Script Coverage Chronicles – November 2015: Screenwriting Lessons From The Hunger Games

In anticipation of Mockingjay Part 2, I recently took part in a Hunger Games marathon.  Watching the first three films in a row made me realize there are many things to learn from this franchise.  Here are a few of them:

(Warning: There are spoilers below.)

Protagonist Likeability Matters Big Time

It’s hard to get a more likeable protagonist than Katniss Everdeen.  Early on in the first film, she volunteers for almost certain death to save her little sister.  In screenwriting, we talk about “petting the dog” – meaning moments when characters do things that make us like them.  With this move to spare her little sis, Katniss does the equivalent of petting a million puppies.  It’s impossible not to root for her.

Don’t Make Your Main Character “Too” Heroic

Katniss is brave and self-sacrificing.  But she’s not robotically fearless.  She’s often overwhelmed by terror.  When asked to become a symbol for a revolution, she doesn’t jump into it like it’s what she’s born to do.  She’s reluctant, and she’s afraid of the consequences of her actions.  She doesn’t relish the role she has to play.  She hates it, but she does it anyway.  And that makes her compelling.

Give Your Heroes Help

Audiences love to see protagonists get help.  Katniss gets help from lots of different players: from her fighting mentor, from her clothing designer and from the other contestants in the games. 

Audiences seem to intuit that truly successful individuals rely on other people to succeed, and they respond when this truth is illustrated on screen.

Different.  Bigger.

In an action flick – or any other kind of cinematic fare – later scenes should be materially different from – and bigger than – earlier scenes. 

The games in the second HG film (Catching Fire) are very different in many ways from the games in the first movie – not just a retread, which would have been boring.  An aquatic opening is added.  A puzzle component is worked into the contest.  Things are different.  They’re also made bigger by using only victors of prior games, adding an all-star aspect.  

Different.  Bigger.  Simple formula.  Not as easy to execute as it sounds.

Keep Things Moving!

While devoted fans still loved it, some thought the third film (Mockingjay Part 1) didn’t meet the high standards of the first two films.  That’s probably because the third source novel was split into two movies, spreading the story thin.  Of course there are sound business reasons for this decision, and if I were an executive at Lionsgate I’d probably do the same.  Nevertheless, it makes for a slower pace in the third film than in the first two.  What we writers can learn from that is this: 

Keep things moving!  Make things happen.  Bring those conflicts closer and closer to their breaking points.  It doesn’t have to be actual explosions, but it should feel explosive.  It should feel like the first two installments of the Hunger Games. 

I liked the third movie, but it could have moved faster, and it could have been bigger. It could have had the moments I believe were saved for the last installment.  I’m definitely looking forward to that one.