Examining the side-effects of The Hunger Games

As The Hunger Games nears its end with Mockingjay - Part 1, James looks at the side effects of the billion-dollar franchise...

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 is now in the cinemas and that means that we’ve reached the beginning of the end. With the climactic novel of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy split into two movies, this first part will take eager audiences into the end game and start to detail a denouement that, frustratingly, we’ll have to wait until next autumn to finally witness.

I have no idea what’s going to happen because I haven’t read the books (it’s keeping the movies surprising, I guess). Still, what I do know is that things are building up in Panem and that Mockingjay will up the stakes and drama several notches in what has already been a gripping series. We have rebellion against the Capitol! We have heartrending separations! We have more amazing facial hair and audacious fashion choices! It’s very exciting and I’m all psyched up to see just how the escalating events boil over and how this dystopian saga plays out across its penultimate and ultimate chapters.

Off-screen, I know that Mockingjay (both part 1 and part 2) is going to score big at the box office and rack up as a huge hit. The masses are going to be flocking to the multiplex and, thus far, reviewers have been mostly enthusiastic about the third movie in a franchise that’s been a tremendous success both critically and commercially.

Running some numbers (not as fun as running away from trackerjackers or crazed mandrills),  according to my calculations The Hunger Games films have so far totalled over $1.5bn. I could give you the exact figures but I’m not confident about my mathematical abilities (my main skills are hand-to-hand combat and my personal charm, and I’m relying on those to get me through the next Quarter Quell). Regardless, The Hunger Games is a mega-franchise that has broken through the billion dollar ceiling.

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It now sits among the elite brands and, what’s more, financially it’s outmuscling some of the big names (including Superman, Mission: Impossible and the Alien series) off the back of just two films. Taking stock of that incredible fact, you realise that The Hunger Games is something quite phenomenal, and that’s only thinking of it in economic terms. These movies are not just massively profitable, but great movies in their own right – sophisticated action-drama stories revolving around a brilliant concept and a convincing, immersive fictional world fleshed out with strong characters. There’s a reason that people are going crazy for The Hunger Games and that’s because these film adaptations are some of the most stimulating, well-crafted blockbusters on the scene right now.

Success like this doesn’t just happen in a bubble and occur without any wider consequence. Another thing I do know – irrespective of the performance of the incoming Mockingjay duo – is that The Hunger Games will have and has had a considerable impact on the movie industry. Accepting that the games are still in play, I thought it might be worthwhile trying to examine the side-effects of the phenomenon.

Like other recent super-franchises – Chris Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, Twilight, the Marvel Cinematic Universe – The Hunger Games has had a far-reaching influence, for better and for worse. Surveying the field, I can already see certain trends and happenings that can be traced back to Katniss and Panem. It’s also worth wondering where things go from here and what the future ramifications of this game-changing series’ existence might be. Without much further ado or anymore primping our hairdos, let’s try and get a fix on the numerous side-effects of The Hunger Games

Rule under J-Law

Everybody loves Jennifer Lawrence, as well they should because she’s ace. Lawrence is currently one of the most popular people on the planet thanks to a string of superb performances and her refreshing down-to-earth off-screen personality. Her ascent to extreme celebrity has its downsides but we’ll put the sleazy tabloid junk and shallow showbiz guff to one side – actually, we’ll shoot it with arrows – and concentrate on the good stuff. That good stuff is excellent work in Winter’s Bone, the X-Men series and a brace of Oscar-grabbing David O Russell dramas (she won Best Actress for Silver Linings Playbook). Even so, I’d say that it’s her role as Katniss Everdeen that has crystallised her status as the new Queen of Hollywood.

Concentrating specifically on Katniss, it’s undoubtedly the case that Lawrence is the iconic figurehead of The Hunger Games series. J-Law is more than up to the challenge and she dominates the movies as the MVP, which is quite an achievement considering the presence of such veteran icons as Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson and Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Having proven her credentials as a franchise leader and as an outstanding triple-threat performer (she’s got action, comedy and drama skills) Lawrence has risen to become one of the most powerful figures in the movie industry, both on screen and off. Right now, as ‘the girl on fire’ she can do whatever she wants and commands the kind of clout that few women ever get to wield in Hollywood. Which brings us to…

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Female empowerment

As noted above, Katniss Everdeen is the heart of The Hunger Games – the audience’s way into the world of Panem, and the soulful central protagonist driving the narrative. This is an sci-fi action franchise built around a multifaceted female character who’s surrounded by a variety of diverse women, most of whom could conceivably be tagged as ‘strong female characters’. Could it be that The Hunger Games phenomenal success is partly due to its female-heavy aspect and not in spite of it? (Answer: yes.)

