Page to Screen: The Hunger Games
SPOILER ALERT: Stop here if you don’t want to read plot details from the book and the movie!
Every year in Panem, in the continent formerly known as North America, 24 teenagers are chosen from the country’s twelve districts to compete in the Hunger Games. In retribution for a rebellion, these children must fight to the death, leaving but one survivor, the sole winner of the games. Televised nationally, the games form the center of the ruling Capitol’s draconian policy towards its districts.
Katniss Everdeen, a resident of District 12, is one of those children on the chopping block. In fact, to earn more food rations for her starving family, she has entered her name several times in the lottery, aptly named the “reaping,” that will determine the “tributes.” In a twist of fate, Katniss escapes the lottery, but her little sister Prim’s name is called. She volunteers in her place, an act of selflessness that does not go unpunished by the state.
Katniss and her District 12 cohort, Peeta undergo training at the Capitol. They are introduced there to a luxurious world, one far removed from the squalor of their coal mining district. Not only must they prove their prowess to competitors, but to the gamekeepers themselves, who ultimately design their arena. The Capitol takes the games very seriously, not only watching a 24 hour feed, but sponsoring their favorites. Thankfully, Katniss and Peeta have support, which includes Haymitch, a past winner, and Cinna, her stylist, who guide them through the very public run-up to the games.
Katniss must not only kill her teenage opponents, but survive the volatile arena and its manifold challenges, to make it out alive and win the Hunger Games.
Like many adaptations, the film version of The Hunger Games does away with a lot of detail. We do not learn as much about Katniss’ home, District 12, or its hungry people, subsistence rations, danger of stealing (punishment by death), and growing black market. Instead, much of this information is communicated in a single, beautiful moment, when best friend Gale hands Katniss a roll on the day of the reaping and her eyes light up at this rare gift.
Katniss’ world feels both smaller and larger in the film. Smaller because we do not get to know as many of the characters, especially the other tributes, and larger, because we see in detail the sick Oz known as the Capitol. We meet the sponsors, go inside the games’ control room, and see Haymitch work a crowd as he tries to secure food for his district’s tributes during the Games. The film’s focus widens to the world of the Capitol, letting go of some detail, but allowing us the bigger picture of this dangerous dystopia.
Finally, because this is a PG-13 film, the violence is far more disturbing in the book than in the movie. For example, at a certain point Katniss is cut in the face, and bleeds for several days as a result, here in the movie, there is much less blood and a much faster recovery time. Even the arena’s obstacles feel tamer. Katniss does not almost die from dehydration, as she does during the first days of the Games in the book; here she runs almost immediately to water. Not to say that the Hunger Games are any tamer in the novel, but perhaps less overt.
Does It Work?
The Hunger Games works much better on screen than on paper. In fact, the book, told in Katniss’ clipped, present-tense prose, feels much more like a screenplay than a novel. Yet the characters, and their world, come alive in this movie. You cannot really envision the horror of a televised gladiatorial battle on paper the same way as when those images confront you in a movie.
Much of the movie’s success is owed to director Gary Ross, who also collaborated on the script. The story simply feels stronger as told in three acts. The prologue is quicker, the battles longer, and the conclusion more concise. While in the book Katniss stumbles from one challenge to another, in the film, tension builds faster as the competition reaches its chilling endgame.
At their heart, the Hunger Games are a bloody spectacle and here Ross gives them to us in all of their televised glory. He also leaves us with a couple of questions: As we watch the games are we rooting for more violence, or for the participants’ lives? Is this simple entertainment or murder? The medium is certainly the message here, making us choose sides. As an audience are we Katniss or the Capitol?