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The Problem with "The Hunger Games" That "Catching Fire" Should Avoid

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It was announced recently that the sequel to The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, will not retain the same creative team behind the first movie. Director Gary Ross has been replaced by I Am Legend director Francis Lawrence, and the script is being rewritten by Little Miss Sunshine and Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Arndt. Whether or not the change is for the better is arguable, but as Lex pointed out in his favorable review, the first movie owes more to Suzanne Collins' source and scripting—and I would add Jennifer Lawrence's stellar portrayal of Katniss Everdeen—than any of Ross' contributions.

The Hunger Games movie does an all right job portraying the events of the book, but little else, resulting in a dull and mediocre movie that enacts rather than adapts. All of the film's problems can actually be traced back to one common denominator, an important component in the book that the film was forced to exclude due to the constraints of cinematic language: Katniss’ narration.

While switching a first-person narrative to a third-person one is a natural excursion when adapting a novel into a movie—films exist in actions rather than information, after all—this one didn't just lose the character’s voice, the author’s prose or the breadth of background information like, say, the Harry Potter movies did. The visual stand-ins Gary Ross employed to patch up the holes left open by the lack of Katniss’ exposition, though effective, merely supported the structure of the narrative and did nothing to replace the suspense and horror of the story. The "reaping" scene is probably the film's high point, if only for how chillingly understated the scene is.

The problem here is that the most compelling bits from Collins’ novel happen to be intertwined with Katniss’ perception. Katniss is actually a pretty passive participant of the Games, because most of the struggle of the book happen internally. Without it, the film just feels like a cold visual retelling. Faithful, yet mostly empty, placing Ross in the company of Chris Columbus and Zack Snyder.

Here are five consequences of this omission of Katniss’ voice. Spoilers ahead, naturally.

* * *

Bloodless violence

Probably the easiest thing to provide a visual representation of, but an accurate recreation of the book’s violence would have undoubtedly landed the movie an R rating (some would argue that it should have based on the premise alone). The book, on the other hand, gets away with plenty of gore despite being Young Adult because it describes Katniss' subjective experience rather than an objective view of the violence. A dying tribute vomiting blood on Katniss is described through the warmth of the liquid on her face. Burns are made grislier because of Katniss’ internal report of the pain she’s feeling. The most harrowing scene in the book is when she has to mutilate another girl’s corpse just to scavenge herself a weapon—a scene predictably omitted from the movie.

The stinger lumps have begun to explode, spewing putrid green liquid around her. I have to break several of what used to be her fingers with a stone to free the bow. The sheath of arrows is pinned under her back. I try to roll over her body by pulling one arm, but the flesh disintegrates in my hands and I fall back to the ground. Is this real? Or have the hallucinations begun? I squeeze my eyes tight and try to breathe through my mouth, ordering myself not to become sick.

- The Hunger Games, Chapter 14

The issue is not that The Hunger Games would be a better movie if it has gory money shots; it's that blood can be a very effective tool to communicate horror. Katniss, who’s already hardened to begin with due to a life of extreme poverty without a father or a nurturing mother, loses her innocence even more in the Games every time she kills. A sanitized version of the Games affects the audience’s perception of them.

If the film's director, Gary Ross, has any qualms about kids killing kids, he keeps them to himself. The murders on screen are fast and largely pain-free — you can hardly see who's killing who. So despite the high body count, the rating is PG-13.

Think about it: You make killing vivid and upsetting and get an R. You take the sting out of it, and kids are allowed into the theater. The ratings board has it backward.

- David Edelstein, Vulture

 

The dull pageantry before the Games

In the book, things are just as tense, and arguably more stressful, for Katniss before the Games begin. As the tributes that will compete in the battlefield are treated as television stars, they go through a song and dance routine where they have to play to a crowd while being interviewed by a celebrity personality. To Katniss, this is scarier and more uncomfortable than the killing grounds.

