The Best Book Adaptation I've Seen Is...'Catching Fire'!?!
The adaptation of The Hunger Games was okay. It wasn’t a bad film, but it wasn’t the kind that inspires article writing — even though I <cough> did write one. But I wrote that article because I pitched it before I’d seen the film. I was obligated. This one I pitched after seeing the film (repeatedly) and re-reading the book (twice). This one I wanted to write because I liked the film so much I wanted to force myself to put into words WHY, and maybe just maybe convince a few others.
In a nutshell, in case you don’t have time for the extra 2000 words that follow, what the filmmakers got so right is they captured the exact essence of what makes The Hunger Games books so beloved.
Part of that is due to having a bigger and more appropriate budget, and knowing exactly where to spend that money. The world building in this film is so superior to the first it’s not even funny. Everything is more real and believable, from the costumes right on down to the action. The baboon fight looks phenomenal, whereas the “mutts” fight in the first film fell utterly flat. They also did an incredible job with casting new roles: Jena Malone as Johanna Mason is fantastic, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee is under-used but exceptional, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Heavensbee was inspired, and despite controversy, Sam Claflin turned out to be a perfect Finnick.
But that’s not really what we’re here to talk about. So lets get to the two trickiest things about writing any adaptation and some examples of how Catching Fire did them so well – Cutting and Adding.
The filmmakers were incredibly faithful to the source material overall, but any novel is going to have to be cut up if you plan to make it into a movie (even one with a two hour and forty minute runtime). But the filmmakers knew exactly what to leave on the cutting room floor and held on to everything that makes Catching Fire tick.
In the books there’s a plot element involving Katniss having to fake a talent as a fashion designer. The concept is that the Capitol wants and needs her to be talented/gifted in a way that’s “appropriate” (not hunting and killing people) kind of like how Peeta is naturally talented (as an artist). In the book, Katniss both does not have a “Capitol appropriate” talent and doesn’t have the patience to learn one, so her stylist and friend Cinna helps her fake it as a fashion designer.
It’s solid character and world building work in general, and it’s the kind of layering you have time for in a novel. But when you’re pressed for time in a film, it’s the kind of thing that’s just not important when you look at the scope of the story. What does Katniss faking a talent truly add to the tapestry? Does it add to the themes and emotional resonance? No. Does it connect the dots on anything larger in a significant way? No. Does losing the element negatively affect the beats that are important to the piece and the relationships that are so key to getting viewers to emotionally attach? No.
Then begone with it! Sure, it’s a nice element of the book. It gives Katniss another grouchy layer, and it speaks not so subtly but smartly about the world she lives in. It’s the kind of thing that makes the book worth reading, even if you've seen the movie. Books are good. Reading them should give you more, not exactly the same thing you just saw in a theater.
Another element that seems important but is easily relegated to the trash is Katniss’s encounter with Bonnie and Twill — escapees from another district that fill Katniss’s head with news of what’s going on in the rest of the world, and further build the myth of the Mockingjay as a symbol of revolution. This works fairly well in the book, because we’re stuck in Katniss’s POV, but without that restriction there are easier, faster, and more effective ways to get these ideas across. While it’s not a bad element of the book, if you examine it, Bonnie and Twill are really just glorified plot devices to pass on information. They have no emotional or thematic connection to the work. Begone with you Bonnie and Twill!
Oh, additions. So very tricky. The absolute best adaptations know how to take their source material and make it better. Sometimes just better for the new medium, and sometimes better period. A great example of the latter is a small change toward the end of the adaptation of Little Children. Tom Perrotta’s novel is excellent, and Todd Field’s film adaptation is exceptional. I won’t spoil the ending for you, but a small change in Field’s film makes more sense and has more emotional impact than Perrotta’s version. It’s a truly rare film that improves upon the source material above and beyond making modifications to adapt to the new medium.
I’m not sure Catching Fire’s changes are as brilliant as the one Field made to Little Children, as they are both broader and more obvious, but they work like gangbusters. First and foremost (and not unlike in the first film) director Francis Lawrence and writers Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt make the absolute most of the shift from the first person “Katniss-only” POV of the book to the more natural third person nature of film. They expand the world in wonderful ways and give both large and small moments to fantastic “lesser” characters like Stanley Tucci’s Ceasar Flickerman and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Plutarch Heavensbee.
There’s never any doubt that it’s Katniss’s (and Jennifer Lawrence’s) film, but these characters come much more alive thanks to the non-restrictive point of view, and the filmmakers take advantage of it at every opportunity. They deliver devastatingly simple scenes like the two brief but powerful ones with President Snow and his granddaughter. They feel real and emotional but also serve a much larger purpose — both in general world-building, and as potent foreshadows of the fate that awaits Katniss (and Snow). They also effortlessly flesh out more minor characters (like Snow and Heavensbee) by giving them smart but small scenes that provide an alternate perspective from one Katniss might have.
