Prior to this weekend, I’d learned to simply accept that the parti-fication of Hollywood blockbusters is here to stay, i.e., the trend of splitting the final installments in franchises in two even if there isn’t really enough story to fill two movies. Harry Potter did it, and Twilight followed suit. The Hobbit improbably joined the game with The Desolation of Smaug last, Hunger Games is taking its turn right now with Mockingjay-Part 1, and come 2016 it’ll be Divergent’s turn with Allegiant-Part 1. Looking even further down the road, this trend is no longer exclusive to YA franchises; it has ensnared comic books, too. Avengers: Infinity War is going to be a Part 1/Part 2 affair, and Warner Bros.’ Justice League is immediately going into Part 1/Part 2 territory. While the jury is still out on how this will play out with the comic book movies, this parti-fication of the YA franchises is a purely financial decision that translates to films which don’t really work as films because the story being told simply was not designed to be cut in half. It’s annoying, with plenty of, “It was okay, but it ended right when things were getting good,” reactions, but as long as parti-fication is not punished at the box office by consumers Hollywood will keep doing it because who is seriously going to turn two paydays in favor just one?
Well, it looks like Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1 was just punished by consumers, turning in the lowest opening weekend in franchise history, coming in $25 million below what the experts had predicted. Or maybe it was simply punished for having to compete against Big Hero 6 and Interstellar, the ladder of which kept Mockingjay out of IMAX theaters. It’s probably a combination of both. Reviews like this one certainly didn’t help, “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 might be the longest prologue in the history of world fiction. After two hours of political negotiations, nightmares, comas, inspiring monologues, training sequences, leisurely mess-hall conversations, and no less than two lengthy, mournful interludes in the same bombed-out village, the stage is finally set for… the closing credits. To get the payoff, you’ll have to wait a whole year—and pay a whole additional ticket price—for ‘The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.”
This box office performance is just enough to introduce doubt as to whether or not audiences are starting to turn on the parti-fication trend. We’ve been through this already with Harry Potter, Twilight, and The Hobbit. Eventually, you get really tired of walking out of a theater with no sense of closure, frustrated that what you saw didn’t so much reach a natural conclusion but instead simply stopped right as things were about to get good. I know that was my exact reaction when I left Desolation of Smaug last year, pushed to the edge of my seat by Bilbo’s harrowing encounter with Smaug, excited to finally see some pay-off in a film series seriously lacking in forward momentum only to have the dang screen cut to black right as I couldn’t wait to see what happened next.
It’s all Harry Potter’s fault. Before The Deathly Hallows, we’d had the occasional film franchise shoot sequels back-to-back, most notably the first two Superman films, Back to the Future 2 and 3, The Matrix Revolutions and Matrix Reloaded, and The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Those films tried to make their individual installments at least feel like chapters of a larger story, and regardless of whether or not they were successful with that it didn’t matter because their model of filmmaking was still predicated on a non-repeatable formula. For example, you couldn’t cynically cut and paste what Universal did with Back to the Future because that was an original concept from the minds of Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale. Harry Potter, on the other hand, wasn’t the only YA film franchise in Hollywood with thoughts of splitting its final book into two films.
As a Harry Potter fan, I was actually relieved when Warner Bros. first announced it was going to split Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows into two films. I had lovingly poured over all 759 pages of the book, and I had no idea how they were going to fit everything into one movie without getting into interminably long Return of the King territory. The prior films in the franchise had been forced to cut massive portions of the books largely because good ole J.K. Rowling kept making the books longer and longer, and some of the stuff they cut was remarkably significant. Thankfully, WB wasn’t going to screw around with that nonsense this time. We would get the Deathly Hallows film we deserved even if that meant it would arrive in two installments. There was no possible way this would actually translate to individual films which would be entirely satisfactory on their own because the story simply was not designed to be told in two halves. However, it also meant I’d have two more experiences seeing a new Harry Potter film at midnight instead of just one.
I didn’t envy the people who had to figure out where exactly to split the book in half, and while I realized the decision was an obvious financial coup for the studio I didn’t begrudge their effort to squeeze out an extra payday when the book in question was such an unruly beast. So, when Deathly Hallows-Part 1 arrived and didn’t so much reach a conclusion but instead simply abruptly stopped I was annoyed yet not surprised. Of course, Deathly Hallows-Part 2 also didn’t feel like an actual full film, simply the action-packed resolution of all the exposition set up in Part 1. Again, I didn’t really mind because I didn’t know how it could have been done any differently without sacrificing those things I, as a fan of the novel, was convinced needed to find their way up on screen.
I’ve had a very different experience with Twilight, Hunger Games, and The Hobbit. I’ve never read any of the Twilight or Hunger Games books, and I haven’t read The Hobbit in so long that I’ve forgotten large parts of it. When I heard people say there wasn’t enough story to warrant splitting the final Twilight into two films I believed them, and I’ve had to shake my head when people point out that the final Hunger Games novel is only 390 pages long yet it get two films whereas Catching Fire is 391 pages long and it translated to an entirely satisfactory single film. That’s nothing compared to a 333-page children’s book (Hobbit) getting three films roughly adding up to 9 hours of film, the extra padding coming from Tolkien’s appendices or simply made up by Peter Jackson and his screenwriters. From the outside looking in, both Twilight and Hunger Games’ parti-fications seem like clear cash-grabs whereas The Hobbit is an obvious misguided labor of love from a director who shot too way much footage and wants everything to match up with Lord of the Rings in ways Tolkien himself never quite managed. However, when I was on the other side of this thing I was overjoyed that Deathly Hallows was going to be 2 films. That might speak to how much this parti-fication is aimed at ostensibly pleasing the hardcore fans.
In his review of Mockingjay: Part 1, Devin Faraci of BadAssDigest concluded:
“That Part 1 is unfulfilling in total isn’t because of director Francis Lawrence or the screenwriters who adapted Suzanne Collins’ novel – it’s because of the marketing guys who made the choice to cut this movie in half. If Part 2 satisfactorily knocks down the dominoes this film has set up, in twenty years we won’t even think twice about their release pattern. We’ll just be talking about how great The Hunger Games quartet was as serious social commentary science fiction.”
In the moment, Mockingjay’s box office performance has demanded a re-examination of this parti-fication of Hollywood blockbusters, but in the long term Faraci might be right. Maybe 20 years from now we won’t remember how much Part 1 fails as an individual film. I say that optimistically. However, I know that in my individual experience I still remember how frustrating it was walking out of The Matrix Revolutions and feeling like things were finally starting to get good right before it cut to black. As much as I gave The Deathly Hallows a pass at the time, they both remain my least re-watched Harry Potter films because in my mind they’ve now combined into one time-consuming 4 hour film, and I’m still a little mad that I’ve had to wait a year to see how exactly they take down Smaug since the Desolation of Smaug punted that to the next movie.
The immediate question is whether or not audiences are turning on the parti-fication trend at the box office, and the longterm question is whether or not we’ll forgive these films their sins when we’re far enough down the road to be able to watch them back to back. So, 20 years from now will we really care how these movies were released?