Sunday Night Rants
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay is the latest film developed from a young adult series of novels that studios decided to break up its final act into two parts. Harry Potter started the phenomenon, arguably with good cause since the final book in the series was much larger than earlier entries in the series (though this is a specious argument, as we’ll see below). Since then, every tween series has decided they too deserve two movies to properly send off their franchise. I’m here to call bullshit on this sorry practice.
Break It Down
There are several smoke-screen reasons that studios give for doubling their finales. Often, they claim that the source material is just too bulky or dense to fit into a single film. They may also claim that extra screen time allows for a proper send off for some characters who would hardly find any screen time in a solo film. They may also justify the added run time as a chance to expand upon material that fans liked, but was glossed over by either the source or previous installments. Those are all very reasonable, well argued points…and they’re all a crock of manure.
Dealing with source material length, we see this argument is a complete sham. Deathly Hallows, the final Harry Potter book, weighs in at a whopping 759 pages, more than double the size of the first book. Unfortunately, it is also almost exactly as long as the fourth book in the series, and 120 pages shorter than The Order of the Phoenix. I didn’t see the studio splitting those projects up! When it comes to The Hunger Games, the final book is one whole page shorter than the second book. Finally, with the Twilight Saga (a title that surely would make Vikings weep!) the last installment is only about 120 pages longer than the next largest book, 756 compared to 629. Apparently that must have been the most dense 100 pages Stephenie Meyer ever wrote, because it added two hours to the series’ run time!
Now films like The Hobbit took the extra screen time to invest in characters left out of the book (sure, as a Murkwood elf, Legolas was implied to be in The Hobbit, despite never being mentioned) and to use extraneous sources to fill out the story. I think we all remember with great fondness how injecting those elements into the story was a ringing success…
Splitting Up Over Money
When you get down to it, the phenomena of two-part endings is all about cash. Filming these movies is essentially like making one big movie and chopping it in half. The stars are all still around, the props, locations and sets don’t need to be recreated, and expensive things like permits and on-location costs are essentially split in half, since you can film everything from both films in one go instead of returning at a later date. The Deathly Hallows cost 250 million dollars to make both parts. It cost the exact same amount to make The Half Blood Prince just one year earlier! That’s one whole free movie they got by filming the two parts together.
Paying for Padding
One big gripe with the split-ending trend is that you’re paying full price for prologue. Even positive reviews of many of these films comment on how much of the first part is set-up for the final film, which usually contains all of the action. You’re being charged full price to eat your vegetables in order to get the privilege of finally seeing some steak in the second part. The Hobbit is an egregious example of how bad splitting up a film can become. The project was initially reported to be a two-film deal, and when a third film was announced, many wondered where the extra material was going to be coming from. The Lord of the Rings was 1300 pages, and fit comfortably in three films. The Hobbit is 300 pages, wet and wearing furry hobbit slippers. It was going to take a lot of roughage to fill those films up, and indeed that was the case. It is by no means the worst instance of padding.
In Mockingjay the novel, the loss and rescue of Peeta by the rebellion takes all of two chapters. Two Chapters. If you’ve read 30 pages into that book, congratulations, you’ve gotten the entirety of the first film’s two hour run time. That is absolutely crazy. To tap-dance away the rest of the screen time, we get a clumsy recapitulation of the events of the first two films. Katniss becomes sullen and balkish again, simply because taking time to change her stance on the rebellion kills time. The losses she’s suffered are hashed and rehashed again. They might as well have stopped the film for an Oscar style commemorative clip of all of Lenny Kravitz character’s best moments from the first two films.
My biggest issue with splitting up endings is how they destroy the illusion of a self contained narrative. The strength of film, over and against the strengths of television and books, is that of the total immersion a good film presents. Sure, we suspect that this isn’t really the last time we’ll see Freddy Krueger, and we know deep down that we’re in for a sequel or ten. But each story has a narrative arc that is complete within the individual film. There’s no cheesy “to be continued” or “until next time!” implicit in the story. With TV you know that the next installment is just around the corner, and that the corner is usually a week at most. It primes you to experience the story based on what has come before and what you expect or hope will come after. A film is a self contained story, and knowing that it will be half-finished and require a year or more to resolve is insufferable.
What about films that explicitly guarantee a sequel? I can think of three examples:
The Empire Strikes Back: The set-backs the heroes experience, as well as several cliff hanger plot twists guarantee a sequel. You couldn’t end the series on this installment and feel like closure has been achieved. That being said, the necessity for a sequel is exactly as I described, a twist. It is an audacious gamble to leave the viewers with a stinging defeat and to have the fate of their favorite characters up in the air. When you walked in, you didn’t know if or how this film was going to set-up a sequel. For that reason, hinting at a climax to come was an integral part of the drama. It also helps that this film had a complete story arc of its own, with conflict, rising action and resolution all within the film.
Back to the Future: Each film ends with a promise that the series will continue. They actually use the old radio serials taglines of “to be continued” and “to be concluded.” With this series, I argue that sequel baiting is again a twist. Each story seems to resolve completely. Our hero has completed the challenges before him, makes the jump in time and we’re home…except now we’re actually further from the finish line than when we started! In a film that deals with time paradox, its a funny final addendum that by “fixing” the past, we’ve actually screwed it up further. Each film could have come to complete stop, and been fine, but to completely explore the subject, new wrinkles pop up at the last minute to keep the topic alive and fresh.
The Lord of the Rings: This example is closest to our split-ending offenders, in that the studio has artificially split up a written work (though with precedence, since the five books of the series were compacted into three volumes by publishers for years) and announced all three films in advance. You know walking in that you are going to need to watch three movies over five or more years for the whole story. How is this more excusable than splitting one book up? It’s splitting hairs, but LotR is split organically. Like I mentioned, publishers had found the five book structure too wonky and had partitioned the work into three parts that had a complete story arc within them, despite no single entry wrapping up every story line. The legs of the journey feel natural, and the films end on a major turning point, like the dissolution of the initial heroic party, or the beginning of full-out war. The Hobbit, meanwhile, split the narrative into cliff hangers where the major action of the film is actually just set up for the next film, and is only resolved in the next film. The second entry about Smaug…ends with Smaug headed into town to wreck shit, very much alive. The next movie kills his ass pretty early, so instead of a climatic scene, you have a major villain relegated to being a small bump in the narrative. The opposite is true for many of the other split-ending films, where a trivial event in the novel is ginned up into a major event worthy of being the capstone to a whole picture.
Splitting up the final entry in a series is a cynical cash grab. As we’ve seen, the material by no means demands more time. In only one case is the final installment the largest of the series, source-wise. Hacking the story in two usually means the first part is nothing more than exposition, and it either tries to spin small potatoes into something memorable, or creates action out of whole cloth. The fact that all of the worst offenders are adapted from novels should be telling. The assertion that a series finale is too dense to do justice to in only one film reeks of special pleading, the sells short the power inherent in cinematic story-telling. At the end of the day, a greedy studio paired with a lazy director adds up to a frustrating experience. There’s no way a director with a keen mind and eye for details couldn’t cut these bloated films down to size, and actually deliver a terse and exciting experience. The fact that these movies are the last chance fans will have to see their favorite characters and settings should not be seen as a hindrance, but as an opportunity. By keeping the film taut and lean, you do justice to the franchise, giving fans the best possible send off: a movie that would be memorable even without any knowledge or attachment to the series.