Intellectual property is killing the story star

03 Apr

I don’t mean to get off on a rant here… okay, who am I kidding? Of course I mean to get off on a rant (with apologies to Dennis Miller). And this one’s about The Hunger Games.

See you in the reruns.

I wasn’t planning on seeing the movie, on account of how the entire Twilight phenomenon has made me averse to anything related to the “young adult” genre. But, because I see a lot of movies and because I voluntarily let Metacritic dictate most of what I see and because The Hunger Games scored relatively well there, I figured what the hell.

Truth be told, it’s pretty good. If you’re not familiar with the basic premise, the film is set in a dystopian future after a big civil war. The land is divided into districts, each of which must provide one boy and one girl as “tributes,” to compete in the eponymous Hunger Games, or a big annual battle-to-the-death/survival contest. Twenty-four people enter, one person leaves.

I liked a lot of things about the movie. Although it was set in a technologically advanced place, it was subtly done. The Hunger Games is more about a solid science-fiction premise than it is about beating the viewer over the head with special effects. As such, it has some strong social comments to make – like how television and mass media can change the people involved with it – but again, it’s done subtly.

The main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, also does a nice job with ambivalence; she seemingly falls in love with one of her co-combatants, but does she really? Or does she fake it to score points with viewers, who can ultimately help her survive? We’re not quite sure; it’s up to the audience to interpret, which is an element of good storytelling. This may be explained in the books but, not having read them, I’m left with only the movie to consider.

Through most of the film, I couldn’t help but notice the many parallels to The Running Man, the 1987 blockbuster starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. In that movie, Ah-nold is also reluctantly put into a televised fight-to-the-death contest. The social commentary about the ill effects of media on the public were there as well, although with the 1980s being a relatively simpler time – and this being a Schwarzenegger action flick – the points were less subtle than hammered home.

As The Hunger Games wound toward its conclusion, an important distinction between the two films started to become clear – they were going to have dramatically different endings. In The Running Man – and yes, this is a spoiler, but if you haven’t seen it by now, you probably never will – a group of rebels manage to overthrow the network that broadcasts the show while Arnold kills off the TV host (gleefully played by Family Feud‘s Richard Dawson). Arnold gets the girl, everybody’s happy and meaningful change presumably comes to the world in which the film takes place, now that the evil network is no longer in charge.

I won’t spoil The Hunger Games’ ending, but it’s enough to say that there is nowhere near that level of closure. In fact, it’s the opposite – the film leaves viewers with the sense that it is only the beginning.

Here’s where the rant begins. With this sort of thing now the norm in every story-telling medium, from movies to books to video games, it’s clear that story barely exists anymore. A new monster has arisen over the past few decades to take its place, and its name is “intellectual property” (IP to its friends).

Both The Running Man and The Hunger Games are based on books, respectively written by Stephen King (under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) and Suzanne Collins. The Running Man, in both book and movie form, was a self-contained story with a beginning, middle and end. The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is merely the first chapter in what is so far a trilogy. If the subsequent films do as well as the first one, there’s no reason to believe there won’t be more.

The Running Man was a big hit in its day too, yet I wonder how much pressure Stephen King faced to write a sequel, or to turn his story into a trilogy, or even better, the much-desired “IP.” After all, where there is a successful story, surely there are TV shows, video games and books that can expand on it. Regardless, King obviously resisted, and kudos to him for that.

Please excuse me for sounding like an old coot, but why must all good stories – particularly if they’re sci-fi or fantasy – be made into trilogies? Or worse – into nebulous IPs that never end? Can a story simply not end?

The culprit behind all this is, of course, George Lucas, who made a science out of turning a story into an IP. By this point, the only surprising thing about Star Wars is that you can’t yet wipe yourself with branded toilet paper (no wait… you can do that too).

The downside of IP’s slaying of the story star is that audiences are now conditioned to expect continuance and to reject real endings. Some of this was doubtlessly behind the recent Mass Effect 3 controversy, where complaints from a group of players forced the game’s makers to apologize for its ending. Some people clearly don’t want their stories to end, while some creators are obviously not willing to stand behind their art.

Fortunately, there are still some writers who still treat their craft as art, and who resist efforts to exploit it. Unfortunately, many such artists are at the mercy of their IP-pushing employers and have no say in the matter. The case of Alan Moore rejecting DC Comics’ planned Watchmen sequel comes to mind.

