'The Hunger Games': How the dystopian film series changed the film industry

The 'Hunger Games' movies became box office champions, sparking the dystopian film craze.

Murray Close/Lionsgate/AP/File
The 'Hunger Games' film series stars Jennifer Lawrence.

As “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2” comes to theaters, one of the most lucrative young adult movie franchises (and most lucrative franchises, period) comes to a close.

The “Games” movies, which center on a young teenager (Jennifer Lawrence) forced to enter a deadly competition and go up against a totalitarian government, have been some of the highest-grossing films of the last several years. The movies followed the publication of the incredibly successful dystopian young adult trilogy by Suzanne Collins. 

What effect have the “Games” movies had on Hollywood? Will we still be seeing their influence for years to come? 

One aspect of the books and movies that was praised by many was “Games” protagonist Katniss Everdeen, who volunteers for the deadly Hunger Games to save her younger sister and who is known for her skill with a bow and arrow. The contrast seemed especially stark when moviegoers compared the characters of “Games” to a movie series that was still being released when “Games” came out, the “Twilight” films.

“Twilight” protagonist Bella had been criticized by many for her lack of defining qualities and her eager participation in what many considered an unhealthy relationship.

Brainy Hermione of the recent “Harry Potter” series was widely praised, but it’s not her name on the book cover.

Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, spoke recently about female roles onscreen.

“It’s been a long time coming with good female protagonists," Mr. Thompson said. "Now we’re seeing many female superheroes.” But Katniss is different, Thompson points out. “Katniss is much more a regular human being,” he says. She isn't flying like Supergirl.

Is it a good development that women are now picking up the weapons, as Katniss does with her bow and arrow? That of course depends on your point of view. But it’s certainly something that’s still unusual. “We had had so many years of action heroes,” Thompson says.

The massive success of the “Games” films could be said to have created the current dystopian craze. It’s a popularity boom we’re still in the middle of, as the “Divergent” movie series, based on the books by Veronica Roth, and the “Maze Runner” films, based on the books by James Dashner, continue to come to theaters (two more “Divergent” movies are due and one more “Maze” movie is on its way). Another movie titled “The 5th Wave,” also based on a book, arrives this January. Some dystopian films haven’t found audiences, such as this past summer’s “The Giver.” 

Will audiences get tired of these depictions of gloomy societies? They can still hit it big – the first “Maze” movie debuted in 2014 and found enough of an audience to spawn the rest of the series. When one dystopian young adult film scores, it does well enough to no doubt give hope to Hollywood and have studio executives plotting new stories. Thompson says he doesn’t see these going anywhere anytime soon because they continue to appeal to us as a culture. “When did we not feel we were in a dangerous, dystopian society?” he says.

In addition, moviegoers who see “Mockingjay” this weekend and didn’t read the “Games” books may be surprised by the ending of the story. 

(Spoilers follow…)

Unlike the ra-ra endings of stories like “Harry Potter” and “Twilight,” where the series conclude with the villains being defeated and the characters’ problems apparently over, “Games” ends on a somewhat more ambiguous note. At the end of “Mockingjay,” Katniss discovers that the rebel force for which she’s been fighting has committed deeds at least as evil as the government she has been battling. In the climactic moment, she decides to kill the rebel leader. 

“It’s less cliché,” Thompson says and notes that real revolutions don’t always have picture-perfect endings, either. “It’s not like it doesn’t reflect history. Look at the ideals of the French Revolution.” 

What effect does a more ambiguous ending like that have on young viewers? Thompson says young adults and even children want different kinds of stories just like adults do. “One vision of the universe is what we see in Hogwarts and all those characters,” Thompson says. “Games” is another.

What also makes “Games” unusual? That the series may really be over.

“Potter” writer J.K. Rowling is writing a screenplay for an all-new movie set in the “Potter” universe titled “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” which will come out next year. “Twilight” author Stephenie Meyer recently held a contest in which female directors created short films based on Meyers’ books and the pieces were released online earlier this year. Movie properties that filmgoers believed to be over like “Star Wars” are returning. 

But will moviegoers return to Katniss’s world of Panem? As far as we know, no. There’s no news of new books by Collins, a film-only sequel, or a spin-off set in the same world.

Filmgoers may actually be saying goodbye to Katniss and her fictional world. 

They'll begin doing so on Nov. 20, when "Mockingjay – Part 2" hits theaters.

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