Where WB Went Wrong
When I complain about the Harry Potter movies, one of the most common responses I get is that I simply expect too much from the movies. Which may be a legitimate point: I do expect a lot. But after this weekend, I can say that I do not expect the impossible, because I just watched The Hunger Games. And that is the most flawless book adaptation I have seen in the last decade (and I have seen a great many book adaptations of varying quality). So I will take a look at my main complaints with the Potter series, and why most of them don’t apply to Hunger Games. Spoiler alert now, for the Hunger Games movie and books. SPOILER ALERT!!!
Also, to clarify, none of these complaints except the first one apply to Sorcerer’s Stone or Chamber of Secrets, which I thought were excellent. It was the rest of the Harry Potter movies that I found lacking, and here is what WB should have done differently.
Here are the 7 steps to making a good book adaptation.
#1: Wait until all the books are out!
This honestly seems like the biggest no-brainer: if your source material isn’t ready, don’t make the movie! Of course, it’s tempting to build on the hype and churn movies out while the iron is hot, but it comes back to bite you in the butt. Many of the later Potter movies’ shortcomings are due to things left out in the earlier ones, and many of these gaffes were unintentional. For example, who could have known how important Dobby and Kreacher would be in Deathly Hallows back when they were making movies 4 and 5?
In fact, Potter is one of very few book adaptations to have done so – most wait until the series is complete and the filmmakers know what they need to leave in or take out. And Potter is the only such adaptation that didn’t end in disaster – look at Eragon (by popular consent, the worst book adaptation) or Series of Unfortunate Events (which I think is a better movie than people give it credit for, but I’m not a big fan of the source material).
The rush behind the Potter films is absurd in retrospect – when the films started, only half the series had been released, and they were making the third movie when there were still only four books out! The filmmakers are lucky that Jo sped up her writing (three years for Order of the Phoenix, two years each for the last two books), otherwise they would have been making the films as soon as the corresponding book came out! And they cut it rather close: as we remember, Book 7 came out right after Movie 5.
As for the business side of things, this seems to be the byproduct of impatience rather than sound business decisions. Releasing the movies soon after the books finished would have worked just fine, as evident by Hunger Games. People would not have forgotten something like Harry Potter in a year or two. Indeed, once the books were all out, the fandom focused more intensely on the movies, instead of the two mediums competing for attention (and the films usually coming off worse).
If the filmmakers had just waited, perhaps they would have known to include the two-way mirror, more of Snape’s Worst Memory, Bill Weasley, Mundungus Fletcher, and so much more. If Hunger Games had commenced filming before the series concluded, they would likely have made Haymitch mere comic relief, or would have excluded the very powerful scene of rebellion in District 11. And nearly two years after the books finished, Hunger Games looks poised to make as much money as a Potter or Twilight film, if not more!
#2: Follow the source material!
Do I want a word-for-word adaptation of the book? No, not necessarily. Book and film are two different mediums, and need different treatment. That is why I am okay with the exclusion of Marietta Edgecombe in Movie 5, or Madge Undersee in Hunger Games – neither is essential to the plot, and is therefore expendable.
But the filmmakers should respect the source material enough to keep the major points intact! Things like the Marauders’ backstory in Prisoner of Azkaban, the memories in Half-Blood Prince, and Dumbledore not having anger management problems in Movie 3 onwards are all things that are integral to the plot and should have been left in.
Admittedly, a lot of adaptations suffer from this; case in point is Percy Jackson, which is not an adaptation of, but appears loosely inspired by the book. And sure enough, that movie did very poorly. And it wasn’t even the biggest such disaster; I believe that dubious honor goes to Inkheart, which I had the great misfortune of seeing, though I am one of very few who did.
The Hunger Games, on the other hand, almost flawlessly adapts the book. All of the important scenes are in the film, leaving fans to nitpick the very minor things. My biggest complaint was the exclusion of the muttations, because that was the most horrific thing in the book and showed how truly twisted the Gamemakers are. But the movie kept the plot and characters intact, and most of all, it captured the spirit of the books. The horror of the world, how sick and twisted it is, was all properly conveyed.
The same cannot be said for the Potter films, the latter half of which seem to lack all the magic present in the books. Instead of the magic of Rowling’s world, we are treated to films that are “darker” – except David Yates took that literally, and made the movies monochromatic to convey “darkness” to us, failing miserably at making us feel the same way the books do.