The Hunger Games is a glorious affront to all misconceived, archaic notions that people don’t want to see movies dominated by women that aren’t chick-flick melodramas and romantic comedies. If you need further proof, see the recent bumper box office of Lucy – superhuman Scarlett Johansson kicking up over $440million worldwide in Luc Besson’s most lucrative female-led action flick yet. Disney and Pixar also appear to have learned from Studio Ghibli’s long-held tradition of girl heroes with Brave, Frozen, and the upcoming Moana putting progressive female characters front and centre.

Back to live action, I think it’s fair to suggest that The Hunger Games has helped pave the way for standalone Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel movies. There will be more and there should be more, The Hunger Games burning the bleeding obvious into the public consciousness and, more crucially, into the fearful conservative minds that keep the industrial cogs turning. In the meantime, this series has given audiences positive female protagonists to look up to and root for, and that’s an invigorating change from the testosterone-heavy norm – especially for female viewers who may feel marginalised by Hollywood.

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Young adult adaptations and growing pains

The Hunger Games novels are categorised as ‘Young Adult’ fiction and that label has carried over to the movie adaptations. In my view it’s a lame label to lump on something – a commercial tag which seeks to distinguish materials that are more ‘mature’ than children’s entertainment, yet it concurrently undermines the texts by making them less-than-adult, condescending the target audience of teens in the process.

That’s my own personal gripe though. From the perspective of marketers, studios and the industrial end, however, these ghetto categories are a handy boon. The Hunger Games has followed Harry Potter and Twilight as an effective, immensely successful YA adaptation series and become a literary and cinematic phenomenon in its own right. What happens next? Other studios seek to find ‘the next Hunger Games’ and so we get a string of movies based on hit young adult print sagas, trying to mine profit from the zeitgeist and ride the wave.

Consequently, we’ve seen the coming of Divergent and The Maze Runner both similar (or derivative) blockbuster YA adaptations centred around spirited, grave-faced youngsters fighting against an oppressive system. Having done business at the box office, sequels to these series are now being pumped out at rapid pace and more fresh aspiring franchises will likely follow. This is a side-effect that makes me sad and both The Maze Runner (amazing spectacle and some solid ideas but, for me, it doesn’t quite come together) and Divergent (erm, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…”) piqued my ire and had me mentally haranguing Hollywood for its unoriginality, its greed and its disrespect of audiences.

I worry that the movie moguls falling over themselves to find a hit to sell to the target demographic fail to understand why The Hunger Games is so outstanding – the intelligent premise, the compelling narrative spiralling out of it and the Katniss factor. What’s more, we’re watching a lot of movies built around victimhood and I wonder if that disempowers young people – or anyone of any age for that matter – and further fuels our culture’s self-obsessed, paranoid victim complex. Once upon a time action-adventure films about kids had happy-go-plucky heroes confidently pitting their wits against individual adult evils and they had fun doing it (The Goonies, Home Alone, Hocus Pocus). Now we have a glut of glum, miserable teens suffering and dying at the hands of elusive, tyrannical conspiracies. It’s very emo, and probably not healthy for us psychologically in the long-run.

Sequel splitting and spreading the source novels

Harry Potter got in first by bifurcating the Deathly Hallows, and The Hunger Games has followed suit by splitting its finale into two parts. Marvel Studios appear to have taken note of this and have decided to make Avengers: Infinity War – the end of MCU Phase Three – into a two separate movies that’ll be released in two different years. Returning to franchises adapted from ‘Young Adult’ novels, the Divergent will also be finishing up with Allegiant Part 1 and Allegiant Part 2. People are seeing double, and The Hunger Games eager adoption of the ‘Draw Out the End Game’ model for Mockingjay has a lot to do with it.

