I got into a bit of an argument with a teen girl about The Hunger Games. I know, I’m a grown man and should know better than to step between a teen girl and her beloved heroine. Especially so since it was my older daughter.
Having seen the movie this past weekend (twice for her, first at midnight on Thursday, then a little less bleary-eyed on Sunday) our conversation eventually wended its way toward the differences between the book and the movie. I should also note that the book was fresh in my mind after having read it a few days earlier. For the first time.
Yes, yes, I know, what’s wrong with me?
While we both ticked off changes made in the movie, no doubt for the sake of economy — “spoilers” will not be mentioned here — I finally decided that what bothered me most was how bland Katniss’ personality was in the movie. My daughter’s explanation: because the book was in first person there was no way you could hear what she was thinking without voiceover, and that would have ruined it.
I agree and disagree.
Voiceover would have ruined the film, bogged down the action and made it feel, well, unoriginal. The argument I tried to make was that while the movie was faithful to the plot there was absolutely no emotional development for Katniss, not on the screen at least. What I wanted, my daughter insisted, was impossible to do, which is where we disagreed. The solution is one known to many a writer of both books and screenplays which is why it was odd it wasn’t evident in the movie.
Show, don’t tell.
In the first-person the character can tell us much about what they are thinking in the moment, and in The Hunger Games everything we learn we get from Katniss. She knows the games, how they work, and she knows the risk she takes by putting her name in so many times for the Reaping just to keep her family alive. She knows Gale as a hunting buddy, a close ally, someone with whom she has complete trust if not a budding romantic fondness for. She knows Haymitch as not the town hero but the town drunk. She knows Peeta as a simple, kind boy but grows to suspect that he might have more cunning than she imagined. And throughout she knows what will happen to her once she reaches the Capitol — not the details but the gist of what she’s seen on TV for the 16 years she’s been alive. She knows sponsors are important to her survival, she knows she will be assigned a stylist to make her presentable for the ceremonies, and she is constantly thinking about what she has to do to survive so she can return home. Constantly.
In the film, Katniss comes off as a bit of a dolt, an innocent who’s never seen the games before. Her relationship with Gale is cursory at best, and Peeta is as genial as his brain is empty. She is put through her paces according to the plot but who she feels about the game before, during, and after makes for a rather flat emotional arc — call it an emotional plateau if you will. Sure, she get’s a moment here and there — with Rue, with Cinna — but they are reactive moments and not enough of a peg to hang a complete thought on.
How can you do it, how do you show what a character is thinking without voiceover?
You show it.
You know who got it right?
Peter Jackson when he adapted The Lord of the Rings trilogy.
Am I suggesting The Hunger Games should have been a 3-plus hour-long movie?
Yes, yes, I am.
Let me narrow in on Katniss and Peeta from the moment they get on the train to the moment Peeta makes his confession during his interview before the game. During that time in the book Katniss goes from thinking Peeta is a simpleton, to pitying him for the inevitability of dying in the games, to resenting him for wanting to get separate advice from Haymitch, to feeling both dumbstruck and betrayed at the TV interviews. These shifting feelings are important because, though Katniss doesn’t feel he is a threat to her, she does feel she owes him for a kindness he performed earlier shortly after he father died. This conflict of emotion becomes compounded during the game when Peeta makes an alliance and helps lead them to Katniss to kill her. In the movie little of this comes through. Peeta seems resigned to his fate and blander than his character in the book, which is hard to believe. The separate training, the confession, these come off in the movie less like Peeta is a master of calculation and more a puppet doing what he was told to do.
Katniss’ reactions to these shifts in his character don’t make sense because we haven’t “seen” what she’s been thinking. The plot pushes them through the train ride, though training, with only the most necessary of information. This “economy” of storytelling also removes every semblance of character from the other tributes, making them easily expendable when their time come. We should care about every. single. child. up on that screen, because they have been put into an arena to fight to the death! For our, er, Panem’s entertainment!
Impossible! my daughter screams as she storms away, not upset with me so much as she doesn’t believe it can be done. She hasn’t seen the movies I’ve seen. She hasn’t seen the masters of the German and French New Wave, or the films of Fellini or Kurosawa, films where characters are front-and-center even through action. She hasn’t tired of the faster-faster mentality of Hollywood films enough to recognize or appreciate how much better the tension is when action scenes burst like dams from the built-up pressure of emotional weight behind them. And given that The Hunger Games is so clearly centered on The World According to Katniss it’s too bad the movie couldn’t show us that.