There is also the matter of visuals. The one surefire way to alienate hardcore book fans is to make inessential changes from the book. I can understand why Ludo Bagman was cut from Goblet of Fire, but for the life of me, I don’t see why they couldn’t have put Hermione in a blue dress at the Yule Ball instead of pink. If Hunger Games had put Katniss in a pink dress at the Tribute Parade instead of the “girl on fire” dress, there would have been hell to pay from the fans. The effectiveness of the fiery dress can be debated (though I liked it!), but the filmmakers tried, and the fans appreciate that. Whereas in Harry Potter, the wizards don’t even wear robes most of the time! The small changes only serve to remind fans of the bigger changes, and breed a lot of resentment.
#3: Make a good movie!
Yes, in addition to adapting the books properly, the filmmakers should make a good film series that could stand on its own! Sure, we book fans can simply project our knowledge and emotions onto the film and fill in the gaps. But book fans alone are very rarely enough for a successful film. There have been 24 million Hunger Games books sold in the US, and about that many people will see the movie in the opening weekend alone. But then what?
Then, the rest of the public will go see it. I watched the movie next to people who hadn’t read the books, and they could follow the movie perfectly. Whereas I’m sure many of you have had the experience of watching a Potter film with a Muggle, and needing to turn to them every five minutes to explain something. Sometime in the last few years, WB seemingly decided that if you hadn’t read Harry Potter, then tough cookies – which was in their power to do, because the Potter fandom is so extensive that they didn’t need other people. Therefore, two-way mirrors popped out of nowhere, references were made to Teddy Lupin who doesn’t exist in the movie universe, and so on.
But other book adaptations cannot afford to do this, and therefore have to make the movies actual good movies. This worked for Golden Compass, which I thought was a thoroughly enjoyable movie (and the entire world except the United States thought so too, but because of complex financial deals, the movie bankrupted New Line because the film wasn’t popular in the US). This also worked for Narnia, where the adaptations were somewhat irreverent of the books, but ended up being great movies and raking in money.
If the film is good, then critics like it. Hunger Games is at over 80% on review site Rotten Tomatoes, which surpasses most of the Potter films. And if the film is good, only then will it get award recognition, because the Academy that gives out Oscars likely hasn’t read Potter, and the movies certainly didn’t merit any awards on their own. While it is certainly too early to tell, I’m guessing Hunger Games will have some buzz in the coming awards season, because it is a fantastic movie by itself.
#4: Casting matters!
By and large, the Harry Potter casting directors have done good jobs. But there are some decisions they made that just seemed like very poor choices. Because not only do the actors have to be good, they also have to embody a character. This is why Gary Oldman, a fantastic actor, is a dreadful Sirius – he does not look like Sirius or act like Sirius. Same goes for Michael Gambon as Dumbledore, a casting travesty if I ever saw one. So while they did a great job with the likes of Maggie Smitch, Imelda Staunton, Richard Harris, and Alan Rickman, the Harry Potter films would have benefited from more meticulous casting.
The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is perfectly cast. Maybe Haymitch is a bit more together in the movie, and Effie a little less hyper, but on the whole they do a fantastic job embodying their characters, and I really cannot think of a single important character I feel was terribly miscast.
Then there comes the question of the lead roles. I will give Potter the edge here, because they cast the main seven (Harry, Ron, Hermione, Neville, Ginny, Luna, Draco) almost perfectly – surely they could not have known what a disaster Dan Radcliffe would grow up to be, and the other six are great. As for Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence is a perfect Katniss and Josh Hutcherson does a great job as Peeta, but Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is rather lacking. Gale just seems way too mellow in the movie, not really conveying emotions.
#5: Leave the romance to Twilight!
Both Harry Potter and Hunger Games are guilty of falling into the Hollywood trap of amping up romantic tension. Hunger Games does a good job for the most part, but tries too hard to present a love triangle. Every single Katniss/Peeta moment is interrupted by a shot of Gale angsting that completely interrupts the movie’s flow, and actually drew laughs at my theater.
But the romance in Harry Potter was a complete fiasco. Steve Kloves is a delusional Harmonian, writing the films in that direction. Then the filmmakers realized at the last second that Ron and Hermione end up together, and essentially threw them at each other out of the blue. They also tried to present Harry/Ginny to us, but the two had no chemistry in the movies (because Dan has none of Harry’s charisma), and that coupled with awful scenes about shoe-tying to present a very unconvincing picture.
This is really a problem for almost all book adaptations in Hollywood. One just has to look at Narnia, where Susan and Prince Caspian magically find love at the end of Prince Caspian, with no such romance in the book. Completely unnecessary.
I can only hope the Hunger Games filmmakers don’t get carried away with the romance as badly as the Potter ones did. Because in Order of the Phoenix, we have a scene of Harry and Cho making out right in front of a picture of Cedric, which is just so many levels of inappropriate.
#6: Leave the explosions to Transformers!
