When Harry Potter jumped from book to major motion picture, it crossed a cultural threshold that truly shaped the new millennium of not just cinema, but books, television and even theme park rides.
We began to demand for stories rich with lovable characters, epic moments and fantastical settings on a mainstream scale, something that hadn’t really been demanded since Stars Wars.
Recall that it was during this era that comic book movies exploded with appeal, and an “impossible” story like The Lord of the Rings captured everyone’s attention. Basically, fantasy was king over the last decade.
Of course, all good things come to an end (that is hopefully as good), and we said goodbye to Harry Potter and his friends toward the end of the 2000s. Since 2008, we’ve been bombarded with more book-movies than ever before, with studios rushing to create the next Twilight franchise of success.
Surprisingly for movie-makers (but not moviegoers), 2013 was not the year that Beautiful Creatures, The Host or The Mortal Instruments achieved mainstream appeal (for good reason I might add). No, it was the sequel to a movie based on a book that isn’t about vampires, chosen ones, destiny or other fantastical themes. It’s about people.
What separates The Hunger Games from all of the other book-movies I’ve mentioned thus far is really simple: it’s not fantasy. Sure, it has fantasy themes, such as a mythical world, surreal technology and a complex backstory. But those things aren’t at all what the story is about.
Even the hook of these books, teenagers killing each other for entertainment, isn’t what the story is actually about.
It makes many people like me wonder why filmmakers put so much stock into Beautiful Creatures (a $60 million flop that grossed $19 million), The Host (a $40 million flop that grossed $26 million) or The Mortal Instruments (a $60 million flop that grossed 30 million).
(Producers) This makes no sense! Our movie had a strong female protagonist, teenage angst, special effects and a fantasy setting! Our hero is brave and pure of heart! There’s even a love triangle and a few famous people!
Meanwhile, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is making all of the money, grossing $161 million on its opening weekend and breaking records. In other words, this movie made TWICE as much money as “Beautiful Creatures,” “The Host,” and “The Mortal Instruments” COMBINED in ONE weekend.
“Why?” is the question everyone is asking, and I’ve already sort of answered it. Because people like it. It’s better. It does something different.
A few things actually:
The Setting is a Character.
Getting to know a character you’re reading about or watching onscreen is the most important route to falling in love with a story. We have to love the characters in order to make any connection with the person writing the story. It is for that reason why Suzanne Collins’ world of Panem resonates so deeply. We know Panem. It’s detailed, interesting and, best of all, not an alternate version of our own world.
You might think that it is, but it’s actually a parallel world. It doesn’t retread the “secret society that is existing alongside our own” theme that every other book-movie has done to death. Panem is its own world with its own rules and aesthetics, making us love getting to know it just as much as we love getting to know the other characters.
We Respond to Mortality.
When your hook is that everyone is going to die, you’re much more likely to pay attention to what the characters are actually going through. After all, they may not be around a few scenes later.
The mortality of the series is what makes the story connect. The sorrow and persistent grief on the faces of every character should depress us, but it actually makes us appreciate this imaginary world and the nightmares they experience.
That’s all I really need to say, but a persistent thought kept nagging at me throughout Catching Fire. Katniss is not that great. She just appears great, much in the way that the movie is all about appearances, so is the “beauty” and character of Katniss. She cares for very little outside of her own family and loved ones.
Everyone wants her to be like Harry Potter and just solve everyone’s problems for them. She’s a symbol of hope, but that’s about it. Otherwise, she’s a resourceful hunter who will do anything to survive and protect certain people. She’s basically Booker Dewitt.
That’s why we love watching her make decisions and reacting to the well-written story. She’s strong, smart and capable, but she’s also unpredictable. When we expect her to be a hero, she waivers. When she is presented with a good or evil choice, she chooses the one that best suits her, which we see in Catching Fire.
This persistent conflict of emotions is especially transparent if you read the books (and you really should). Her thoughts are right there on the pages, which you don’t get from the movies despite Jennifer Lawrence absolutely selling the character.
It Goes Over The Heads of Most People.
Except teenagers. They get it. One of the first recommendations for this franchise I ever heard was from a 16-year-old girl who said something along these lines:
“It’s not just about kids killing each other or an oppressive government. It’s about how everything you do hinges on superficial things like how you look and come across.”
She was completely right. The Hunger Games is about people using *cough reality television *cough to dress up serious themes as entertainment. It’s about appealing to the masses and keeping people in line. Why else do you think teenagers get this better than anyone else? They’re still going through the brunt of something we adults have become desensitized to.
When I finished watching Catching Fire, I immediately bought the book Mockingjay and started reading the conclusion. I obviously won’t spoil anything, but you learn a lot about the other side of the revolution and the themes get even deeper. It makes me wonder why we pull our punches in so many other books and movies when it comes to teenagers.
The Hunger Games isn’t the greatest thing ever (though sometimes it feels like it is), but it is extremely special. It teaches teenagers lessons that many of us adults don’t even know, and it’s a well-developed book (and movie) on top of that.