Endings are hard. For a series with millions of fans, with a thousand different opinions, endings are downright impossible; to get it right is to deliver the spectacular climactic finale loyal fans have hung in for and deserve, while making decisions that will break at least half of their hearts. It’s a tricky business. The final installment of the Hunger Games series hits the big screen this week, and it’s the end of another franchise era – unless you take Josh Hutcherson’s inability to keep a secret as indication of some more Hunger Games on their way.
For book-to-film adaptations, it might seem the pressure of making these decisions is pretty much locked down, but that’s not always the case. Who lives, who dies, who gets hitched and lives happily ever after: plenty of directors have enhanced, destroyed or completely altered the ending of their famous franchises. Each adapting director is levied with a secret challenge: can you do better? Sticking to the source material is just as likely to produce a dud box office reception if it made for dull or chaotic reading. After Lord of the Rings, Twilight and Harry Potter all climaxed with varying degrees of book loyalty and success, this beloved series can learn a thing or two from its predecessors.
In terms of the original text, The Hunger Games has a big advantage considering it’s actually pretty flawless. Divergent was messy and unfulfilling, Harry Potter tied a bloodbath up with a cheery ‘waving the kids off to school’ ending, Lord of the Rings had some giant eagle-shaped plot holes and Twilight became a decent but disturbing attempt to recover from the biggest book anticlimax since Jesus resurrected and then didn’t wreak any spectacular holy wrath on anyone. Hunger Games manages to tie up its love triangle, set out an actual sociopolitical landscape for its characters’ new world and packs all the emotional weight of J.K. Rowling’s murder spree into one or two devastating deaths.
Despite its quality ending, there are still plenty of opportunities to improve the text in its transition to the screen. Many readers found its final heartbreak a hard pill to swallow and were left unhappy with Katniss’ choice. The first three films already made the decision to skim over the messier plotlines and less interesting characters, and by splitting the third and final book into two films, Mockingjay – Part 1 actually became an incredibly well-crafted piece of cinema, that arguably would have stood alongside Equilibrium and Blade Runner were it an anonymous independent film separated from its series. Part 2 must take some liberties, but how many?
Lessons can be learned from the final painful installment of Twilight, which was destined to disappoint, especially with an ending that built up to an epic battle only to have everyone figure it was less hassle just to leave it and trudge home. However, director Bill Condon inserted a ‘How It Should Have Ended’ battle – a truly excellent 20 minutes of mad, violent action with a fearless plot twist, which would have improved the entire series if it had actually been allowed to stand (spoiler: it was all a dream… vision… thing).
These kind of crowd-pleasing endings confuse audiences’ investment in the characters’ journeys with a desire to see them unhurt and unchanged. Condon found space for a real battle, a real decisive painful fight where characters fans love really die, and die horribly; the death of father figure Carlisle was a stroke of genius in particular. While Condon would not realistically go against the tide of a fanbase that enthusiastic and a studio that had long given up on impressing the critics, the twist ending played a secondary function. Franchise adaptations are innately spoiled for a huge percentage of cinemagoers, and it’s a clever move to jolt an audience out of their forewarned comfort zone – something The Hunger Games would be wise to consider in its reconstructed film form.
It’s fearlessness that has forged the reputation of the Hunger Games and Harry Potter book series. Bookending with tragedy works because both sets of writers and directors knew that it was vital to see how the characters had grown and show how a series of horrific and traumatic life events could never just be swept aside. Other dystopian series like Divergent didn’t honor the journey taken by their protagonists. Writer Veronica Roth doesn’t attempt to expand a successful first novel into a dense or interesting political plotline that could survive over all three installments (as in The Hunger Games), and instead settles with the central couple’s issues as the main conflict of Tris’ journey.
Roth seemingly couldn’t work out how to reconcile a couple whose bickering had featured more heavily in the series than the dystopian revolution and so when protagonist Tris doesn’t make it, her ‘heartbroken’ love interest Four takes over the narrative, and with a mourning tone rides a train off into the sunset. In this way Veronica Roth avoided having to make real decisions about the world her characters would help create and the scars they would carry with them into their new lives. Subsequently, fans are already expressing surprise at elements of the new trailer, which indicates plot revisions and a drastic shift in tone from the source material; changes that are not unwelcome and may sustain the franchise through the wilderness books.
In essence, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 changed very little. Director David Yates managed to improve on the flow of the books by taking the battle of Hogwarts and rightly exploiting his visual medium to run the characters through each of the antagonists from the first books (they fight their way past a troll, giant spiders, a werewolf, Dementors, etc. in order). Rowling and director David Yates were similarly accused of allowing Harry Potter to end on a false high note: after the brutality of the Battle of Hogwarts and the heartwrenching list of the dead, the flash-forward to adult Harry and his peers all partnered up and waving their kids off to school is jarring and perhaps rings of a stitched-on ‘happy focus group’ fix.
However, in the adaptation Yates is able to affirm the complexity of the situation, the mixture of sadness and contentment on an actor’s face speaking of old wounds and strange unsettling alliances. It has a strange realism, where couples are together perhaps not because they are a perfect fit, but because they have shared both painful and wonderful experiences – and in the case of characters like Malfoy, because they have found people still willing to love them. It’s not pretty, it’s not always satisfying, but it is oddly truthful, and Yates believed in the strength of that ending.
It’s this shared pain that dictates Katniss’ decision to choose Peta, and that’s one of the reasons it should stay largely the same. Because people change, and this new battle-hardened woman has more in common with the boy who suffered through The Hunger Games with her than the Gale – that potential future husband of her childhood – of her origins. Gale is the lost possibility. Ironically, if Katniss had not been dragged into the rebellion that Gale then chose to become a lead figure in, they might have been able to live out that alternative life, subjugated in their society but making it through in a tight family bundle.
It’s the concept of family that really bookends the series as much as political struggle characterises its main narrative. Katniss sacrificed herself for Prim at the start and, heartwrenchingly, Prim is killed at the very end, working as a medic in a double bombing that aimed to kill the medical staff who rush to the aid of targeted children. It’s the cruelest, most horrific act of the entire series, and it’s genius. All Katniss really wanted to protect and save was lost – her sister, her home, her future with Gale. Her life with Prim and Gale is her life without the Mockingjay and Peta, under the thumb and threat of Snow’s Panem. The very limit of Snow’s evil is felt by Katniss at both ends of her story, inescapable, and is the reason Katniss could never have had the life she had hoped for, whatever she had chosen.
These films have a function, and often that function is to remind us that we can make change happen. They hold huge power when finished in the right way, and it’s for the fans to accept that adapting directors have every right to make huge changes, as long as they recognise the sparks of brilliance in the source material. Here’s hoping this wonderful series stays brave and strong, to the end.