Saturday, April 9, 2016

Hunger Games and Franchise Blues

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

Some spoilers for films in The Hunger Games franchise follow. 

One of the many results of being a new parent is that your attempts to keep up with popular culture quickly fall by the wayside, and so it was only when The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 came out on DVD that I was able to see the culmination of one of the more unique film franchises in recent years. I’ve had mixed feelings about the earlier movies, as well as the young adult novels on which they’re based, but the way in which this particular franchise came to a close intrigues me, because it strikes me as something of a rebuke to the model on which big-budget, multi-part movies of its ilk are constructed.

Steve Vineberg’s Critics at Large review of the first Hunger Games movie sums up much of what hampered the earlier installments of the franchise. Suzanne Collins’ books aren’t anywhere close to the level of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, and she’s liable to fall into some of the same bland love triangles and other missteps that characterize books like the Twilight series. However, while Collins often falls short in execution, her trilogy at least attempts to reach past the same tired old clich├ęs for greater significance. For instance, while she doesn’t write as well as Rowling and doesn’t develop her characters deeply enough, some of that is attributable to the fact that she’s attempting to write in the voice of a protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, who is not especially articulate or intellectual, and therefore not the unique Chosen One of most young-adult series. Collins isn’t quite able to control that voice well enough to distinguish her limitations as a writer from Katniss’ inarticulateness, and in that respect it’s notable that Jennifer Lawrence’s excellent performances throughout the films manage to flesh out the character so much more effectively.

The contradiction at the heart of The Hunger Games is its attempt to depict the long-term effects of violence on societies, and especially on their youngest members, through the medium of a violent, action-packed story. The first book mostly consists of a death match between teenagers, played out for the amusement of a heartless elite, and it’s clear that Collins is trying to get the reader to react in horror and disgust; I think part of the reason that I didn’t react as negatively to the film version as Steve did is that I kept reading the book’s tone into the movie, which often fumbles its attempts to place the narrative in any context that doesn’t make it seem like sick voyeurism. It’s a premise that, in retrospect, was always going to be a bad fit for a blockbuster, since it invites us to step into those heartless elites’ shoes and munch popcorn while we watch kids kill each other for nearly two and a half hours. Perhaps a more skillful screenwriter or director might have been able to frame this in a way that turned it into incisive social commentary, but neither Collins (who’s credited with co-writing the screenplay) nor director and co-writer Gary Ross completely figured out how to do that.

However, things began to change with Catching Fire, the next installment in the franchise. Francis Lawrence replaced Ross behind the camera for the rest of the series, and a number of other screenwriters took charge of adapting Collins’ next two books. These two books are as hit-and-miss as the first (the second half of the second book reprises the basic Hunger Games scenario, which feels like a failure of imagination), but in them Collins expands and deepens her exploration of the lingering effects of violence as she steadily darkens the tone (it’s surprising that that’s somehow possible after the first book), depicts how trauma has affected Katniss and her compatriots, and ultimately shows how some of those closest to her become willing to do things that are just as reprehensible as the Hunger Games themselves.

Patina Miller, Liam Hemsworth, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Lawrence and Elden Henson in Mockingjay – Part 1.

This added depth pays off in the final two installments (the last book gets split into two movies, of course, because this is Hollywood and, above all else, profits must be maximized), and especially in Part 2, which is one of the most uncomfortable experiences that I’ve ever had watching a franchise blockbuster. Lawrence the director and Lawrence the actor are both as good as ever, but the experience can be punishing. While there are some beautiful shots in the movie, parts of it are grimly monochromatic, whether it’s the bleak grays of the war zone to which Katniss is dispatched early on or the blackness of the sewers through which she and her companions attempt to infiltrate their enemies’ capital. This latter episode constitutes the central portion of the movie, and, whereas on the page it felt like reading a description of someone playing a video game, on the screen I found it to be a constantly gut-wrenching experience, making me feel something akin to the nervous queasiness I experienced back when I was still watching The Walking Dead on a regular basis. The movie’s style and content go hand in hand, as this is a film that ends with the ostensible “good guys” slaughtering children and the heroine blankly wandering back to her ruined home to attempt to deal with her accumulated traumas; only an upbeat coda suggests the hope of a better future.

I find two things striking about Mockingjay – Part 2 in the context of today’s blockbuster landscape. First, this is a movie that insists on its finality: there’s no tantalizing hint of more to come, and given the story’s punishing bleakness, we’re left with a sense of relief that that’s the case. In an age in which studios are ever more eager to set up multi-film franchises with pre-set release dates stretched out far into the future (something which Mark Harris wrote about, intelligently and at length, in an essay for the now-defunct Grantland), it’s refreshing to see something that’s willing to bring itself to an end. The glut of franchise films, particularly superhero movies, that feel like they’re simply serving as teasers for even greater attractions to come have diminished the sense that the events we’re watching onscreen have any real consequence. The assurance that there will always be more –  that behind every vanquished villain lurks an even bigger one, that beloved characters who have seemingly died can and will be resurrected – ultimately leaves each film feeling less and less important.

Second, Mockingjay – Part 2 seems notably self-aware about the degree to which it’s a violent blockbuster that is itself about violent entertainment. In this movie, the spectacularly gruesome traps of the Hunger Games are repurposed as weapons of war, and Katniss’ enemies broadcast casualty reports as though they’re on television programs in sweeps week. By contrast, director Lawrence never gives us an uncomplicated, gee-whiz moment where we’re able to simply enjoy watching CGI carnage. For instance, early on in the movie, Katniss’ allies bombard a mountain to drive out its defenders, but we only see the explosions far in the background while the camera focuses on her pained reaction. Contrast that with the aesthetic of a director like Zack Snyder, director of the bombastic Batman v Superman. As Justin Cumming puts it in his (often very funny) review of that movie, “all [Snyder] wants to accomplish is that fleeting moment of ‘wow, neat’ when a visual tableau comes together … he will sacrifice every other piece on the board – scripting, acting, audience engagement, you name it – to create that one perfect moment.” To that I might add that Snyder and his ilk seem increasingly unconcerned with whether or not vast numbers of innocent bystanders get squashed, blasted, or fried amidst the onscreen chaos that creates that “perfect moment.” Even more successful recent franchise films, such as The Avengers or Star Wars: The Force Awakens, mostly shrug off moments in which entire cities or even planets are wiped out. Again, we feel a sense that there are essentially no real consequences: the destruction of countless computer-generated extras merely provides a visually interesting background for the culmination of the hero’s journey. If, as some doomsayers suggest, the movie industry is ultimately headed for a fall because of its over-reliance on long-running franchises, perhaps it’s partly because they lack the sense of proportion and humanity that the Mockingjay films so clearly evince.

Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for HowlRound and WBUR's Cognoscentipage. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.

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