So I went to see Mockingjay last week, with some of my (great many) friends. Great day out, really. I might even be persuaded to leave my room more often.
It’s an excellent film, to say the least. Remarkably well acted, and similarly well directed. I’m actually pretty glad they split the film into two parts, because it meant that they could fit a lot of smaller details into the film which would otherwise have been cut. One of my favourite things, in fact, of the whole film, was the fact that Katniss kept playing with a little pearl. It was a very subtle, understated callback to the last film – because Peeta gave her that pearl, the last time they saw each other – and it was quite poignant in and of itself.
What was interesting though, I think, is that there’s been a sort of a complaint that not much happened in this film. Which, I mean, technically that’s true; a lot of what goes on is set up for the next film, because this is only half a book. This is the build up part of the plot, after all. (It’s something like 180 pages of a three hundred or so page book, if I recall correctly.)
If it wasn’t for the fact that Mockingjay was an adaptation of a book, they wouldn’t actually be able to get away with something like that. If this was a film based franchise only, with all new characters, this isn’t how you’d structure the film. A lot of things would have to be changed.
The pearl that I liked so much? That’d have to be changed. It’d have to be explained, at the very least – and it wasn’t in this film. It was expected that the audience would get it, because the pearl was a moment from the book. There’s quite a few other bits like that – scenes and images that were kept it for no other apparent reason than the fact they were in the book. A few of them were stretched a little, like the cat and the torch sequence – something like that, which is meant to be quite introspective, worked a lot better in first person prose than it did in the film, which needed a few lines of slightly clunky dialogue to explain it.
Those are both moments that made their way into the film more or less solely because they were in the book. You can make a solid case for the pearl having some dramatic weight, I think, but the fact is that the majority of people wouldn’t notice it. Same goes for the cat – that really only works, I think, if you’re aware of where it comes from.
It’s worth mentioning then, in case it wasn’t already obvious, that Mockingjay was an extremely faithful adaptation of its source material. Certain things were cut for convenience – a lot of stuff about District 13s routine, and Dalton the cattle farmer, but even that was hinted at (in certain scenes you can see the schedule tattoos on their arms). The only other big change was to bring in Effie rather than the three stylists – which, I think it’s fair to say, was an entirely sensible decision.
Other than that, it was basically a straight adaptation of the text. I’d actually be willing to bet that a large amount of the dialogue was lifted word for word.
Isn’t that interesting? I find it pretty interesting. (That’s why I’ve written so much about it.) This represents a shift in the selling point of movies that have been adapted from novels; it’s not trying to be a movie in it’s own right, the whole point is specifically to be an adaptation of a book. Or, no, not an adaptation – a retelling of a book, as exactly as is possible. It’s a revolution, if you will – a revolution of ideas, and the way we interact with them in different forms, as well as the way we want to interact with them.
I mean, up to a point, that’s always been part of the motive – if a movie studio can guarantee a pre existing audience, then yes, they’re likely to find the prospect to be a little bit more lucrative. But I think it’s fair to say that now it’s not about generating another audience alongside the one that already exists; studios are making films where they can bank on the fact that most of their audience is familiar with the text, and the text is exactly what they want to see.
A few years back, Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief got fairly lukewarm reception from the fans, because of quite how different it was from the book. (Personally, the changes didn’t bother me, and all made a fair degree of sense, but I understand the annoyance.) Now, I haven’t seen the second film, though I believe it was significantly more in line with the book – you can see from the trailer they changed the minutiae only fans care about, like the hair colour of Annabeth – and I’d be willing to bet that was because of the reaction of fans. (I’ve not looked that up or anything, of course, so if I’m wrong, do correct me.)
I wonder, actually, to what extent that’s a good idea. There’s differences between books and films as a medium, obviously, because they’re pretty different things. There’s stuff you can get away with in a book that you can’t in a movie, and vice versa; ways for things to be presented, or information conveyed, emotions shown, plot developments to occur, that sort of idea. What makes a good book won’t always make a good movie.
So, practically, I’m a little bit dubious. And yet, equally, I really did love Mockingjay, and the way it adhered to the book quite so strongly. My favourite books ever, the Skulduggery Pleasant series, would probably be highly impractical to adapt straight, given the length of them – 9 books, quite a few all over 500 pages? That’s going to work out at something like 14 films, given the length of them, and there’s no way at all that’s viable, or a good idea. But… as much as my practical mind says no, I’d love a series of movies that are faithful to the letter.
And movie studios seem to recognise that. Before Mockingjay came out, if you’d asked me, I would never have expected the pearl to be in the film, nor for the cat and torch sequence. Because they don’t seem like the sort of moments which would get priority, if you’re trying to tell the story like it’s new.
But if you’re trying to retell a story to a group of people who already know what to expect, and know exactly what they want to see… then yes, that’s the sort of moment you include.
And I find that absolutely fascinating. Where will this go? I mean, with Mockingjay, it worked. It absolutely and unreservedly worked. The longer run time supported this sort of thing, the inclusion of little moments. The actors could all support that sort of thing, and imply a lot of the emotions that had to be left unspoken, because of the nature of what was being adapted.
But it can’t always work, surely. There won’t always be books that can rely on the audience knowing the source material by heart, and there won’t always be times where a direct adaptation is possible.
So I wonder how these things will change next. And I really hope that, when they change next, the films will still be as good as Mockingjay.