Book vs. Film: The Hunger Games
Since this is my first Book Vs. Film, I feel I should preface it with my personal feelings on adaptations. I love a great adaptation, but I also believe that getting the best movie from a good book rarely means sticking slavishly to the source material. They’re different mediums and thus they demand to be looked at and interpreted as best fits their strengths and limitations…hence the word adaptation. Most of the best film adaptations I’ve seen (and I include comics in this) maintain the spirit, tone, and heart of the original source material and respect it greatly, but are not afraid to strike out on their own where necessary and prudent.
Also, let’s just get that pesky “Battle Royale thing” out of the way. I love Battle Royale. I think it’s brilliant. I read it first and I like it even more than I like The Hunger Games, but I also think they’re pretty different books. And I don’t think loving Battle Royale precludes me from also loving The Hunger Games. I do think it’s a shame that a lot of people that are fanatical about The Hunger Games don’t know about Battle Royale, but I also think it’s a shame that people that are fanatical about Battle Royale, won’t give The Hunger Games a chance. Seems like missed opportunities on both sides to me. And let's let that be the last time Battle Royale is mentioned in this particular piece.
So, without further ado, how does The Hunger Games film stack up against Suzanne Collins' NYT Best Selling YA novel?
Potential Spoilers Below
The film does a superb job of quickly and clearly setting up a quite complicated world and concept – i.e. that 12 districts were once at war with the capitol city of Panem, and after losing, were forced into submission. As a reminder of the war and what they have all overcome “together,” the districts are forced to participate in a yearly lottery (called a Reaping) which selects a young boy and girl to participate in The Hunger Games, a battle of survival and strength in which only one of 24 will emerge alive.
The film achieves this through several smart decisions, including some simple text at the opening, a created “film” about the history of Panem and the 13 Districts (now 12) that is shown at The Reaping, some dialogue between characters, and newly created scenes within Panem, such as two characters narrating the games like any sportscasters. It’s very well handled and easy to follow.
The Characters & Cast
The film did an excellent job of cutting and combining unnecessary characters and streamlining that part of the narrative - Madge, The Mayor, Peeta’s father, and a handful of other small parts are missing entirely, but it’s almost unnoticeable. Even with the combining and cutting that was done, the supporting cast is quite frankly an embarrassment of riches, especially considering how little screen time most of these heavy hitters actually get.
Elizabeth Banks is a perfect and hilarious Effie, and her character easily has the best costume design in the entire production, as it should be. There’s also some unspoken commentary to be drawn from the fact that Banks is a beautiful woman, and yet overdressed and styled as she is here, she’s a borderline horror show, which is fascinating. Woody Harrelson is an inspired Haymitch, and is actually much more believable as a former winner of the games than how he’s presented in Collins’ book. It’s a good change. Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland are deliciously evil (but to different degrees) as Seneca Crane and President Snow, respectively. Paula Malcomson as Katniss’ mother was criminally underused and spoke volumes with just her eyes in a few key scenes. Stanley Tucci, as expected, nearly stole the whole damn show as Caesar Flickerman. Tucci also got a surprising and welcome amount of screen time. The two exceptions to this unbelievable casting were perhaps Lenny Kravitz as Cinna and Liam Hemsworth as Gale, who were both a bit wooden and ill fitting in comparison to the others. As for the leads, I don’t think a better Katniss could have been found, as Jennifer Lawrence absolutely brought the right amount of ferocity and conflict. Though I was initially skeptical, Josh Hutcherson made a flat out fantastic Peeta. And if I didn’t have a crush on both Hutcherson or Peeta before this (side note: I totally did) then I do now.
The World Building
The magnificence of Panem and its beautiful, distorted people as described in Collins’ book are utterly over the top. Unfortunately, I found the translation of this in the film to be pretty underwhelming on the whole. It mostly consisted of people in ridiculous costumes, which felt correct, but beyond that was not particularly convincing or impressive. I suppose there is nothing that can match the power of pure imagination, but considering the visual world building of something like the Harry Potter franchise, I confess I expected much more. It was especially underwhelming when it came to Katniss’ costumes – which though beautiful and interesting – were just not nearly as over the top as expected. It sounds silly to complain about such a detail, but the pageantry is a huge part of Collins' book, and a huge part of the world building that readers will see much more of in the subsequent films. An exception to this is the technology in Panem, which is thankfully fleshed out and well realized in the film. In the book, the technology is a bit painfully glossed over and was one of my biggest complaints about it. I frequently had trouble imagining how the technology of Panem and the games worked, but the film effortlessly solves this with visuals and it was easily the biggest advantage the film had over the book.
The Little Stuff
In general, everyone was entirely too well fed (especially Gale who looks positively robust). But I don’t know how you realistically solve that. Nobody wants the actors to have to starve, but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t a bit distracting since every character not in Panem should be a couple meals away from starvation.
The Social Commentary
Another thing the film improves on is illustrating the obscene hypocrisy of the people of Panem and the disgusting social injustice of The Hunger Games world – one far too easily extrapolated onto our own I’m afraid. We live in an “entertainment news” world and most of us are guilty of participating in that cycle. Seeing it exaggerated on screen was almost painful. But the film does a great job of setting the stage for the future films, which are going to trend even more in this direction. All of this is of course in Collins’ novel as well, but it’s more in your face here, and impossible to ignore. It's not subtle stuff, but I don't think it should be. And this is not a subtle book.
