Last time we talked about some of the problems with The Hunger Games.Or rather, I discussed the problems as perceived by me using a framework of modern Young Adult fiction by trying to highlight tropes within the genre that have become trappings for authors that limit the types of world-building and storytelling they may concern themselves with. Now we’re going to look at how, in adapting The Hunger Games into a movie franchise, the series has been liberated from these perceived flaws, both as a result of necessary changes to translate the books to the big screen and conscious decisions to improve the text.
Let’s do this.
In the previous post, I discussed how the first-person narrative limited the kind of world-building The Hunger Games could logically concern itself with. The first-person narrative bumps into a limit of adapting a book to film, that is, since film is a visual medium the viewer is not always privy to a character’s thoughts. Some movies will integrate inner monologues into the film, but these are most effectively used to convey a character’s perspective on something. While we do rely on Katniss’s narration in the books for perspective, we also rely on her for exposition.
But how to convey the exposition of the world’s rules and idiosyncrasies without a clunky voiceover? The answer: integrate the commentary of Caesar Flickerman. Ceasar is a gift horse for adaptation, his job is to commentate. It makes his explanation of the tracker jackers, for example, seem completely natural, and does not interrupt the pacing of the film at all. Also, the way they integrate him into Katniss’s hallucinations to finish explaining the effects of tracker jacker poison is inspired. More than anything, the use of Caesar in the movies draws attention to how limited the books are in fleshing out this expansive world Collin’s has created. Katniss can’t know everything there is to know, she is not in any position to. Caesar provides a perspective of someone who knows the Hunger Games, the history of them and how they are engineered. His perspective seems so essential to understanding what is going on in the movie that it seems odd that Katniss, a sheltered girl from District 12, gives us this information in the book.
So the limitation in adapting a first-person narration to film actually becomes a strength by making the way the viewer receives information seem much more natural. This limitation also becomes a strength in the way it silences some of the more annoying aspects of Katniss’s narration, particularly when it concerns Gale and Peeta. In the books, when Katniss contemplates her relationships to Gale and Peeta, her narration is annoyingly circular and redundant. She has mixed feelings about both of these boys, we get it. This is a subjective appraisal, though. But by contrasting this with the movie, the moments that are bogged down in neurotic lamentations at being stuck in a love triangle, stripped of this narration, are really much more emotionally effective. We know Katniss is conflicted as soon as she begins to show affection for Peeta in training, and the viewer is conflicted already because we know Katniss has a history with Gale. Moment’s such as Peeta’s profession of his affection for Katniss in the cave become quiet, melancholy, and emotionally resonant when portrayed on screen. Without Katniss guiding the reader through what they should be feeling, the movie-viewer is free to feel for themselves.
The need to show and not tell is more immediate in film, as it by nature is a showing medium. Freed of Katniss’s internal monologue, the people adapting the series were able to show moments that could only be told, in some cases strangely devoid of context, in the books.
In the books, especially the first one, Katniss does not know anything that is going on outside the arena while she is in the Games, so important events that occurred during the Games must be conveyed to Katniss after they end. The riot in District 11, which wasn’t in the first book but is in the spirit of the uprisings that follow Katniss’s victory, shows that the events in the arena are having an effect on the the outlying districts. Again, this is more emotionally effectively than another character telling Katniss there are uprisings. When, in Catching Fire, Katniss informs us that Gale was hurt by the very public relationship between her and Peeta, there’s a “Well, duh” moment on the reader’s part. When, during Peeta’s profession of love in the first movie, the movie cuts to Gale looking hurt, it comes at a time when his pain is in need of immediate attention and therefore does not seem out of place. Also, the need to actually visually represent Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker who is only named and confirmed as dead in the second book, creates a subplot in the movie wherein Seneca Crane is necessarily a character. Showing his death is, again, more emotionally effective than introducing him as a character posthumously. Katniss obviously can’t be there when Seneca dies, but freed of Katniss’s perspective we can follow Seneca’s journey as well. In the first book, where Seneca is essentially a non-character because he is not named or mentioned as being different from any of the other Gamemakers, we do not care whether Seneca lives or dies. It is not important to the reader what happens to him. In the movie, his death has weight to it.
A better understanding of Seneca, as a green and somewhat naive Gamemaker, also helps the viewer understand why the orders to allow two winners get handed down. In the book, if you think about it, the change in the rules seems like more of a plot device than anything. It’s unprecedented and unjustified. The movie makes an effort to explore this plot device, and it is much appreciated. It seems like essential information to know why Crane orchestrates the Games the way he does, but Katniss has no real way of knowing this.
The eventual reveal of Plutarch Heavensbee as a player in the rebellion also seems much more set up when, in the movie Catching Fire, there are several interspersed scenes in which Plutarch continually encourages President Snow to put off killing Katniss. It also plays up the importance of Plutarch, who barely feels like a character in the book.
The movies also seem to purposefully play down the love triangle in the book. Those chapters in the first book where the narrative just stops to endear us to Peeta are graciously truncated in the movie. This was a good way to keep a comfortable pace in the movies, and also to distinguish the movie in a market oversaturated with love triangles. It also makes Gale being somewhat of a non-character less of a problem. The movie doesn’t tell us to care about Gale, we don’t really, nothing of value is lost.
So now that I’ve talked about what is gained through the adaptation, is there anything lost? In my opinion, not really. Katniss is not a singular narrative voice, and a I mentioned her inner monologue is better gifted to Caesar when it comes to exposition, and better excised from the narrative entirely when it comes to her rumination on the love triangle.
This opinion is due, in no small part, to the acting of Jennifer Lawrence. She is able to effectively convey Katniss’s emotions and inner life with nuance. Much is gained, also, with fleshing out characters like Snow, Plutarch, and Seneca, as well as events in the districts, in giving the movies a fuller feeling. There is a world outside of Katniss, something we always know in the books but get to see in the movies. And at the end of the day, any quibbles about the shortfalls of the movie were problems with the book, too.