The Mockingjay Problem
How will Hollywood adapt the chaotic third book of the Hunger Games trilogy?
Still by Murray Close © 2011 Lions Gate Films Inc. All rights reserved.
See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.
The $90 million film adaptation of Hunger Games is likely to feature something unusual for a mainstream Hollywood production: the death of children. There's really no way to avoid it. The trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins on which the movie and its inevitable sequels are based is set in a dystopian future where the fascist rulers of North America force kids to participate in a televised gladiatorial combat every year.
But if the first Hunger Games book introduces some awkward elements for a teen-friendly, mainstream movie, the third in the series, called Mockingjay, will force filmmakers to turn massacre and despair into blockbuster entertainment. In the finale to the series [spoiler alert], the children aren't sent to their death in an arena, but they are lured to their deaths with booby-trapped toys that detonate in their tiny, waiting fingers. To make matters worse, the trilogy's teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, is caught in the blast. She wakes to find most of her body covered in burns, in a pain-medicated fog that barely holds the agony at bay. Our heroine spends the last act of the book in a drugged, self-loathing stupor, and the tidy, dramatic structure of the first two novels—a teenage love triangle, the pre-games hype and preparations, the games themselves—is made over into a bleak story of urban warfare. For good or bad, it's a jarring transition. Imagine the Twilight series ending with all of the werewolves committing ritual suicide, or Harry Potter landing in a concentration camp for young wizards.
When it was released in 2010, the critical praise for Mockingjay was gushing and unanimous, with Entertainment Weekly calling it “every bit as complex and imaginative as [its predecessors]. Collins has kicked the brutal violence up a notch in an edge-of-your-seat plot." Among the Internet's hoi polloi, the verdict is less clear. The third book currently has 3.5 stars on Amazon, compared with the first two books' 4.5 ratings, and negative blog posts and comments range from the standard finale-related letdowns, to “I straight-up hated most of the book,” and “a festival of suck." Whatever Mockingjay is—a bold and unflinching climax to a best-selling series or a disjointed leap into antiwar protest fiction—there's one thing it probably isn't: a book that's easily adapted for the screen.
That Mockingjay will eventually become a movie is one of the safest bets in Hollywood. With Hunger Games, Lionsgate is hoping to unleash the next great young adult movie franchise, filling the void left by the $7 billion Harry Potter series, and Twilight, which has already earned $2 billion and wraps up with a final film this fall. The studio (which also produced the Twilight films) has already announced its plan to render the book trilogy as four movies. At some point, then, the producers are going to have to figure out how to make the depressing and chaotic finale into a film (or films) with broad appeal and a PG-13 rating. How will the producers satisfy Collins' 20 million or so readers, along with millions more curious newcomers, with what is essentially a war movie, and, more troubling, an unmitigated bummer?
This isn't the first time a studio has had to wrestle a beloved, but dark work of science fiction or fantasy to the big screen. Traditionally, Hollywood has taken three distinct approaches to these projects, any of which might reasonably be applied to the final Hunger Games adaptation:
Option No. 1: Play Chicken
The strenuously chaste Twilight novels took a startling turn in the final book, Breaking Dawn. The virginal Bella marries and conceives a daughter with her vampire lover, Edward.* During childbirth, the half-vampire baby breaks Bella's spine and winds up trapped inside the amniotic sac. The solution? Naturally, the anxious father bites the creature free.
Erik Sofge is a contributing editor at Popular Mechanics.