Why are books being split into so many/such long films?

The third chapter of The Hunger Games film franchise, Mockingjay, will be released on Nov. 14, 2014. The film, which will be split into two parts, is currently in production in Atlanta, but Lionsgate Entertainment has already started whetting fan appetites by releasing a teaser poster online.

The Hunger Games is the latest popular book to be split into two parts -- a practice that prominently started with Time Warner /Warner Bros.' release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 1 in 2010.

Some may argue that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, weighing in at 759 pages (U.S. edition), worked better as two full films. Twilight's Breaking Dawn, which is also 759 pages long, also arguably needed to be split into two by Summit Entertainment (a subsidiary of Lionsgate).

Yet Mockingjay, at 390 pages, is a much shorter book than either Deathly Hallows or Breaking Dawn -- it's only slightly longer than The Hunger Games and marginally shorter than Catching Fire.

This fact shines a spotlight on Hollywood's practice of splitting shorter books into multiple films -- Peter Jackson's The Hobbit, released by Warner Bros., is the most extreme example, stretching a 310-page affair into three full films over the course of three years.

By comparison, Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is comparable in cinematic scale, was based on a three-volume series that totaled well over 1,000 pages.

Both franchises have been highly profitable -- The Lord of the Rings trilogy grossed $2.9 billion and the first two Hobbit films have already grossed $1.9 billion.

This is a radical departure from film adaptations of novels in the past. Whereas screenwriters and directors previously streamlined novels into screenplays by shedding excess side stories, they now write scene-by-scene remakes of the books.
For fans of the books, this can be a dream come true. But for other audiences, it can be tedious.

Should filmmakers radically change the source material?

Let's compare that to two other novels -- Winston Groom's Forrest Gump (1986) and F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (1922).

Both books were adapted to film by screenwriter Eric Roth in 1994 and 2008, respectively, in film versions that radically modified the source material.

In Forrest Gump, Roth eliminated excess plots such as Forrest going into space, landing on an island of cannibals, and becoming a wrestler. Instead, Roth kept the spirit of the novel intact and also added the line, "Run, Forrest, run!," which came to define the film.

In Benjamin Button, Roth stripped out nearly everything from the original story, leaving only the name of the titular character and the concept of reverse aging. He also stretched a 42-page novella into a nearly three-hour film.

Why splitting Mockingjay could be a good move

When Mockingjay was published in 2010, it polarized fans. Some fans decried its bleak ending, while others criticized its rushed pace and glaring plot holes.

The main problem in the novel was that the story was always told by Katniss in a first-person perspective. This works in the first two books, but it is an awkward perspective for the third one because the final act deals with a nationwide revolution in Panem.

That means the reader doesn't see any of the epic battles that eventually topple President Snow's empire -- they are merely reported on by Katniss from afar.

Therefore, Mockingjay might work better as two films -- in which the final battles are depicted more thoroughly and main characters are given more proper sendoffs.

Of course, two Mockingjays would represent two big paydays for Lionsgate, which has already grossed $1.5 billion from the first two films on a combined production budget of $208 million. The two Mockingjay films reportedly have a production budget of over $250 million and could easily top the box office receipts of the first two films.