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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.

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A lunatic king was giving away his daughter for practically nothing. In exchange for spending three nights guarding an unused palace estate, any fellow of marrying age could have the girl and all rights and properties accorded the son-in-law of a king.

Now along came a young neer-do-well lad who was wise to world and knew how to carry himself. He’d spent many years wandering and thought it time to settle down, so with nothing to lose he applied to the king for a chance at the easy life.

“You may request three things to take into the palace with you, three inanimate objects,” the king said, “so choose wisely.”

The lad had heard tales of this king and his palace of madness and knew from the stories he would be best to take with him a carpenter’s bench with a blade, a lathe, and fire. The kind was impressed for it seemed the lad knew what he was up against, and he was not wrong. The lad had heard tales in a nearby tavern of others who had tried their hands at winning the king’s daughter, strange tales at that. Tales of disembodied legs tumbling out of the chimney, followed by heads, that could be carved into bowling pins and balls. This would be followed by cats who would challenge young men at cards but would require the trimming of their claws first.  In cards and bowling the lad had honed his skills in all the taverns of the land, and as for trimming cats claws, well, how hard could it be?

And so it was on that first night that the lad built a fire in the fireplace and say on the carpenter’s bench and waited.

At first he thought he head the sound of something coming down the chimney but instead it turned out to be someone knocking at the front door. When he opened in a man walked in dressed in a most unusual manner. He wore a lose-fitting tunic with the word STATE across the front of it, a pair of hose that hung loosely from his hips to his feet, and on his feet wore boots of such fine craftsmanship that the lad assumed they must have been enchanted. He had a sack of shiny cloth slung over one shoulder with openings that would yield and seal with the zip of his fingers.  Out of the sack her removed a pair of floppy bound manuscripts.

“How you doing? My name’s Brad. So listen, you’ve got a bit of catching up to do here.  Most of the other kids have been studying for the better part of the year so we’ve got a lot of ground to cover on these practice exams.”

The lad was puzzled. Where were the legs he could carve into bowling pins? “Practice for what?”

“Indeed, practice for what?” Brad said. “What are the SATs practice for? For going to college and taking more tests, so that you can prove you’re a good test taker and graduate and show the world your diploma and say ‘See? I am a master of test-taking!'”

The lad bent over and looked up the chimney.  “Hello? Anyone up there?”

“But then what?” said Brad. “They tell you that you can’t get a good job unless you go to college, but then you graduate college and there aren’t any jobs anyway. Then where are you?”

“Yes,” the lad said, perplexed by most of what Brad said. “Where am I?”

“Right back where you started from. Back to taking the GRE and the LSAT and the GME and getting into grad school because a graduate degree is the new undergrad degree in terms of getting a meaningful job. So it’s back to the tests to prove that you’re in the top percentile of test-takers and ready to get right back to it.”

“You don’t happen to be from St. Ives, by any chance? Maybe have some cats in that fine bag of yours?”

“But a graduate degree isn’t any better. There’s still no guarantee, and chances are good you’re going to end up like sixty percent of grads who end up working in a different field than the one they have degrees in.”

The lad began to get nervous. He understood magical bed that would romp through houses, and talking animals that would challenge him in games of chance, but the nonsense this Brad spewed sounds like the enchantments of a warlock. Clearly the palace had been abandoned for a reason and that reason was becoming clear to the lad; it had been cursed and this Brad must be the wizard who had laid the curse upon it. He picks up the knife from the bench and held it at arm’s length.

“Begone! I am not to be taken in by your spells and enchantments! I have come to spend three nights here and in doing so will win the king’s daughter!”

Brad paused and rolled his eyes. “Yes, and then what? No test no diploma, no diploma no job, no job no way to support your little princess. You ever think about that?”

“I shall share the king’s wealth… won’t I?”

Brad smiled and shook his head. “You kids. You think you know it all. I’ll leave these here and you can get started.  Try to have the first section in each book done by tomorrow.  We’ll see how you do and adjust your study strategies accordingly.”

Once Brad left the lad bolted the door and took the bewitched exam prep workbooks and threw them into the fire. Then he sat and waited all night for other strange things but none came. Soon enough he had fallen asleep.

The next morning the king arrived to see how the lad had done. Seeing the lad had sleep apnea he appeared to be dead and the king sighed. Just then the lad snorted and woke up.

“Holloa! You survived the first night!”

“Yes, and you shall find me long gone before the second night arrives! If this were the sort of place frequented by body parts and maniacal animals I could sort it out. I’m a fine kegler and a fair cardsharper and I could have at these sorts of trials.  But this place is haunted by an evil spectre that speaks in riddles and I swear attempted to steal my soul away. You may keep this madness to yourself, and good riddance to any bride that must be won through such trials.”

With that the lad returned to his wanderings and lived happily ever after.

As for the lunatic king and his daughter, who knows.

.

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This is my adaptation of “Good Bowling and Card Playing” from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm edited by Jack Zipes, part of a series. Collect them all!

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