Why am I hopping around like some trained dog trying to please people I hate? The longer the interview goes on, the more my fury seems to rise to the surface, until I'm literally spitting out answers at him.

- The Hunger Games, Chapter 9

Try as she might, Lawrence mostly just looks like she’s confused and impatient throughout the whole pageant, which takes away the dread of the anticipation. Why is all this being treated like the training and mouth-running second act of a boxing movie? Where’s the foreboding terror? The recognition that this whole thing is the last meal of the condemned? The indignant rage? Her time in the Capitol only convinces Katniss of her contempt for those who can avoid the struggle.

What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by?

- The Hunger Games, Chapter 5

Without all that intrigue, the pageantry just seems like table-setting that went on for far longer than it needed to be. The most pertinent the film came to be is with the scene between Peeta and Katniss the night before the Games, where they pretty much spell out their hopes and fears.

 

Play-by-play commentary

Narrative-wise, it’s understandable why they chose to add this on, since it’s the perfect way to easily give the audience some exposition whenever necessary. It's the sly substitute for a voiceover: forget visual cues, just have a character straight up tell the audience what's happening. It's a common device used in sports movies to highlight important moments, or to explain the rules for those unfamiliar to the sport.

What it does, though, is completely taking away the ambiguity of the Games. A big part of the suspense during the Games is Katniss’ uncertainty that what she thinks is happening is actually what’s happening, or how her calculated actions come across to the viewers. Everything is a gamble in the arena.

And then there's the obvious: by formatting the Games like the Capitol's broadcast, complete with sports-like commentary, then we are not down in the arena with Katniss. We are, ironically, watching Katniss from the other side, as a spectator of the Games. This gives the whole Games a spectacle-vibe whenever Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones pop their heads on. Sure, we sympathize with Katniss and we root for her to win, but so do the cheering Capitol viewers who are also invested in the drama. How are we different?

If the experience of reading Collins's novel is one of being inside a horrifyingly brutal reality television show, the experience the film adaptation offers is one more akin to watching one, and its success depends on our awareness of this relatively new medium as well as our willingness to critique it.

- Richard Larson, Slant

 

Seneca Crane’s slick control room

Similarly, by showing the Gamemaker’s point of view, there is no longer an air of enigma to their schemes. The film makes the odd choice of telegraphing the arena surprises by showing Crane and his cronies getting ready to deploy them, control station style. Ross has said in interviews that this was his own idea, in order to keep reminding the audience that the arena is one from a futuristic society rather than a real forest.

There is the classic dichotomy of the reveal that faces all storytellers, often referred to as “Alfred Hitchcock’s bomb.” It’s a theory of suspense versus surprise where Hitchcock asks if it would be better to show a bomb under the table during an innocent conversation, or to keep it out of sight. If you don’t show it, then when the bomb explodes, it is a moment of surprise for the audience. If you do, then the audience will be in suspense, waiting for it to either go off or for the characters to notice it. This difference is illustrated clearly by the differing treatment of the booby-traps in the arena: the book springs them on Katniss suddenly, as a shock to both her and us, while the film lets us know what’s coming before they even hit her. Since the story is about a teenage girl who’s essentially kidnapped and forced into an unfamiliar world that she has to adapt to, which technique is more apt to use?

In the film, we would see Crane occasionally telling his control room employees what he wants to happen, like sending in mutant wolves to hunt the tributes, whereas in the book, our information is only as good as Katniss’ speculation, adding a little bit of mystery.

The attack is now over. The Gamemakers don’t want me dead. Not yet anyway. Everyone knows they could destroy us all within seconds of the opening gong. The real sport of the Hunger Games is watching the tributes kill one another. Every so often, they do kill a tribute just to remind the players they can. But mostly, they manipulate us into confronting one another face-to-face. Which means, if I am no longer being fired at, there is at least one other tribute close at hand.

