The first film in The Hunger Games franchise is one that I saw before reading the books it was base on. In doing so, I went into the cinema with no expectations whatsoever regarding the characters, the storyline or any potential changes the film could make to its source material. It resulted in me thoroughly enjoying the film with no provisos. It also left me desperately wanting to know what happened next and I promptly went home and devoured all three books one after another (I read the majority of Catching Fire in one sitting on a particularly blissful Saturday).
Of course, now that I have read the books, I am fully aware of the changes that the film made. And for once, they are not deal breakers.
The Hunger Games (just looking at the first book/film rather than the series as a whole) is set in a futuristic America, now known as Panem. The country, and presumably the rest of the world, has been devastated by a war (or possibly several). All that is left of Panem is the affluent Capitol and twelve struggling districts, whose people work to produce everything the Capitol needs – fuel, food, clothing, timber goods etc. As a reminder of the failed uprising staged by the districts, the Capitol demands an annual tribute of one girl and one boy between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each district to battle one another to the death, leaving one champion (victor) standing.
Enter Katniss Everdeen, a seventeen-year-old girl from District 12, who volunteers to take her sister’s place as tribute. She travels to the Capitol, with fellow tribute Peeta Mellark, to take part in the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Together, they unknowingly start a chain of events that will alter Panem forever.
As I mentioned above, there are very few changes between the book and the film. Certainly, in terms of the main story, all the important beats and milestones are met and the characters’ arcs are true to their paperback counterparts. The most noticeable difference is in the way the story itself is told.
The books are written in first person, present tense narrative. Katniss herself tells the story as it is happening. This style, I will admit, usually puts me off a book. For me, The Hunger Games is one of the few books that it works for, as there is a good balance between what is going on in the world around and how Katniss thinks, feels and reacts to it all.
Of course, it is quite hard to convey a first-person narrative on film. Effectively, the camera becomes the first person in any film and, without resorting to voiceover dialogue of the protagonist, it is quite difficult to bring that perspective back to the main character.
Incidentally, if you want to see a TV episode where the camera’s perspective is specifically used to tell a story, I can recommend you watch Sanctuary, Season 1 Episode 11 – Instinct, in which the episode is viewed almost entirely though a journalist’s video camera. However, I doubt that this style could be maintained for a full feature film.
Anyway, this is not something that Director Gary Ross tried to replicate for The Hunger Games. Instead, he took the opportunity to expand upon the world that Suzanne Collins had created on the page. The opening scene of the film is noticeably not from Katniss’ perspective, but instead starts off in the Capitol with an interview between Caesar Flickerman and the Game Maker, Seneca Crane. Similarly, the film ends with President Snow watching footage of Katniss and Peeta arriving back in District 12. The look of distain on his face (together with the music building into the end credits) leaves the audience with a sense of foreboding for what will come next.
By adding these scenes and others that show the Game Makers and conversations with President Snow, the film is able to add to what happened to Katniss in the Games as we now see what is going on in the background leading up to certain events (like the forest fire, the creation of the Mutts, and the rule change that allows both Katniss and Peeta to win together).
What I found interesting about the insertion of the Game Makers and their control room is how they in essence refer back to Suzanne Collins’ original concept for the series. It has been reported that Collins’ initial idea for the series came as she channel hopped one evening and flicked between news footage covering wars around the world and so-called reality TV programmes. She became fascinated by how the two almost blended together as she changed channels. It says a lot about our own society that we can so easily move from harrowing images of war to trivial programmes, like Keep Up With The Kardashians, without any thought at all. This sort of desensitisation through the media led Collins to take the idea to the extreme and her story became centred around a reality TV programme about children fighting to the death (which is what the Hunger Games in Panem ultimately are).
The film version, by showing scenes away from Katniss’ perspective, is able to show the sort of desensitisation that has set in with the people of the Capitol. They are shown placing bets on their favourite tributes, enjoying the spectacle of the tributes arriving, and generally getting caught up in the media/propaganda hype that the Capital places on the Games themselves.
As with any screen adaptation, there are certain things from the books that are condensed in order to save time. Most noticeable of which is the way in which the Mockingjay Pin comes into Katniss’ possession. In the book, Katniss is given the Pin by Madge, the Mayor’s daughter. We later find out (just in the books, this isn’t in the films at all) that the Pin had originally belonged to Madge’s aunt, Maysilee, who had been a tribute (who died) in the 50th Hunger Games (more on that in a later post). In the film, however, Katniss finds the Pin amongst a pile of junk at Greasy Sae’s stall in the Hub.
It is a little sad that the Pin’s backstory is taken away from the film as it does add a little history and gravitas to the symbol. Having said that, the symbol of the Mockingjay relating directly to Katniss (without its added history with the Games) is still powerful enough for the film to carry.
Along with Madge, there are other characters who are pushed to the sidelines for the sake of saving time on screen. Namely, the Prep Team in the Capitol (who feature a little more in subsequent films) and Portia, Peeta’s stylist, who is seen alongside Cinna on occasion, but has very little to say. Aside from missing some comedic relief in their frivolous and often absurd banter, the removal of the Prep Team does not leave a gaping hole in the film and so it is quite easy to overlook the fact that they are no longer there.
Instead, thanks to the casting of Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson, the banter between Effie and Haymitch is taken up several notches and provides enough comedy relief in itself to forego any other characters being needed.
Finally, in terms of changes made in the film, it goes without saying that the violence of the books is dialled down somewhat for the films. Yes, we still have scenes of young teenagers brutally killing each other in the Games, but these scenes are nowhere near as graphic as Katniss’ account of them in the book. The camera moves quickly around the fallen tributes, not lingering long on them past establishing that they are in fact dead. Even Rue’s death, tragic though it is, is relatively sanitised for the 12 certificate. Cato’s death is mercifully quicker in the film, rather than the brutal and drawn out affair it is in the book.
Even Katniss and Peeta manage to make it out of the Games relatively unscathed (physically speaking). Katniss doesn’t lose her hearing in the explosion and Peeta gets to keep his injured leg. Both of these tweaks have ramifications for the other films, but I’ll get to them in their own time.
Overall, The Hunger Games is proof that, even though changes have to be made in the adaptation process, these changes don’t have to alter the overall drive or feel of the story in a significant way. This is an excellent example of a story working as well on screen as it does on paper.
In terms of The Hunger Games as a film franchise, the first film set the series up very well and left audiences with great expectations for the films to come. Stay tuned to see if those expectations were met.