The filmmakers also recognize Katniss’s weaknesses as a heroine carrying a film, but rather than changing her and making her softer or more palatable, they just give her a bit of room to breathe. Katniss, much as I love her (both in the books and on screen), is not a particularly fun or funny character. She’s serious as a heart attack, and that’s fitting. She’s a survivor and — especially post the original hunger games competition — she’s suffering badly from PTSD. The filmmakers don’t shy away from this aspect of her personality and character arc, but at the same time they recognize they have other insanely talented actors at their disposal and they put them to use, often in lighter ways that break tension and make everything a little more bearable.
Elizabeth Banks’s magnificent performance as Effie Trinket is at the top of that list. The filmmakers don’t write her off as simply the ridiculous butt of every joke, or the rather thin caricature that she is in the books. Instead they allow her to grow, and give her at least one completely genuine and heartbreaking moment. This is Effie Trinket even better than Collins ever intended, in large part thanks to Banks's range as an actress. Banks’s Trinket can be absolutely shallow and vapid, largely ridiculous and used entirely as comedy cannon fodder for two full films, and still break your heart in one brief scene. It’s fantastic.
Similarly, Johanna Mason didn’t leave much of an impression on me in the novel, but Jena Malone imbues her with a strength of passion and a devil-may-care attitude that draws every eye when she’s on screen (no small feat when you’re sharing the screen with Jennifer Lawrence). The writers give her just the right lines to allow her to feel organic and real, and to draw a sharp and obvious parallel to where Katniss is headed. She is a survivor, not afraid of anyone, because she loves nothing and has nobody left to lose. She is Katniss’s grim future laid bare before her, and it’s wonderful. Thanks to Malone’s performance and a good understanding of the intent of the material, it’s actually more powerful than what we have in the book, and it doesn’t feel like you’re being hit over the head with it. It has emotional weight without being cloying or ham-fisted.
The last major way in which the filmmakers improved upon the source material also dovetails us into the one mistake they make, so let’s just get to that.
The filmmakers beef up and generally strengthen Peeta’s role, which on the whole is great, but leads to some confusion in the final scenes. Peeta will never be as physically capable as Katniss, and that is as it should be. They have different strengths and different weaknesses as characters, and the filmmakers are cognizant of that and careful not to tip the balance. At the same time, keeping Peeta exactly as he appears in the novel, which is to say Peeta as seen through the flawed lens which Katniss sees and experiences him, would do a disservice to the character. So Peeta presents as more capable in this second film. He wasn’t useless by any means in the first film, but he’s stronger here, better emotionally and physically. Most importantly, viewers get the very clear sense here, rightly so, that the indomitable will that drives Peeta to overcome all odds and survive is not for self-preservation but for Katniss-preservation. And that is quintessential Peeta. It’s the Peeta that Collins wrote — and always intended — and the filmmakers, and a very strong performance by Josh Hutcherson, display it gloriously on screen. To be honest, knowing what’s coming in the next two films, it is going to be magnificently heartbreaking to see what Hutcherson does and how the filmmakers handle it, but given the devastating accuracy and even improvement of Peeta as a character here, I am truly excited to see what they do.
Unfortunately, by beefing up Peeta’s role physically and downplaying his injury, they inadvertently make the final scenes nonsensical. In the first book Peeta actually loses part of his leg, which is replaced by Capitol “medicine.” The first movie did not have Peeta suffer this injury, so it’s not addressed here either. It’s impossible for me to understand how this final scene in the arena played in theaters for those that had not read the book, but for those of us that had, there’s a weird disconnect in the final scene when Beetee insists that Finnick and Peeta stay to protect him while Katniss and Johanna take the coil down through the forest to the water. In the film it’s impossible to understand why Beetee is insisting on this (and Johanna and Finnick back him up aggressively). Worse, it makes even less sense when Katniss and Finnick have been safely rescued by the rebellion and Peeta and Johanna have been captured by the Capitol – something nobody involved wanted, especially as it concerns Peeta. Now, in the book this makes sense because it is obvious — as well as stated outright — that Peeta is not as fast moving through the forest as Johanna and Katniss due to his injury. And so the two women are assigned the coil task because it makes sense. It makes perfect sense because it’s true, Peeta is simply not as fast as Johanna or Katniss. But in the film we have spent two hours watching Peeta be perfectly capable (more than capable!) of running through the forest, so there’s no logic to back up the action. In the film it plays like there’s something horribly Machiavellian going on, which actually works. But after the fact, when it’s clear that the rebellion had every intention of rescuing Peeta, it makes no sense why they insist so adamantly on having the two characters separated at such a key moment.
When you write it all out like this it honestly sounds like a nightmare, like something that ruins the whole film, but its not. It’s just a weird glitch. Unfortunately, I think there was a way to write the scene that largely mitigates the issue, but for whatever reason that wasn't done. Still, it’s but a minor moment of disconnect that would probably not even be noticeable if the entire film were not so exceptional — both as a film and as an adaptation.
If you like the books and watched the first film and were unimpressed, I urge you to try again with Catching Fire. Different director, different screenwriters, same phenomenal cast and story. On the whole, Catching Fire is such a strong adaptation that it’s not only one of the best adaptations I’ve ever seen, but also a rare example of me actually preferring the film to the source material I love.
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