The Adaptation Games: “The Hunger Games” As Book And Movie

I’ll be honest; even though I saw “The Hunger Games” (2012 dir. Gary Ross starring Jennifer Lawrence) at midnight on Thursday, I hesitated when deciding what to write about it.  This is partially because so much has been written about it already, and I wasn’t sure how to add my voice to the millions.  Also, because “The Hunger Games” as a series has such an avid following I was worried about how to address the myriad controversies these fans have argued.  I’ve heard people complain that the movie is too gory or not gory enough – but with a PG-13 rating, I’d say it’s pretty average.  I’ve read that the movie lost the book’s central message condemning current reality TV culture – and I guess if you read way too much into a pulp book written for teenagers you could find that message.  I’ve heard that Jennifer Lawrence is too fat, too Hollywood, or exactly perfect.  Honestly, all of these arguments are exhausting, and in a way I guess each is valid (except for the racist ones, ‘cause seriously what the hell?).  Instead of addressing any of these issues, I want to focus on what interested me about “The Hunger Games:” As a (good) film adaptation of a novel, “The Hunger Games” shows the necessary differences in storytelling between a visual medium (film) and a language medium (books, obviously).  If that isn’t titillating enough for you, go follow the racist 15-year-olds.

The primary difficulty filmmakers face when adapting a book into a film is that the two mediums are vastly different in how they connect with audiences.  Books in any form speak to the audience through the literary trappings we all remember from our AP English classes: point of view, subtext, text, sentence construction, character development, etc.  Books can take the time to build arguments, convey points of view, build characters and scenes, and describe endlessly.  Films don’t have that luxury, but film is an inherently more visceral, visual medium.  Lacking literature’s devices, film has its own: editing, camera, acting, mise en scene, sound, etc.  Film doesn’t always have the ability to give the deep character studies literature can, but it can establish character quickly, and show themes and characters on an epic scale.  (Obviously, there are exceptions to both of these situations; books can be epics and films can be character studies.)

"Nobody understands me! I'm conflicted, damn it!"

“The Hunger Games” as a book is a character study about a complicated young girl in a dystopian world who is forced to kill other children in order to survive a cruel game.  “The Hunger Games” as a film is an epic about how one conflicted young girl’s fight for survival in a cruel game can start a revolution.  See what happened there?  The scope changed.  This isn’t to say that the film didn’t keep some of the tough themes of the book, but taking advantage of the tools of visual storytelling changes how the story can be told.

One of the many elements of the book touted by its fans is its tense first person narration.  This allows the reader to follow Katniss’s thoughts and fears through the game, and heightens the drama and paranoia because Katniss is conscious of, but unable to see or hear, the gamemakers and the audience that watches her.  Now, first person point-of-view doesn’t happen often in film; the camera is an objective viewer, which makes adapting this kind of storytelling difficult.  However, by shooting extreme closeups with handheld cameras and sparing the establishing shots, Gary Ross visually captures the claustrophobia that Katniss feels.  My favorite example of this is a scene that went by so fast you almost didn’t notice it.  When Katniss sent to the arena to prepare, she is forced through a door by a briefly-glimpsed officer into a room.  The camera stays tight on Katniss as she stumbles in – the only impression the viewer gets is of the sickly green color of the walls before someone grabs her – it’s Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) giving her a hug of reassurance.

This is the shot right after the one I described. I could write an essay on that color.

On the flip side of this was the filmmakers’ decision to expand the scope of the book.  In “The Hunger Games” book, Katniss knows the gamekeepers control her destiny, but she doesn’t know to what degree.  This causes significant tension – what will they try next?  The film conveys this tension by introducing the audience – but not Katniss – to Seneca Crane, the lead gamekeeper.  As an audience, we watch him play cat and mouse with Katniss, but the most harrowing moment comes when he has a discussion with the President (don’t you love Donald Sutherland in a villain role?), who tells Seneca in so many words that Katniss is an underdog, and underdogs are dangerous.  Later, when Katniss honors a fallen comrade, her actions spark a rebellion in District 11 that proves the President right and increases the stakes for the gamekeepers to get ride of her.  This turns the game more sinister, as the audience now knows how much more danger Katniss is in, even if she doesn’t know it herself.

Overall, I was impressed with the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games.”  Too many film adaptations of movies hew too strongly to their source material, concerned with making a faithful adaptation, rather than a strong film.  There’s a delicate balance in adaptation; on one side you get the early BBC literary adaptations (I’m looking at you, Pride And Prejudice) that are so concerned with fidelity to the source that they’re dull filmically.  On the other side, you get films like The Scarlet Letter, which is almost unrecognizable.  I’m not an uber-fan of the book series, I’m just a humble film geek, but from my perspective “The Hunger Games” worked both as a film and as an adaptation.

President Snow approves this message!
(Donald Sutherland was my favorite part of this movie. I had to sneak him into the post somehow.)

About Anne Marie Kelly

Classic Film history & restoration nerd. Writer of A Year With Kate and Women's Pictures for The Film Experience. Follow me on Twitter @WeRecycleMovies.
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