There is obviously a place and a demand for IP, but hopefully the quest for never-ending revenue by entertainment providers doesn’t totally drown out and make it impossible for artists who simply want to tell good stories. You know, the ones with endings.

In that vein, I’ll take The Running Man over The Hunger Games any day.

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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in media, movies


10 responses to “Intellectual property is killing the story star

  1. Lawrence H

    April 3, 2012 at 12:10 am

    Running Man?? It’s a rip-off of Battle Royale:

    • petenowak2000

      April 3, 2012 at 12:24 am

      Yes indeed, that occurred too. For some reason, Arnold was fresher on the brain.

    • Absnerdity

      April 3, 2012 at 3:47 am

      “Battle Royale” would have been a rip-off of “The Running Man” considering “The Running Man” was written nearly 17 years before “Battle Royale” was.

      “The Running Man” was written in 1982.
      “Battle Royale” was written in 1999.

  2. nowhere3

    April 3, 2012 at 3:50 am

    I feel like Sci-Fi and Fantasy books have always been in trilogies/series. A few really famous ones that come to mind that came out before Star Wars:

    the Foundation series
    the Dune series
    Ringworld series

  3. Logfella

    April 3, 2012 at 8:25 am

    FWIW, The Running Man novella is very different from the movie that was loosely adapted from it, and played out more like a sci-fi Mantracker. In the end, the Arnie character flies his plane into the network HQ building on a suicide mission. I actually liked that ending, and that story, a lot better than the cornball movie.

    • petenowak2000

      April 3, 2012 at 8:29 am

      I too like that ending. Talk about finality!

  4. russellmcormond

    April 3, 2012 at 9:41 am

    Is it the “star system” or “IP” that is the issue?

    If the desire is to have massive stars and the associated budgets, then there is less room for diversity and experimentation. Those backing big-budget content aren’t going to be interested in art or interesting stories that make us think, but pumping out derivatives of previous success.

    I guess I see the centralization of decision making, and the lack of the bio/idea diversity that is required for innovation, to be the problem. While it is obvious that the by-design anti-competative nature of statutory monopolies (copyright, patents, trademarks, etc) is abused to wipe out diversity (biological as well as in far less important entertainment), we need to be looking at the centralization of decision making that is behind the expansion of statutory monopolies and the reduction of diversity. We need to ask if the “one size fits all” mentality should ever be applied to art, culture, or so many other aspects of our lives.

    In short, I feel the dangerous focus on “IP” (statutory monopolies) is the symptom, not the cause.

  5. BT

    April 3, 2012 at 10:03 am

    Okay, I’m going to get side tracked for a moment, since you brought it up again….

    The Mass Effect 3 “ending” (and I use the term loosely) mirrors most of the complaints you have about The Hunger Games ending. Far too open, no real closure. It absolutely reeks of “we want to sell you more story later” to many of us that weren’t happy with it.

    Saying “some people clearly don’t want their stories to end” in reference to that is pretty insulting to people who voiced their dislike of how the game ended. And considering one of the biggest complaints was that people felt like they were left hanging (which is something you take issue with in reference to The Hunger Games in this article), your statement is also pretty ignorant of what those complaints actually were.

    • petenowak2000

      April 3, 2012 at 10:55 am

      Oh trust me, I think I’ve read just about every complaint there is. Most of them didn’t hold water for me and the “not wanting the story to end” is the common undercurrent I detected in many. That’s clearly a subjective assessment and we could probably argue it about for hours. As for Hunger Games mirroring Mass Effect 3, I’m not sure that’s the case because they’re at different ends of their respective story spectra. I can’t quite remember, but wasn’t the first Mass Effect a self-contained story that could have stood on its own if there weren’t any sequels made? You could maybe say that about this first Hunger Games movie, but to me it felt like only a tiny slice of a story.

  6. Catelli NQU (@Catelli_NQU)

    April 3, 2012 at 10:59 am

    I’ve been reading Sci-Fi and Fantasy for almost 30 years, and for me the best stories have always been at a trilogy at minimum. They were just never brought to the big screen, something that I am thankful is happening now.

    Don’t forget Babylon-5 was a multi-year story (in TV form) as was Battlestar Galactica (the re-make). Fully fleshed out alternative universes (future, past, parallel or fantasy) almost require multiple novels to fully explore them. Orson Scott Cards Ender’s Game series is an example of that.


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