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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