There are plenty of potential reasons why “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 2" failed to ignite the U.S. box office in the manner of past installments. Results for the fourth and final film dropped off from a high of $158 million for the series’ second film two years ago to a relatively small $101 million this weekend, and you can spend a good while, if you’re so inclined, looking at what went wrong and what that says about the durability of young-adult franchises. (Stop dividing final books into two movies, for starters.)
One factor that may not have helped, though, was an element that was once among the franchise’s great virtues: Jennifer Lawrence.
Lawrence is, to be sure, a very strong actress and a very popular presence, two commodities you want if you’re mounting a mega-franchise (especially if other aspects of the work can be a little wobbly). But in the past two films and particularly in this one, she also comes with a certain kind of baggage — namely, she seems significantly older than the part, substantially bigger than it, in a way that is distracting at best and at times even directly counter to the movies’ aims of portraying a hardened youth. She seems, in other words, to have outgrown the role.
These impressions are personal, of course. But from the moment she came on-screen in this film to her definitive act with a bow near its end, she felt a little off somehow. Lawrence has been the embodiment of Katniss Everdeen since the first book came to the screen in 2012, so it’s not as though I didn’t believe her as the character. I just didn’t quite believe what she was doing on its behalf.
Part of it, I think, is a simple matter of age. Katniss is 16 in the first book, which didn’t seem like such a stretch when Lawrence began shooting the role, in the spring of 2011, at the age of 20. But the book on which the “Mockingjay” movies are based have her aging just one year, to 17, and she’s now 25 in real life. That’s a much bigger spread.
And though Lawrence maintains a kind of youthful exuberance in her public persona, her on-screen evolution elsewhere has happened fast. In fact, she’s often had a sophistication to play parts far older than her age—in “Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle” she starred as characters as much as 15 years older than she was. Her next collaboration with David O. Russell, as a housewife who developed innovative products in “Joy,” has her playing someone about a decade older.
If you’re a 25-year-old who can plausibly play 35 or 40, it’s not easy to then turn around and play someone 17--even if it’s a 17-year-old who’s, you know, seen things.
But it was more than just Lawrence outgrowing the role physically. Actors grow up in franchises all the time. Often it does not hinder the on-screen arc; in the cases of some, like Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson in the “Harry Potter” movies, or Kristen Stewart in “Twilight,” such maturation enhances it. But what happened with Lawrence may have been different, and trickier.
As a public figure, Stewart gained a little more composure in the four years between the first and final “Twilight” movie, but she was still, at least as far her image went, more or less the same person. Lawrence has had a much more radical arc, moving from the post-"Winter’s Bone” indie ingenue she was when she started “The Hunger Games” to an assured and veteran Hollywood presence when she finished it. She won an Oscar between shooting the first and second films. She also became more outspoken on women’s issues -- first unintentionally, because of a hack of her private images, and then more recently and proactively, on issues of equal pay. Her evolution as a public figure simply moved faster than the role.
“Hunger Games” filmmakers ran into the downside of a trade-off you make whenever you cast people who are not fully formed. On the one hand, you get someone who can grow with the series, creating a kind of real-time “Boyhood” effect. But on the other hand, the actors could grow in ways that are faster or different from what you anticipate (see under: the "Modern Family” kids).
Lionsgate sought to move quickly; it managed to release four movies in the span of 44 months. Like the boy-band manager who realizes his stars’ voices are deepening a little too fast, the studio pushed as hard as it could. But it could go only so far.
Producers would argue that actor aging is OK because the character has grown rapidly too; any accelerated maturation off-screen only serves to highlight just how quickly Katniss herself has had to grow up. It’s a point. But that doesn’t quite track with the story. The character, after all, had already seen plenty of hardship after just one stint in the Arena. If there’s a major change from low-key MacGyver to battle-forged iconoclast, that swing would have happened during the first film, or between the first and the second. And, in any event, I’m not sure it works that way for audiences. You can know on some rational level that a character has gone through changes, but when you’re so fully aware of all the development the actress has gone through off-screen, it still creates a mismatch.
On one level the whole too young/too old debate when it comes to actors is academic. Hollywood creates fantasies all the time, so someone skewing one way or the other doesn’t have to be a big deal. But if there’s a character we know well from the page, and an actress we know well from her public life, and the two seem pretty divergent, it can make the suspension of disbelief be just a little too hard.
Whether all this affected the box office is tough to say. There were, after all, a lot of factors at play. If it did have an effect, it may be that, by undercutting the authenticity of the movie, it made some people less inclined to run out and see it. Or perhaps it didn’t even do that. Either way, the fact that it’s all over has to evoke some sense of relief in all involved--in us, but also in Lawrence, who now has a good part of her filmmaking calendar back. Sometimes, as we all find out, for all the comforts a familiar place or activity brings, at some point we simply outgrow them.
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