Catching Fire is inventing new kinds of money to make. So, lest there was any doubt, there will be a Mockingjay movie. Or rather, two Mockingjay movies. Heck, they’re filming the movies right now; maybe they’ll squeeze out a third one in their spare time. Book-splitting isn’t so much a trend as it is Standard Operating Procedure for now: Popularized by Harry Potter, debased by Twilight, taken to ludicrous extremes by The Hobbit. But splitting up Mockingjay offers a particular challenge to the filmmakers: How do you turn that book into two different PG-13 movies?
I’m going to throw up a MINOR SPOILER ALERT here. I won’t address any specific plot points from Suzanne Collins’ trilogy-capper. But odds are good that you’ve read the book, and the odds are good that you have some fairly serious opinions about how Collins chose to wrap up her series. Catching Fire was, by comparison, a far easier book to adapt. The second book imitated the bifurcated structure of The Hunger Games — half prologue to the Hunger Games, half ridiculously tense real-time action scene set during the Hunger Games. By adding in the Quarter Quell twist, Collins also magnified the danger of the first book, pitting Katniss against previous winners in what amounted to The Hunger Games: All-Stars.
Narratively, this was a savvy move — and I know plenty of people who consider Catching Fire their favorite book. It also means that Catching Fire in movie form didn’t suffer from the transgressive kid-killing ick factor, something that the movie version of The Hunger Games dealt with by basically avoiding. To me, the first film’s bloodless violence always felt like a craven money-grubbing cheat: Gary Ross’ too-shaky camera worked hard to obscure the horror for mass appeal.
Francis Lawrence didn’t have to worry about that problem. The bad guys like Gloss and Cashmere look like action-movie henchmen. And this far into Jennifer Lawrence’s post-Oscar stardom, even Katniss doesn’t read like a teenager anymore. You could argue that Catching Fire as a whole is less concerned with actual violence than with casting a spell of general horror. In Hunger Games, the Arena was filled with little killers; in Catching Fire, it’s filled with poisonous fog and weird lightning and the screams of your loved ones, like a haunted house that transformed into a tropical jungle.
That is not what Mockingjay is, not at all, not even close. The final book in the Hunger Games saga is one of the bleakest closing installments of any series in recent mainstream history. There are regular scenes of wartime brutality and destruction. The closing act of the book is basically The Things They Carried with more homicidal lizard mutants. One beloved character gets decapitated. Another gets exploded. There are child soldiers and human shields and little dead corpses. This is miles away from, say, Deathly Hallows, where the wand-on-wand violence seemed practically designed for a PG-13 rating.
And the sheer amount of violence is only the exterior part of the story. Even more than its predecessors, Mockingjay is laser-focused on the psychology of violence. A major character reappears — after months of torture and brainwashing — and is basically a human ruin, riddled with PTSD and prone to lashing out at close friends. The decisions made by Katniss in the final act are extremely complicated on a moral level. Final acts of major movie franchises trend toward heroic self-sacrifice: Look at Deathly Hallows and Dark Knight Rises, where the heroes kinda-sorta-not-really “die”; look at Lost and Breaking Bad, with their eerily similar climactic crane shots.
All of this explains why a lot of people who love Hunger Games don’t really like Mockingjay. Personally, I love it: Love how Collins tears down any fragile notions about “good guys” and “bad guys,” love how she throws cold acid water all over the notion that Hunger Games has a love triangle, love how the only other threequel I can even think of comparing Mockingjay to is Alien 3. And because I like the book so much, I’m hard-pressed to figure out: How will they turn it into two audience-friendly PG-13 adventure films?
Because of course they will. They have to. It would be a bold move for Lionsgate to step up the violence in Mockingjay. But bold moves are for Harvey Weinstein, not for a franchise with potential kamillions of dollars hanging in the balance. And some people have argued that Mockingjay and all the Hunger Games movies should be PG-13, since they are based on books that were written for younger audiences.
This is the kind of argument that depends on believing in all kinds of ridiculously inane bits of conventional wisdom: The idea that children should be sheltered from seeing violent scenes they have already experienced in book form, the idea that onscreen violence is safe for children as long as there’s no fake blood, the idea that the MPAA is a trustworthy organization and not the stupidest group of puritanical half-wits on the face of the planet. But that argument has become the party line for Lionsgate. And unless Harvey Weinstein succeeds in dismantling the MPAA in the next 12 months, making Mockingjay a PG-13 film is the only way to guarantee that kids unaware of the arcane practice of “movie-hopping” will be able to see the movie. And kids should definitely see all of the Hunger Games films, since they promote good Christian values like Anti-Authoritarianism and Media Skepticism and Moral Relativism and Archery.
But what does Mockingjay look like as two different PG-13 films? There have been ultra-violent films in the superhero and fantasy genres: Think of the battle scenes in Return of the King or the 50 9/11′s that climax Man of Steel. But films like that take place in a heavily mediated universe, filled with fantasy creatures and digital effects. On the page, much of Mockingjay reads like Black Hawk Down or Saving Private Ryan: The violence is unrelenting. The closest comparison is probably Dark Knight Rises, which closes with a superficially similar urban-warfare sequence. But again: How many dead kids were there in Dark Knight Rises?
Mockingjay also has a lot more guns than those other movies, a fact that actually makes it more likely to get a PG-13 since the MPAA is useless. To say nothing of the possible bait for media controversy, should the gun-control issue flare up in the coming midterm election year. (Intriguingly, the Mockingjay films are being co-written by Danny Strong, who also worked on the politically charged scripts for Recount, Game Change, and The Butler.)
But I’m far more intrigued to see how the filmmakers handle all those deeper issues. Will they soften the ending? Will they neuter the general sense of all-encompassing bleakness that runs throughout the book? And if they don’t do any of that — if they tell a relatively straight adaptation of Mockingjay, except without blood — then how does Mockingjay Part 2 not become a symbol for just how meaningless the PG-13 rating has become?