This article contains spoilers for The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Parts 1 and 2 and Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows: Parts 1 and 2.
These days, it seems like every film adaptation of a popular book series — especially those geared toward young adults — is choosing to split its final book into two separate films. The trend began with Warner Bros.’ decision to split the final book in the Harry Potter series — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows — into two films, starting in 2010. It has most recently been tested again with the splitting of the final book in The Hunger Games series — Mockingjay — into two films.
The practical reasoning for this decision? More movies, more money. Fair enough. After all, this reasoning tends to be true. However, inevitably, when the decision to split the final book in a series into two films is announced, it is met with disgust. Fans — or at least the media — accuse the studios of prioritizing the financial over the creative.
This may be true, but it doesn’t have to be the whole truth. From where I’m standing, the decisions to split Mockingjay and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows into two parts resulted in the best films in both franchises: Mockingjay: Part 1and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1.
Of course, it’s important to note that these book-to-film examples also have some pretty meaty source material to begin with. Splitting a terrible book into two movies will not make two good films. (Sorry, Divergent.) But when you’re starting with a rich, complex fictional world, book-splitting can lead to the very best of films. Here’s why…
Splitting the book allows time to explore elements other than plot.
The first halves of Mockingjay and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (the books) are arguably the least plot-heavy of either respective book series. Katniss spends much of her time (understandably) cowering in District 13 closets, trying to deal with her PTSD. Harry, Ron, and Hermione traipse aimlessly around the British countryside, hoping to stumble upon a Horcrux.
Given these relatively plot-light story arcs, I worried that the film adaptations wouldn’t have enough material to adapt into a feature length film without dragging. This was silly. Not having enough plot to cover the two-hour run times ended up being their greatest asset. After all, in many ways, plot is the simplest of story structures. It may be the most necessary, but it is also often the least interesting.
As a structure, the Hollywood blockbuster tends to favor plot above all else. It’s somewhat understandable in the context of a Hollywood blockbuster’s primary aim: to make as much money as possible, presumably by entertaining as many people as possible. To oversimplify a much more complicated formula, this usually happens with a combination of effective plot and bombastic visuals. In the Hollywood blockbuster, there tends to be less time for theme, character development, or indulging in the tone or ambience of a setting.
This commitment to plot above all else is a problem when adapting the most complex, involved, and interesting of a book series. These books tell intricately-crafted stories that take more than just a good understanding of plot to translate onto the screen. Because of their unique positions in their larger film franchises, Mockingjay: – Part 1and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1 were given the most freedom to explore these other storytelling elements. Let’s look at some specific examples…
The Deathly Hallows: Part 1 takes a character-driven dance break.
The Deathly Hallows: Part 1has many glorious scenes: The suspenseful, Polyjuice-aided escape from the Dursleys to the Burrow. The montage of Harry, Ron, and Hermione listening to the radio as they walk across Britain. The gorgeously-rendered animation of “The Deathly Hallows” story. But it is a quiet, emotionally-raw scene that was not in the books that is perhaps the best scene in the entire film and franchise. I’m referring, of course, to the dance scene between Harry and Hermione…
If The Deathy Hallowshadn’t been split into two films, there is no way this would have made it into the movie. It is an indulgent, character-driven moment that has no larger bearing on the plot. It could be cut from the film without the audience ever knowing it was missing. And that would be a shame. Because it is a beautiful affirmation of Harry and Hermione’s friendship.
Their dance doesn’t solve any of their problems, it only briefly makes them feel better, but it is a reminder — to both the viewer and the characters — that they are just kids. They should be dancing, not shouldering this impossible burden. It is tragic and hopeful and joyful all at once.
This scene is indicative of a larger interest The Deathly Hallows has in theme and character. The dance scene may be the best cohesive representation of those slightly-skewed interests, but this entire film takes it time, exploring mood and motivation in a way the other films are rarely given the chance to do.
Mockingjay: Part 1 strays beyond Katniss’ perspective.
Though The Hunger Games books are exclusively told from a first-person perspective, the films understandably stray a bit from Katniss’ point-of-view. It doesn’t happen often, and the choices are not always successful (Exhibit A: all of the gamemaker stuff in the first film), but — when it does succeed — it allows for a glimpse into the larger world of Panem than the books, because of their first-person perspective.
It is in Mockingjay – Part 1that we get what is perhaps the best example of this larger, meaningful context in “The Hanging Tree” sequence…
This scene is a microcosm of the larger interests of this film: a focus on the propaganda battle at the heart of this war, and the heart of this story. Katniss’ song starts as a moment of sincere emotion and reflection, but it is quickly contorted into something else. It’s changed by Plutarch and Coin, and given new purpose to spur others to acts of war. For better or worse, this song — and Katniss’ very image — has power, and that power is almost completely out of Katniss’ control.
These themes are at the very heart of The Hunger Games narrative and, therefore, would hopefully have always been included in the film adaptations. However, it’s hard to imagine that this breakdown of the propoganda war would have gotten the same level of attention had Mockingjay been made into one film.
There is just too much plot to churn through — especially in the final third of the book — for Mockingjayto give us this musical moment of resistance. Or for it to stray too far from Katniss’ narrow perspective of what was a much larger, more complicated revolution and world. The franchise were never better at putting Katniss’ story in a larger, more nuanced context than in this penultimate film.
The limits of film as a medium for adapting book series.
It’s hard to discuss the creative advantages of splitting books into multiple movies without segueing into a discussion of the limits of the film form for such adaptations. For me, television is the natural choice for translating book series onto the screen. Even if Game of Thronesisn’t my favorite, I revel in the opportunities it has to expand on, change, and improve upon its source material. (Because, for all of the strengths literary storytelling has over screen storytelling, so, too, does screen storytelling have its strengths over literary storytelling.)
Currently, these book-to-film franchises are set somewhere in between film and television in regards to narrative form. Yes, they are undoubtedly filmic at their cores, but they have some of the sensibilities of serialized television. This is especially evident when it comes to these penultimate films, tasked only with telling the first half of a novel and, therefore, given the space to engage in setting, theme, and character much more thoroughly.
For all of the ways that the first parts in Mockingjay – Part 1and The Deathly Hallows: Part 1take their time to indulge, explore, and engage in their fictional worlds, the second parts resume their prioritization of churning through book plot and are the lesser for it.