The Hunger Games is set to have the highest grossing opening weekend of all time for a non-sequel movie. What makes the story work? What can we learn from this smash hit?
- Go hard or go home. In the theater, people audibly gasped when a child was slaughtered onscreen. (Especially Rue– the grown man next to me was crying when she got killed.) In an interview, the marketing team said they were careful to make sure the Hunger Games wasn’t branded as ‘that child-killing movie.’ That’s why you never actually see any footage of the games in any of the trailers, even though everyone knew what happened anyways. In the book, Suzanne Collins was ruthless with killing off characters we loved (Rue, and some other major characters later in the series) so that just when we thought we knew what would happen next, she shocked us again. Believe it or not, The Hunger Games was a risky film. But because of the omnipotence of the marketing, the strength of the story, and the compelling characters, the risks paid off. Don’t just injure your characters, kill them. Don’t let them get off easy if they do survive. Drive them to almost committing suicide in order to wring every ounce of resolve and emotion from them.
- Make your hero sympathetic. In the opening sequence, Katniss is comforting her sister. She’s hunting for food to feed her family. She saves Rue. Again and again, we feel for her. We care about her when she’s injured. We want her to succeed because she is noble and good. Even in the end, she only kills Cato to put him out of his misery when he is being attacked by the dogs.
- Structure and pacing. The Hunger Games was a long movie, but the pacing was perfect because of several reasons. First, all of the story beats were strong and in the right places. The reaping (catalyst), the ride to the Capitol (act break), the games beginning (midpoint), reuniting with Gale (act break), the hounds and the battle with Cato (rallying the troops/final battle) and Gale and Katniss eating the berries (the high tower surprise), and the closing scenes. These are all powerful story beats, and each of them drive the story forward and have a built in urgency (survive the longest) stakes (lose and you die) and goals for each character. So go to your script and check to see if you can strengthen your story beats or raise the stakes for your characters.
- Entertainment above political messages. Does the Hunger Games have political and social themes? Absolutely, but the story comes first. The reason films like Atlas Shrugged don’t appeal to wide audiences is because they lay the controversial political messages on thick. If you don’t agree with the message of the film, you won’t like the film itself. The political undertones of The Hunger Games is not put before the story, and so it can be interpreted differently depending on your views.
- Create an impossible goal. Successful franchises make their hero overcome impossible goals, like surviving in a ring with 24 other killer children out to murder you and the game master flinging fire balls at you. That’s why it’s Mission Impossible, not Mission Mildly Difficult. Would you shell out fifteen bucks to see The Alright Gatsby? What about a movie about Alexander the Decent? You think people aspire to climb The Okay Wall of China? The Admissible Depression? The Not Bad Barrier Reef? Goodness Gracious Moderate Balls of Fire? The Passable Plains? Ivan the Not So Bad? The Adequate Escape? The Sufficient Lakes? Slightly Above Average Britain?
That’s right. I commit to my metaphors.
Go hard or go home.