Book-to-Movie Adaptation: The Hunger Games

March 25, 2012 at 11:00 am (General) (, , , )

*If you haven’t seen the movie yet, you may or may not want to read this post. It may spoil some of the full impact of the film, and hence your enjoyment.

Every time I get news that a book I love is going to be made into a movie, I get this solid knot of mixed feelings that sits in my gut like a boulder. I simulataneously love and hate getting updates on the process.

There’s delight. Yay, this book I love is being made into a movie!

There’s anticipation. Yay, this book I love is being made into a movie!

There’s dread. Oh crap, this book I LOVE is being made into a movie.

There’s fear. Oh crap, this book I LOVE is being made into a movie.

It’s not that I don’t think books can be made into movies successfully; I think most can. But as a reader, as a writer, as a person with a background in theatre and screenwriting, I also understand that there’s a very delicate and elusive balance that very few adaptations manage to achieve.

If a book is being adapted for the screen, it’s generally because it had a broad enough audience to make a movie financially feasible. Generally. But that means the movie also needs to be based on a broad appeal. We want to stay true to the story, but sometimes maintaining that broad appeal means sacrificing or changing certain things. It’s also true that moving the story from a print medium to a visual medium requires changes. There will never be such a thing as a 100% faithful translation from book to screen. There can’t be. We can come close, but it’s never going to be absolute.

There’s also a point where creative control changes hands. The author created the book, and that book has inspired someone to make something of it. Movies are pretty much visual fanfic.

Yes, I said it. Movies are visual fanfiction.

Because in most cases, the author’s control ends where the movie rights are sold. If I bought the movie rights to, say, Robin LaFevers’ Grave Mercy and then staged the production as a 70s disco piece with aliens and a dog sidekick….well, there’s really nothing that can be done about it. The author can complain, they can tell people not to go see the movie, but that’s it. The director’s vision- their interpretation- is what comes onto the screen. That also has to be combined with the cinematographer’s vision, with the casting director’s vision, with the various designers’ visions, and with the actor’s interpretation and performance of their roles.

There have been some adaptations where I seriously wanted to knock on the gates of Heaven and demand my two hours back they were so bad. As adaptations AND as movies, they just plain sucked.

There have been some adaptations where I really loved the movie- as long as I pretended it had never been a book first. The movie for The Lightning Thief was like that. I really enjoyed the movie. In some respects, I understood why they some of the changes they did. Like…aging the characters up to keep it from being labeled a kiddie movie so it could enjoy a wider audience. Makes sense. And they weren’t sure if they were going to be able to push forward with the series, so they changed some pretty significant things in order to cut out the series arc stuff. Like Kronos. Moving from St. Louis to Memphis was a head-scratcher but whatever. Then were things that irritated me a bit more. So long as I separated the movie completely from the source book, I could enjoy it.

There have actually been some where I felt the changes made for a better movie than the book could provide on its own. It’s rare, but it happens, usually in books where allegory is strong and the words are more important than the events.

So going into Hunger Games, I was a big ball of stress, trying to remind myself that anticipation was a bad idea because if I got too worked up that it was going to be awesome I would be really frickin’ pissed if it sucked. Well, let’s be honest, I’d be pissed if it sucked no matter what.

This was, hands down, the single BEST book-to-movie adaptation I’ve ever seen.

It was always going to be a difficult task to take us from the narrow focus of being inside Katniss’ head to a broader visual appeal. We can’t spend a movie sitting inside someone’s skull. That opens up a lot of opportunity, as well as temptation. If you make some deviations, isn’t it so easy to make others?

But the divergences here were amazing, pitch perfect and carefully chosen. They open us up to the astounding background of the Games, giving us a look into a control room and the careful deliberation that goes into creating reality TV. We don’t lose anything for that. Take any scene with Donald Sutherland as President Snow and it’s enough to send shivers down your spine it’s so effin’ creepy. Those scenes just ooze malevolence. And we get to see some of what Katniss can only imagine: Haymitch schmoozing the sponsors, the manipulations of the games.

In half of the most emotionally hard-hitting scene of the movie? District 11.

And we get to see Katniss.

That might sound strange, given that we spend three books in Katniss’ head, but we don’t see her. Not really. We see how Katniss sees Katniss. Here, though the focus is still clearly our girl from District 12, we see her a bit more clearly. It isn’t just that she sees herself differently than others see her. It’s also that we get to see events happen, get to see her react to them, without having to filter through the narration.

In real life, when we have that many hard-hitting emotions smacking us at once, most of us become somewhat incoherent. A necessary conceit of first person storytelling is that no matter how overwhelmed the narrator becomes, he or she still has to continue telling the story. They can be overwhelmed, but they can’t lose themselves in that gut reaction. In the movie, we get to see Katniss reacting without the filter of her narration. We get to see her take care of Prim without her voice telling us all the effort (and touch of bitterness) that goes into it. We get to see how her awkwardness in the interview with Caesar becomes charming and winsome.

And Jennifer Lawrence is amazing. Everything her character is feeling shows on her face, so even when Katniss is lost in her head, we’re not left staring at a blank void. We all root for Katniss, but Lawrence makes her come alive with an uncommon poise even in the midst of a break down. We see her stoicism, we see her penchant for survival, her determination, but we also see her compassion. And, something we rarely see in the books, we see her sense of humor. Coming out of Katniss’ head is liberating and expansive, but Lawrence brings us back in with every small action and reaction.

The casting of this movie was flawless (or nearly flawless- there are a few small quibbles I could make) even when we diehard fans couldn’t quite see it. Lenny Kravitz was a brilliantly understated Cinna, and I loved the design choices when it came to him. In all the glitz and glitter of the Capitol, all the crazy fashions and colors, he stands out for being in plain clothing with just the small hoops in his ears and a bit of gold eyeliner. Just at a glance, before he opens his mouth, before the story progresses, we see the man we’ll get to know across the books. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is charming- a little awkward, well-intentioned, and besotted with a girl he knows doesn’t notice him. While reading the book I never paid much attention to Seneca Crane, but here he becomes a captivating character (and I love love LOVE the beard). Gale is a bit bland but there’s not much of him here, so I’m willing to reserve judgment for a second film.

And the design was brilliant. Beyond brilliant. There are no accidents in the design, no coincidences or things that just happened to work well. The life we see in the districts is like something out of the Great Depression. It isn’t just the clothing and the hairstyles, it’s also the choices of colors, of structure. The Capitol is a cacophony of needlessly imposing buildings with a riot of color and fabric on the residents. The minute you see Effie Trinket toddle out onto the platform in District 12, you know you’re watching two very different worlds. the Capitol is bright and luxurious, and more than once, kookily ugly. The people are the same. The residents of the Capitol are laughing and smiling, perfectly at ease with not a care in the world other than the inanities of fashion and style. The residents of District 12 are worn and scared, accustomed to scrabbling for every small thing. It’s even in the details, right down to the last curlicue in Seneca Crane’s beard (seriously, it’s a MAGNIFICENT beard).

This is one of the very few movies where walking out of the theatre, I immediately wanted to turn back and watch it again. When it comes out on DVD, I will be watching it again and again, and notice more details each time that blow me away. And I hope to God they progress with the other two movies, and take the same painstaking care as they did with this, because the results will be spectacular.

Have YOU seen the movie yet? Share your thoughts below!

Until next time~

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