March 9, 2012

Adapting The Hunger Games

On the surface, Hunger Games shouldn’t be difficult to adapt. It’s a well-plotted story that easily falls into three acts. The protagonist, Katniss, has a clear objective with consequences, facing hurdles and moral dilemmas to keep her from her goal. What’s more, dystopian stories are filmic, as would-be obligatory shots provide detail and texture to foreign lands. Plus, it’s a blood sport.

The story really hits its stride during the Games. The opening charge to the Cornucopia, the fireballs, the wasp nest, and others will make great action scenes. But you can get action anywhere. It’s most engaging in tracing her logic through each hurdle, watching her make firm choices, knowing what a misstep could yield. Like when she hesitates to saw through a branch, waiting for the anthem to dull the noise. Or when she figures out a way to communicate with Haymitch. Yeah, she’s great with a bow and arrow, but she’s a great character for her calculations.

And that’s the biggest challenge in this adaptation: how do you film a thought process?

Answer 1.) You can’t, don’t try.
Right, she can be badass with a bow and a crush. This isn’t Shakespeare. Just make it an action movie. Why overcomplicate things?

You shouldn’t, unless you have a great character. Katniss is a great character. It's worth a try.

2.) A friend.
She can be less solitary and has someone to talk to, someone to present a good idea, only to be rebuffed by her intelligence. Perhaps Rue enters closer to the start of the Games?

The thing is, much of Katniss’ internal monologue is devoted to outsmarting the audience for sponsorship. Even in rare instances she has the chance to speak her dialogue is subverting; we know because her thoughts provide the context. The story’s convention prohibits her cunning from being verbalized. That won’t work.

3.) Voice Over.
Narration isn’t necessarily sloppy, nor will it weaken a character if it’s well-written (Sin City). The key to voice over is consistency, be it every ten minutes in Shawshank, the beginning and end of Annie Hall, or throughout Goodfellas. Here, it’s only needed in the middle. Story elements would need to be changed to prevent it from being clunky. Still, it’s an option.

4.) Haymitch.
He’s strong in the novel, but omnipresent during the games. Katniss knows he watches over her with good intentions and uses that to her advantage. In the movie, Haymitch could be more in the frame. It could play like this:

Katniss falls to the ground, pleading for water, and then we cut to Haymitch shaking his head; we cut back to her, confused, then back to him saying, “C’mon…”; then, we see a realization on her face; she springs up, moves forward and finds a lake; then we cut back to him, a proud mentor.

In that sense, he’s the narrator. Like Ben Kingsley in Searching for Bobby Fischer
, translating for us what an eight-year-old chess prodigy is really doing with his moves. Haymitch could be a post we lean on without taking any credit away from Katniss.

Haymitch doesn’t need to be restricted to that role. He can even have his own subplot, something to cut away to during lulls in action. After all, he, not unlike Katniss, is underappreciated with something to prove.

I vote 4. (I'm mainly lobbying for more Woody Harrelson...not really)

Even if the filmmakers go another direction, I expect Haymitch to be more present in the film. I actually expect all major characters NOT in the Games to have a stronger presence.

Because the next issue is that the action and tension decrease in the second half of the Games. It works fine on paper but won’t translate on screen, no matter how much chemistry the leads have. The obvious solution is to write more action scenes, which will happen.

But losing the novel’s first-person perspective allows the possibility of subplots. The most important non-tribute characters are Katniss’ father, mother, and sister, Gale, and Haymitch. Each serves an important function while existing (for the most part) in her head. We can get flashbacks of Katniss learning to hunt with her father (which are sort of in the novel anyway). Perhaps after Katniss is taken away, her mother breaks down again, only to regain her strength when she becomes a contender (thus increasing the stakes). Katniss wonders when she kisses Peeta what Gale is thinking. Now we can see his reaction.

I write that having not read the second or third installments. Perhaps the integrity of the trilogy demands certain things remain off screen. Fair enough.

Still, the filmmakers had options. Gary Ross is a talented filmmaker who has penned some great scripts (Big
, Dave, and Pleasantville being my favorites). He recruited the author (and fellow NYU Dramatic Writing alum) Suzanne Collins for the screenplay. It’s an asset, provided she was willing to kill her babies (given the subject matter, that shouldn’t be a problem).

A few other thoughts on the adaptation:

- The novel did a poor job establishing the populations of the districts. The film should clear this up rather easily.

- The irony of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship is a credit to the author. Katniss starts out questioning his
motives which prove genuine, but her actions end up being more calculated and therefore less genuine... and she doesn’t even realize it. Bravo! I hope it’s as well done in the film.

- The more she gets in touch with her feelings, the more human she becomes, the more it weakens her. They could throw more threats at her to strengthen the theme especially since, again, the second half needs action.

- The antagonism will need more of a face. Cato seems the likely candidate. Part of me wonders if they’ll change his sidekick? Foxface was one of the more interesting tributes though barely explored.

- Lenny Kravitz?

SPOILERS... (more than before, anyway)

- There’s really only one big problem I had with the novel: Katniss is let off the hook too easily. I felt that her biggest moral dilemma would be to kill one of her friends. Two are killed by other tributes. Fine. But when the voice of the Games announced that two tributes from the same district could win - that Katniss and Peeta are in effect on the same team – I rolled my eyes.

Yeah, OK, the logic holds up: the star-crossed lover story entertained the Capitol, and District 2 also had both tributes remaining. But the machinery is too apparent. Collins doesn’t start the Games with that stipulation because at that point we’re still questioning Peeta’s motives; we wouldn’t have to with he and Katniss on the same team. After he saves her and the tension is alleviated, she knows the amendment won’t spoil the tension.

Perhaps the filmmakers won’t find Peeta’s ambiguity that important. They really should, given the twist previously mentioned. No, Katniss shouldn’t slaughter Rue. I don’t know the right choice. I’m also not being paid millions to figure it out.

- Oh, one other problem: the character names. They don’t read well, God knows how they’ll sound coming from a tween. A quick IMDB search shows that the names will remain.

Damn it.

Maybe post-introduction, the leads will be referred to as Lover Boy and Girl on Fire? (I almost typed ‘Flaming Girl’ but it’s probably not the effect the filmmakers are looking for.)

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