Additionally, because Collins’ novel is a very close first person narrative, as opposed to the more omniscient third person narrative of the film, the film naturally presents a wider view of things, and this is a huge advantage. Collins' first person POV for Katniss in the book is one of its great strengths, but the film wisely moves away from that. It allows the world building more opportunities, and presents a better, more rounded, and less subjective view of the world. Though it's still grotesque, viewers can come to that conclusion on their own, without needing Katniss projecting onto them. It's a perfect example of changes that work better for one medium than another. The book benefits from Katniss' POV, while the film benefits from the third person omniscient.
The film also very smartly lays more groundwork for the following books and the revelations (and revolution) to come. This was extremely well done - from bringing in Snow earlier and making him more key now, to showing the beginnings of an uprising in District 11 during the games. Next to the technology visuals and explanations, these are the best changes and upgrades the film makes.
The Love Story
Though The Hunger Games is a very high-concept book with its “kids battle to the death!” tagline, in truth, I find Collins’ love story to be surprisingly complex and advanced, especially for a young adult novel. And I’m sorry to say that this is where the film stumbled. Perhaps it was never going to be able to capture what Collins did with her first person prose for Katniss, but to be honest it feels like they didn’t even try. Gone is any of the intrigue and the suspense about how they feel or not, what is for show versus what is real. It’s utterly clear in the book to everyone that isn’t Katniss that Peeta is absolutely in love with her, that it’s not just a game to him and never was. That is absolutely missing from the film. In fact, a few people I spoke to who watched the film and have not read the books had no doubts that Peeta was just playing the game and had no real feelings for Katniss in the beginning, and had just grown to care and respect her over time. For those people a huge aspect of the book is lost in the film translation.
Perhaps even more importantly, it’s impossible to believe Katniss feels much of anything for Peeta in the film, which lowers the stakes quite dramatically, especially toward the end. In the book what these two characters feel for one another is incredibly complicated and it changes as the game changes. In the book there’s one goose bump inducing moment in particular when Katniss is all alone and screams Peeta’s name almost against her will that I was really looking forward to, but the film toned it down dramatically, mostly because it wouldn’t have made sense given the way they played the love story. It was disappointing to not get that moment. It’s a massive moment for Katniss as a character, when readers see that she may care even more for him than she thinks she does. And it’s utterly lost.
As a fan of girls that kick ass and are also strong, empowered, smart, and independent both in fiction and out of fiction, I’m shocked to see myself writing about the love story. Aren’t there enough love stories “for girls” already? But what I keep coming back to is the fact that Collins has created a very unique love story, one that presents a very different position for the girl than what we typically see. And so I hate to see that lost on the screen when it’s executed so flawlessly in the books.
I am turning into a 13-year-old girl as I write about this one, but bear with me. There simply weren’t enough "OMG Moments." Not that every film needs them, but with something that is so high-concept and extreme it should be easy to find those moments that make your heart race, that make you smile unconsciously as you watch. I only had a few of those moments and for a massive 142 minute run time that’s not much. There were many other places where the “OMG Factor” could have been capitalized on – I can name half a dozen easily. But many of them (like the example above of Katniss shouting Peeta’s name) would not have worked without the more fleshed out ebb and flow of the love story. Some small things really could have made a difference here. That said, I will readily admit that many people - judging from the response so far - absolutely think the film did have those OMG moments…but I’m either a particularly tough customer, or some kind of cold-hearted bitch, because I didn’t really see them, not as I hoped or expected at least.
In some ways the film is just a glorified dystopian action movie, since much of the love story has been jettisoned. But I did feel that the PG-13 rating kept the action from being as compelling as it should have been. There were some well choreographed and brutal scenes, but there were also many where the action and violence was glossed over. Where shaky camera work, rapid cutting, and blurs of motion softened the action and made it far less impactful. This could be a real problem for future books as well, considering that the violence only becomes more intense, and surely the studios will want to hang on to that PG-13 rating. The action was still good, and in a way it's not surprising that it got turned into an action movie for kids, but it's difficult not to wish the film had been able to capture some of the nuance and complexity of the book, rather than just the action. Gone is most of the more elaborate strategy of the games that we are treated to in the books. And with it the intricate, subtle, and surprising love story that I don’t know if any reader expected to find – perhaps because Katniss herself never expected it.
In the end, though there is a depth that is sadly missing, especially when it comes to the love story and the ramifications therein, the filmmakers have stayed very close to the original material, and certainly maintained the spirit of the book. They have done their absolute best within their limitations - primarily time, rating, and simplification - and in the end created a film worthy of the book. The book is still better, but isn't that almost always the case? The first change I would make for the second film is to significantly raise the budget, which given the box office numbers thus far, really shouldn’t be a problem. There is no reason the world building here cannot be equal to what we have seen in the Harry Potter films. Panem should be nearly unbelievable in its decadence and extremes, something that felt thin here. The second thing I would do for future films would be to try to push to find the greater depth of character and story that we get in the books. There are simple ways to do this that will make all the difference in the final cut.
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