The process of adaptation is a difficult one. Yes, the story framework is in place and there’s usually a built-in fanbase as well, but screenwriters must wrestle with what they can include, what they can excise, and what they can change. A popular adaptation can’t alienate the fans but it also can’t exclude those unfamiliar with the source material.
Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games is the first in a trilogy of young adult novels. Lionsgate hopes they have the next Twilight on their hands even though the plots of the two books couldn’t be more different. I’ll break down what works in the book, what will succeed in the movie, and where director Gary Ross will have difficulty in his adaptation.
Since I have to be specific about plot points in the book, consider this feature spoiler-filled.
The basic plot of The Hunger Games is this: A post-apocalyptic America has rebuilt itself into twelve districts who must serve The Capitol. In order to punish the districts for their past rebellion and to remind them of their weakness, the Capitol holds an annual death match known as “The Hunger Games”. Two “tributes”, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 17, are randomly selected from each district and forced to compete and the watching the games is mandatory. The twenty four tributes fight to the death until only one remains.
Protagonist Katniss Everdeen (who is being played by Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence) is a 16-year-old hunter from the coal-mining District 12. When her 12-year-old sister Prim is selected for the games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. The male tribute is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker who’s the same age as Katniss. The two are mentored by the last District 12 contestant to win, the drunken and surly Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrleson). Their accompanied by District 12’s vapid chaperone Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the supportive and talented stylists Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and Portia (Latarsha Rose). Katniss and Peeta receive the pomp and circumstance preceding the games and try to build up their reputation as a star-crossed couple in order to win sponsors (who can provide gifts at key moments during the games) and the affections of the audience. Then the games begin and things get bloody and the love story between the two leads gets complicated.
The Hunger Games is the anti-Twilight in that is has a strong female character at its center. Katniss is smart, capable, aloof, compassionate towards her sister and best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and deadly. If Bella Swan is always looking for a man to protect her, Katniss is slow to trust anyone and her relationship with Peeta takes some interesting twists and turns. I imagine that those who initially complained about Lawrence’s casting never saw Winter’s Bone because Katniss is Ree Dolly recast as an action hero.
I also had no trouble seeing any other major cast member in their respective roles. However, certain characters will likely have their roles beefed up for the movie. Wes Bentley’s character, Head Gamemaker (the Gamemakers are like reality TV game show producers; they keep the action in the arena moving) Seneca Crane, doesn’t appear in the first novel but he does appear in the second book Catching Fire (which I haven’t read yet). Also, President Snow barely appears in The Hunger Games, but then again, Donald Sutherland has become the actor who will be in your movie for five minutes.
The easiest cinematic equivalent to The Hunger Games is Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film Battle Royale, but there are two key differences between the properties. Collins builds a world that borrows from George Orwell’s 1984 and she has no problem painting the world as excessively bleak and brutal. The book is told from Katniss’ perspective and the descriptions of life in District 12, the ruthless power of The Capital, and the events of past Hunger Games is both affecting and horrific. But whereas Battle Royale lets you know the characters inside the arena and makes their deaths hurt, Collins pulls her punches once the Hunger Games begin. There are some moments of brutality, gore, and Katniss’ struggle for survival, especially at the outset, is intense. But when it comes to the killing of kids, Collins keeps most of the other tributes nameless, makes the death of the young female District 11 tribute Rue as predictable and maudlin as possible, and barely has Katniss or Peeta kill anyone. You can argue that she softens up the novel for young adults (i.e. 10 to 13 year olds), but Collins has no problem with ugliness in other parts of the book.
Gary Ross’ adaptation will be PG-13 so elements like Katniss pulling a quiver of arrows through a girl’s ribcage and the rest of the bloodier moments will be reduced, happen off-screen, get excised, or be changed. Lionsgate has thrown out that this will be a “hard PG-13″, so you can assume that the violence will be on the level of The Dark Knight at most.
It’s an interesting book because I felt that a more faithful adaptation could have been made in the 60s or 70s. That’s impossible since the book came out in 2008, but the imagery fits perfectly with films from 40 – 50 years ago. For example, interviewer Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) is first seen with blue-hair, blue eye-shadow, and blue lipstick. The Capitol citizens’ wear garish outfits, Effie sports a pink wig, and at one point Katniss gets stung by genetically modified wasps and essentially has a bad acid trip. The reason I make this distinction is because what 60s and 70s audiences may have accepted, present-day moviegoers may think it’s all a little much.
But toning down the violence and tweaking the costumes isn’t a big deal. While they do help color the world, they’re not essential to the plot. A larger question is can a director like Ross introduce the brutality and bleakness required of the story. His specialty up to this point has been feel-good pictures like Pleasantville and Seabiscuit and The Hunger Games doesn’t live anywhere close to those two movies. That’s not to say he isn’t capable of doing a strong adaptation, but it will most likely be completely unlike anything we’ve seen from him before.
The biggest challenge is the romance between Katniss and Peeta. The two tributes know they have to put on a show of romance for the viewers and sponsors, but Katniss’ internal monologue lets us know that she’s actually starting to fall for Peeta. But because this is a movie, how will Ross make the distinction between Katniss playing towards the TV cameras and playing towards the real camera? My first thought is to cut between a “TV feed” when she’s faking and the actual movie when she’s being authentic, but that approach may be a little too obvious and distracting.
The Hunger Games is far from a perfect novel. Aside from the issue of pulling punches, the writing is unimpressive, Katniss’ bleak descriptions and outlook becomes redundant, and then there are the zombie wolves. It’s an idea that’s good in concept: the dead tributes are resurrected, their minds reduced to feral rage, and placed inside the bodies of mutated wolves to finish off the three remaining tributes. It’s an idea that perfectly encapsulates the cruelty of the Gamemakers and the Capitol. But the execution is abysmal. The wolf zombies are called, I shit you not, “Muttations”. Even dumber, the giant wolves run on their hind legs, and somehow that makes them faster. Imagine a dog or a wolf walking on its hind legs. Now imagine it moving really fast. That will look ridiculous on film and I hope they’ll modify the design to something more terrifying and cinematic.
Despite some of the shortcomings of the novel, it’s certainly a page turner. A few days ago I thought I would read a chapter or two before I dug into it on the long plane ride I have ahead of me. Instead, I’ll be reading Catching Fire on the plane because I devoured The Hunger Games. Collins paints an interesting world and it’s seen from the perspective of a compelling lead character that has been perfectly cast. I’m not sure if Ross is the right director for the book and I’m not sure how much leniency he’ll have with the violence, but the elements are all in place for an exciting film.
The Hunger Games opens March 23, 2012.