The real success of ‘The Hunger Games’ franchise was sneaking high sci-fi into YA adventure

Warning: The following contains spoilers for the entire Hunger Games film series.

It ended without much noise. Despite being a financial success, the final film in The Hunger Games franchise, Mockingjay – Part 2, was a disappointment for Lionsgate with the lowest opening weekend ($101 million at the box office) for the series. It might have been the lack of advertising compared to the previous movies, internet hype that’s preoccupied with “a galaxy far, far away” or the fact that the film is based on the ending to the least popular book in an otherwise successful series.

Regardless, the brilliance of the series (book or film, though I only read the first novel) is the way it Trojan-horsed traditional science fiction in the guise of a teen romance and adventure. The two Mockingjay films are much more akin to the remake of Battlestar Galactica with a greater presence of moral grey than the black-and-white conflict of the first two films. The result is a much more grown-up series than the “YA” source material presents.

When The Hunger Games released in theaters March 23, 2012, I took no mind. I never caught on to the book when it entered the zeitgeist due to my not being a huge reader, as well as most discussion being about the series’ love triangle. But I eventually read the first book and quickly understood why it was a cultural phenomenon.

I was surprised and disappointed, however, with the first film. The “sci-fi lite” aspects I appreciated in the book were paired down to near non-existence, save for the future setting. The production value was also underwhelming, considering the story’s scale, with less-than-coherent action sequences — see the cheap looking Mutt-ants in the below scene — and not enough of the capitol to contrast with the drab greys of the districts. This was likely tied to the film’s relatively low budget that Lionsgate nearly doubled in the subsequent entries.

In lieu of the science fiction and political themes, the first film focused on those emotional plots that originally deterred me from the source material, be it the love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta, or her relationship with her family and Rue. In retrospect, this allowed for much more rounded sequels, but the balance author Suzanne Collins found in the first novel was missing in its adaptation. I dismissed the film as a mere cash-in on the series’ popularity and thought the sequels would follow suit.

Catching Fire turned that all around. Being the first of a two-(or three) part story welcomely separated it enough from the first film. We finally saw the physical oppression from the government that was missing in the first film outside the mere existence of the Hunger Games. More importantly, we saw the societal implications of the first film’s events. Collins, director Francis Lawrence, as well as screenwriters Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt clearly understand the consequences of big narrative moments — i.e., the first film — are just as important, if not more so, as the moments themselves.

People talk about the big moments but they keep watching, or reading, to see how they affect the world around them. This is one of the reasons series like A Song of Ice and Fire and the Game of Thrones television adaptation keep the audience’s attention, especially in a well-developed world.

It’s the expansion of Collins’ Panem that also made the series worthy of praise. Too often, expanding a fictional world becomes heavier than the series can truly carry (i.e., Prometheus). This could be attributed to pre-planning. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Martin’s Westeros or Rowling’s Wizarding World were all built with intricate detail, and that attention and care shows in The Hunger Games.

I was admittedly worried what both Mockingjay films revealing District 13 would mean for the series direction, as often times that mystique is best left unexplored. Rather than build upon what we saw in the first two films, Collins and crew fleshed out what was already there in showing how a government, like that of Panem, was created through the planning and rise of the revolution out of District 13. This led the series down a path much closer to its science fiction roots than anyone could have anticipated.

It was this inverse of the series’ two primary genres — teen romance and science fiction adventure — that makes The Hunger Games a greater accomplishment than it’s getting credit for, now that the mainline film series has come to an end. While others have packaged more alienating genres alongside that go down easier — Star Wars initially made a space opera look like a traditional fairy tale — very few turned such opposites into a mainstream success. By making its characters — and audience — confront the risks of a revolution, be it in a new leader or unfortunate sacrifices, Collins completed the transformation.

I certainly understand those disappointed with the final two films in the series, as Katniss moves from being an active character leading a rebellion to an overwhelmed piece in a much larger movement and its ensuing conflict. Some might say these themes are too much for a popcorn blockbuster, but the fact that Lawrence and Collins incorporated these complex ideas into a wide-reaching YA adventure made for a series that transcended its initial genre and hopefully found new fans. One can only hope that studios use The Hunger Games as a guideline to incorporate genre once thought outside the realm of success.

About Tyler Lyon

When Tyler isn't thinking about the lack of a Canadian presence in D2: The Mighty Ducks, whether Princess Leia can now be considered a Disney Princess or discovering 8-bit classics on his 3DS, he's cheering on the Cubs, Bulls, Bears, Blackhawks, and Hawkeyes.