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I suppose that when a story is reaching its definite end it’s nice to make the event a bit special by giving it the grand two-part treatment. Plus, in adapting literary works it makes sense to chop up the movies into further sequels to really capture the full scope of the source material and its characters and universe, as opposed to condensing it for the screen (see The Hobbit films as an exemplary case study). Looking at it from a more cynical standpoint, splitting up sequels allows studios to maximise the profitability of what is a finite resource if they know that there are no more books coming.

Of course, Suzanne Collins may follow JK Rowling’s lead and be lured back to her hit series to write further stories from Panem. It’s possible, but whether she does or she doesn’t, it’s also possible that Hunger Games spin-off movies could be commissioned, because studios will exploit a successful property as much as possible. In total then, expect to see more sequel splitting and possibly further spin-offs drawing on The Hunger Games mythos. (I’d love to see a prequel chronicling the rise of President Snow, by the way. Once Mockingjay is out the way, let’s have ‘Coriolanus Begins’, please.)

Politicised pictures and thinking games

The Hunger Games hasn’t just brought distressing underage violence to the family-friendly blockbuster scene. It’s also brought politics and subversive sentiment into the multiplex and the minds of mainstream audiences who happen to have encountered the books and movies. This is a franchise that is as much about ideology as it is about action and emotional relationships. That ideology is a non-conformist one, but The Hunger Games is also interested in grand philosophical questions about personal freewill, social responsibility, morality and aspirational consumer society.

This is deep, cerebral stuff and the dystopian vision of Panem – a sort of hybrid sci-fi cross between the Roman Empire, King Louis XVI’s France and a hypercharged ‘American Dream’ – is a rich conceptualised world that the movies have realised in completely credible fashion. Subversive messages are not necessarily uncommon in major league blockbusters – see Iron Man 3, The Matrix, and any Paul Verhoeven film, for instance – but The Hunger Games is particularly striking because its entire premise is innately political and its main target audience is, allegedly, ‘young adults.’ The series deserves to be saluted for its sophisticated thematic content and for being such an uncompromising piece of seditious work. It’s quite possible that The Hunger Games could inspire further heady tentpole blockbusters and encourage more filmmakers to craft popular-appeal pictures that don’t shy away from politics.

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Revolution?

If people make politicised motion pictures and swathes of cinemagoers see them, understand the messages and are stirred by the ideologies, do they rise up and take rebellious action in reality? As an idealist, I hope so and I do wonder whether the crowds getting a kick out of The Hunger Games and absorbing all its ideological warfare are really comprehending it all and noting its resonant relevance to life outside of the cinema auditorium.

Panem may be a fictional and fantastical future scenario conceived by Suzanne Collins but, really, it’s pretty much a heightened, highly-stylised reflection of our own culture and society. Contemplate the unequal system controlled by a wealthy, powerful elite who rule over subjugated masses appeased and kept docile through the provision of ‘bread and circuses’ (or, rather, ‘bread and televised action-packed contests-to the death). It’s a mirror image of our own world – a sharp critique of the private political and corporate powers that manipulate the wider population and a satire of the mainstream media and celebrity-obsessed culture.

As I say, I hope that most of the people watching The Hunger Games get it and feel a hot fire of discontent burning up inside them. I hope that their political consciousness is expanded or re-animated by the experience and that they leave the cinema galvanised. It’s sad to think that they just passively consume these highly ideological pictures solely as a popcorn distraction and then sleepwalk on back home to watch another cruel and vapid reality TV show (stopping by Subway on the way home to chomp down on a limited edition Catching Fire Sriracha Chicken Melt and failing to see the irony in a Hunger Games-branded sandwich). No, that’s too depressing a thought and I’d like to go with the delusional belief that this franchise will inspire something more than ambitious facial hair sculpting projects and some silly baby names. Optimistically, I reckon that The Hunger Games could be a force for progressive change in both the film industry and in society.

As Mockingjay ups the ante and raises the rebellion against the Capitol, it’s possible that franchise fans may experience a great awakening themselves and – stirred by the spirit of Katniss Everdeen and her companions – rally to challenge the system themselves. This could be the long-awaited realisation of the revolution, and Mockingjay‘s call could be the siren to start it all. We’re taking control of these games now.

May the odds be ever in our favour.

James Clayton is volunteering as tribute and embraces the probability of his imminent death At least, thanks to Lenny Kravitz, he’s going to look pretty damn stylish while he suffers for the entertainment of the sick watching world. You can visit his website or follow him on Twitter

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