept that he simply must, even if it kills him, put an end to things, and then the next movie to have him act based on that new understanding.

I don't see Mockingjay working as two movies. The Hunger Games books all have two distinct portions. The first half is intensely political, establishing a context and throwing Katniss into the jaws of the games. The second half is the action/adventure of Katniss fighting.

And the nature of the second half is why the book shouldn't be split into two movies. The action/adventure must be seen in the context of the political buildup. The Hunger Games aren't about exciting action and adventure, they're about the corruption of seeing action and adventure as exciting entertainment rather than the evil of children being tortured. And particularly in Mockingjay when the games are no longer "games" but are the real fighting of war, it's important to remember that war is still hell, and it is hell for civilians, women and children, as well as soldiers and warriors.

In Mockingjay Katniss is being politically used and manipulated as much or more than in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire. But the changed context makes it theoretically plausible for the second half of Mockingjay to be a conventional war movie, with the hero fighting her way to the end. And that would be a travesty, turning a story about the evils of glorifying violence into a conventional war movie that glorifies violence.


That's it? I felt that Katniss simply didn't have time for romance in the first book/movie. She was more concerned know...staying alive. I thought that was one of the things that made the book/movie so refreshing...

It's simple surely? Cash.

Actually, Breaking Dawn (the book) has a two part structure as well. The second part (what is to be film 2) feels like a different book altogether

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