Seeing The Hunger Games franchise come to a close this past November was somewhat enigmatic for me. As a long-time fan of the series, I had read the books from the very beginning and had seen most of the midnight premieres of the film adaptations. It’s safe to say that I enjoy the series, but it’s also easy for me to admit that seeing the last two films felt like more of a long-haul commitment than something that truly excited me.
Though not top-tier examples of what Hollywood has to offer, The Hunger Games films are in no way low-quality. The cinematography, especially in the latter half of the franchise, is done rather well. The films feature a number of impressive, well-rounded actors, music from some of the very best artists, a sprinkle of social commentary, and enough high-octane fight scenes to keep even the most distractible audience members interested. If this is all true, why doesn’t the series have higher reviews on the whole? If the books they’re based on are so well-received, why do the film adaptations suffer from such mediocrity?
The answer is simple, but very easy to miss: The Hunger Games did not take the right risks.
This is a rather general assertion, so consider a premier example of a film that takes the right risks—Frank Darabont’s The Shawshank Redemption, one of the most respected, revered, and well-known films of all time. Shawshank is an excellent example of a work that made the right corrections to its source material, which in turn catapulted it into cinematic immortality. The film is based on Stephen King’s novella, “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” but the two works bear a remarkably small number of similarities for having nearly the same titles. Despite the changes, King’s novella is one of his lesser-known pieces, while The Shawshank Redemption is arguably the best work to come out of American cinema in the past fifty years. Had Darabont not taken this massive risk of textual adaptation, his film would not have been nearly so popular.
Textual adaptation, the act of altering a film’s plotline or tone to no longer match its source material, is a Bellagio-level gamble in most cases. Incidentally, it’s also the reason why The Hunger Games did not attain better reviews. Gary Ross’ and Francis Lawrence’s rendition of Suzanne Collins’ young adult masterpiece stuck to its source material like glue, and while this decision was “true” to the book series, it also forced longtime fans into a tough position. With no new storyline innovations, fans of the books had no new surprises in store, and thus very little to rope them into seeing the next film. This, as I discovered in November of last year, was my problem as well.
Every decision in Hollywood is a risk, and taking the right risks can make the difference between a film becoming an instant classic or falling flat on its face. Many examples shed an interesting light on the vast array of paths a movie can take when it comes to textual adaptation. Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth was a near line-by-line reading of Shakespeare’s play, and yet (deservedly so) received stellar reviews across the board. Shortly thereafter, Star Wars: The Force Awakens proved that retconning thousands of previous works of fiction (even in its own family) can go quite favorably if you have excellent new characters to back it up. These are instances of artists’ both risking the efficacy their source material, as well as rigidly clinging to it, and still reaching critical acclaim either way. Of course, there is always the other side of the coin: Gavin Hood’s Ender’s Game cut massive tracts of storytelling from Orson Scott Card’s original novel, and paid a hefty toll for it at the box office. The young adult action film Divergent suffered much the same fate. Both of these films are examples of directors taking the wrong risks—instead of improving on original source material, they handicap what already exists.
In the world of moviemaking, success and failure depend heavily on one’s willingness to gamble. If films from the past five years are any indication, there’s nothing inherently wrong with holding the hand of the novel on which a film is based. It will likely score average-to-decent reviews, and then slowly fade from the limelight. If a film is to truly be a masterpiece, however, its director must follow one simple rule: take the right risks.
Featured Image By Columbia Pictures