- The Hunger Games, Chapter 13

Fear of the unknown—what will happen to her loved ones back home and what her every decision in the arena means to people outside it—that’s why these books are considered page turners.

 

Peeta's dedication to Katniss

The absence of Katniss’ running commentary on how she feels about Peeta is, perhaps, the most egregious omission, since it’s the whole argument against the Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle being a typical love-torn teen romance. The movie gives off the impression that Katniss and Peeta undergo the typical resentment-turns-into-affection path of screen lovers, but in the book, Peeta isn’t just a potential love interest; he’s also essentially the book’s antagonist, as Katniss spends much of the story trying to figure out if his self-proclaimed love for her is genuine or just a ploy to kill her. It’s something she flip-flops from chapter to chapter, as Peeta appears to play mind games with Katniss.

A warning bell goes off in my head. Don’t be stupid. Peeta is planning how to kill you, I remind myself. He is luring you in to make you easy prey. The more likable he is, the more deadly he is.

But because two can play at this game, I stand on tiptoe and kiss his cheek. Right on his bruise.

- The Hunger Games, Chapter 5

It’s romance doubling as mystery. What does Peeta really want, and how does Katniss guard herself from him both emotionally and physically?

Katniss’ willful rejection of Peeta is one of the more memorable things from the book. A young heroine who recognizes that she’s taking advantage of a boy and feels awful about it, but justifies her manipulation as a way to survive, is a fascinating character. The fact that the book concludes not with her changing her mind, but with Peeta (who turns out to be genuinely in love with her after all) surrendering to her cold treatment, is astonishing.

“One more time? For the audience?” he says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.

- The Hunger Games, Final Chapter


* * *

I wasn’t disappointed by the movie because of a fanboyish desire to see my favorite bits on screen. On the contrary, I wasn’t in love with Suzanne Collins’ novel to begin with. I found The Hunger Games to be a highly derivative and weirdly paced book; its full merit lies in its protagonist Katniss Everdeen, an incredibly compelling character whose inner doubts make for a surprisingly complex personality.

Whenever anyone tries to compare The Hunger Games to Twilight—I don’t understand why anyone would, but people apparently do—the easiest and most effective rebuttal would be to point out the striking contrast between Katniss and Bella. Katniss’ lack of charm is born out of a stubborn sense of independence that saw her refuse to rely on even her own mother for survival, and it actually affects the plot significantly; whereas Bella’s just seems expected of her and tolerated because of her emotional waiting for her beau’s indecisiveness, completely lacking the self-awareness that Collins employed.

See that? I’m falling into the same trap and comparing the two for no reason. Let’s move on.

Catching Fire is my favorite book of the trilogy, because it works well as a thriller, with a juicy dramatic center: Katniss has to maintain the sham relationship she and Peeta put on for the television audience in the first novel, even after the Games is over, or hundreds of lives will be in danger. She is not in love with him, but has to pretend to be for the sake of others. He doesn't have to pretend, but knows full well that his dream pairing is achieved through force. It feels incorrect to label this a "young" romance when there's this huge ethical and political quandary weighing down on it.

In the books, the first-person narration is essential to relay Katniss' dilemma, but that doesn't mean it's unadaptable, especially when you've got a lead as capable and engaging as Jennifer Lawrence. Plenty of films have minimally conveyed more complex inner conflicts—the film that got Lawrence cast as Katniss, Winter's Bone, succeeded in just that—but there needs to be a realignment of the focus from Ross' big picture vision to something more intimate. Director Francis Lawrence (no relations) isn't really known for that, but perhaps the aid of a good script can change that.

Catching Fire will succeed financially, that is all but guaranteed regardless of the director. A creative team overhaul doesn’t necessary mean a big departure, but with the world-building and character introductions out of the way, hopefully the second film can focus itself more on interesting themes. Whether or not it will be better than the first film remains to be seen, but the odds are currently in their favor.

May
17
2012
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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