The Mockingjay Problem

How will Hollywood adapt the chaotic third book of the Hunger Games trilogy?

The Hunger Games
Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson, and Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, star in The Hunger Games

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’$2 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’$2 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.

For the movie adaptation, released this past fall, Lionsgate opted to dive right in, fangs first. Vertebrae crack in lush surround sound. The gritty details aren’t in the frame, but Edward’s head descends, noisy chomping ensues, and he pops back up with blood on his face. And when Bella dies from her various ruptures, her husband gnaws at her limbs, trying frantically to vampirize her. (Slate’s Dana Stevens called the scene “genuinely, primally horrifying in a way no Twilight movie has been before.”)

It was a surprising gamble, to transfer this off-putting and disturbing dose of body horror to the screen untouched and without comment. It’s hard to say whether the birth scene contributed to its harsh reviews, but the film turned out to be impervious to criticism, pulling in $700 million worldwide. If Lionsgate decides to play chicken with Mockingjay in similar fashion, the studio would ditch the soapy trappings of the first two installments and launch into a parade of gun battles right out of Starship Troopers, and end the entire franchise with its heroine a scarred, post-traumatic husk of her former self. A bluntly faithful adaptation might be a cinematic mess, but the true believers would flood the box office with their gratitude.

Option No. 2: The Tactical Rewrite

Peter Jackson’s heresy is undeniable. The director hacked cherished characters (such as the enigmatic Tom Bombadil and elven tough guy Glorfindel) from his Lord of the Rings movies, scrambled the novels’ chronology, and sinned against fandom’s foremost sect of sticklers in a host of other ways. Yet only a superfan would notice most of the changes, and the biggest ones are hard to condemn. For example, it might have been a corny, Hollywood concession for Jackson to insert a fight between the heroic wizard, Gandalf, and his evil counterpart, Saruman, into the first film. But it’s also a great scene, and a useful way to establish the characters as powerhouse sorcerers without the benefit of Tolkien’s luxuriant backstory.

There are other examples of filmmakers who managed to rework their source material while maintaining some degree of reverence. The film-version of Watchmen (2009) contained shot-for-shot reconstructions of some of the graphic novel’s most famous panels. The movie’s only change was a big one, though, replacing the comic’s famously bizarre endgame—involving fake alien corpses—with a scheme to frame the world’s most powerful superhero as a terrorist.

Applied to Mockingjay, the tactical rewrite approach would be standard operating procedure for Hollywood. The kids would be detonated off-camera, or with a dose of foreshadowing to soften the blow. And the book’s ending, which drains all the heroism and idealism out of the rebel cause, might be padded out with a victory celebration (a throwback to Star Wars), and a sense of closure that the novel deliberately denies. Katniss would be triumphant against all odds.

Option No. 3: Screw the Fanboys

Whether out of desperation or a lack of interest, filmmakers sometimes abandon the fans altogether. David Lynch’s 1984 adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune was faithful in many ways to the seminal science fiction novel, but it changed key plot elements so drastically that it ended up reversing the book’s themes. In the movie, the messianic protagonist finally brings rain to the desert planet with a miraculous act. In the novel, those who have faith are dupes, and the rain only shows up in a sequel, after decades of hard-nosed climate engineering. Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (1997) similarly chose to abandon key elements of the Robert Heinlein novel on which it was based, and torqued the book’s gung-ho military yarn into a dark satire of Nazi Germany.

Dune and Starship Troopers remain flashpoints in geek culture, eviscerated by sci-fi stalwarts but treasured by others as cult classics. If Mockingjay had been released decades ago, before the Internet could bend the ear of producers, it would have been more likely to land in theaters looking like something other than itself. Instead of being unceremoniously hospitalized, Katniss might have stalked the villainous president through the shattered arena, her dark triumph tracked once again by live cameras. And maybe, just maybe, those kids wouldn’t have to be blown up, after all.

*Correction, March 21, 2012: This article originally said that Bella and Edward had a son. They had a daughter.

See all of Slate’s coverage of The Hunger Games here.