“The Hunger Games” vs. “Divergent”

When “The Hunger Games” became a hit movie, Hollywood rushed multiple young adult (YA) movies into production based on best-selling YA novels. Unfortunately, “The Hunger Games” is an exception to the YA genre, which is why it succeeded so well as a movie.

Read “The Hunger Games” and you’ll notice the following:

  • The novel tells a complete story where all the villains lose in the end and the hero returns triumphantly home.
  • The novel introduces characters and situations early and the rest of the story shows us what happens to those characters by the end of the story.

Now read “Divergent,” which was a YA novel turned into a movie series that tried to mimic the success of “The Hunger Games.” In “Divergent,” you’ll notice the following:

  • The novel does not tell a complete story because the villain is never fully defeated in the end and the story ends with no sense of finality or conclusion for the hero.
  • The novel keeps introducing new characters and situations and by the end of the story, we have no idea what happens to most minor characters.

There’s a reason why “The Hunger Games” worked as a movie and “Divergent” did not. It’s hard to tell an incomplete story as a movie. Imagine “Rocky” where “Rocky” never fights or “Star Wars” where we never see if Luke destroys the Death Star. Stories must be complete to be satisfying, but YA novels favor incomplete stories to encourage readers to buy and read the next book in the series.

Novels also tend to be loosely structured compared to screenplays. In a screenplay, Act I sets up the story and the remaining Acts show what happens. So in “The Hunger Games”, Act I introduces the characters and the idea of a battle to the death. Then the rest of the story is about the characters we’ve met fighting in a battle to the death.

In most YA novels (with the exception of “The Hunger Games”), the entire story keeps introducing new information, making the entire story one long exposition that suddenly ends without any sense of resolution.

In “Divergent”, Act I introduces characters and the idea of factions that rule society. Then the remaining Acts keep introducing new characters and situations for the hero to face.

By the end of “The Hunger Games,” the hero has survived and returned home, which creates a sense of completion. By the end of “Divergent,” the hero is still on the run because the villain has not been defeated.

“The Hunger Games” sequels are far weaker than the original book, but the original book could stand alone without its sequels. “Divergent” cannot stand alone without its sequels, which means it’s a far weaker story as a result.

So the lesson is clear. Hollywood only tells incomplete stories when they closely follow the incomplete stories of a YA novel. If you’re trying to write an original screenplay, do not mimic the structure of a YA novel.

You cannot tell an incomplete story and you cannot keep introducing new characters and situations as the story progresses. You must tell a complete story and by the end of Act I, we should know what the story is about so we can constantly see the hero struggling to achieve a clearly defined goal introduced in Act I.

Why YA novels tell incomplete stories (and get published) while constantly introducing new characters with no clearly defined goal by the end of Act I is a mystery. YA novels offers unique situations such as dystopian futures, but that alone can never sustain an entire story. Just watch the “Divergent” movie series to see movies that steady lose focus and direction as each succeeding sequel fails to tell a compelling, complete story in the process.

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