If we wanted to see a lot of things go boom, we’d watch action movies or play video games. WB seems to have forgotten that throwing millions of dollars at a movie to create a lot of lackluster special effects is not an adequate substitute for telling a good story. Half of the last Harry Potter film seems to be scenes of Hogwarts being destroyed, most of which were superfluous.
Hunger Games, on the other hand, goes for story over spectacle. It would have been very easy to fill the movie with fancy CGI shots of the Capitol and expensive explosions in the arena. Instead, they show us just enough to give us a sense of the world, but rely on the characters to tell the story.
This also has the added advantage of keeping the budget under control, something all book adaptations struggle with. Here are some numbers to think about.
Golden Compass cost $180 million to make. It cost New Line so much money, they could not even afford to distribute the movie outside the US, and sold foreign rights. Golden Compass bombed in the US with $70 million, and made over $200 million overseas that New Line did not get. New Line went bankrupt.
The first Narnia cost $180 million, but made a huge profit with $290 million in the US and about $450M overseas. The second had a budget ballooning to $225M, but made half as much money as the first and incurred a loss. Disney dropped the franchise, which was picked up by Fox, who slashed the budget in half for the third and made a small profit.
Percy Jackson was more reasonable, with a budget of $95 million. It made a little less than that domestically, and about $140M overseas, so it broke even (studios receive about half the money).
Eragon’s budget was similar, $100 million. It made $75M domestically, $175M overseas, made very little money total.
Spiderwick Chronicles cost $90 million. It made $70M domestically, $90M overseas, and incurred a loss.
Harry Potter’s budgets skyrocketed to around $200 million apiece for the latter half of the movies, reaching a pinnacle with Movie 6’s $250 million. The movies (with the exception of the first three and last one) all made around $290M domestically, and about $650M overseas, giving WB a comfortable profit of $300 million on each movie, which shows why WB threw so much money at this franchise.
However, all of these budgets are from a few years ago, and the numbers would go up significantly with inflation. And none of them take into account marketing costs, which for Harry Potter were reportedly upwards of $100 million per movie. Keep that in mind for the next statement.
The Hunger Games cost $80 million to make, and its marketing budget is a meager $45 million. It will break even on its production budget in the opening weekend in the United States alone. And it cost less than any of these other films, not even factoring in inflation, and will make more than their totals (excluding Potter and Narnia) in the first two days. It looks poised to make nearly as much money as a Harry Potter film, and can you imagine the money Lionsgate will be rolling around in?
And I defy anyone to say Hunger Games looks much worse than any of these other films. Leaving out the excessive CGI not only helps keep the story focused, it is remarkably cost-effective.
#7: Market the movie well!
Lionsgate’s marketing of The Hunger Games is a textbook example of how to market a film: show enough to get people interested, but don’t show the whole film! If one were to watch all the advance material released before a Potter movie, he wouldn’t even need to go see the actual movie! I made this mistake before Order of the Phoenix and watched all the preview clips and trailers, and then while watching the movie I was surprised to find that I had seen most of it already. The trailers show all the most important parts, lots of scenes are released early… the hosts of MuggleCast have complained about it in nearly every trailer review episode, and I quite agree.
As for Hunger Games, they have not shown a single scene from the actual Hunger Games! Their marketing has been omnipresent, with posters and billboards, trailers and teasers, but the only part of the main action we’ve seen is the initial sprint for the Cornucopia. We get plenty of material from the first half of the movie, such as the Reaping and the Capitol, but everyone was on the edge of their seat throughout the second half of the movie waiting to see what happens.
In fact, I find the Hunger Games trailers to be far more intriguing than the Potter ones, showing coherent bits of scenes that pull on my heartstrings. Compare this to Harry Potter trailers, with their split-second flashes and audio of Voldemort screaming and muffled yells of “Harry!” If the Hunger Games trailers were like that, we would have seen flashes of a dead Rue, Katniss and Peeta holding nightlock, and the cave kiss, all to audio of the characters screaming. Flashy, but not as effective. And while I enjoy freeze-framing Potter trailers as much as any other fan, Muggles I’ve spoken to were not convinced by the trailers.
So there is my summary of how WB mishandled the franchise. They were too impatient, and started making the films too early. Ignoring the amazing source material they had, they threw out important plot points, had iffy casting, and completely garbled the romance. They then decided not to bother making a coherent movie for non-fans, compensated by throwing money into CGI spectacle, and mis-marketed the whole thing.
And Hunger Games, at least for now, does not have these problems. To be fair, neither did Harry Potter at first, which is why the first two movies remain my favorites. But things very quickly went downhill, and I really hope that does not happen for the Hunger Games franchise. Right now, things are looking very rosy for this new film franchise. As for Harry Potter, at least we still have the books, with a conclusion infinitely more satisfying than the mess that Mockingjay was.