The Hunger Games Movie vs. the Book

April 12, 2012

The Hunger Game is one of the most popular young adult novel series rivaling Harry Potter and Twilight. As the first of its film adaptations was just released in March 2012, readers and audiences have been pleasantly surprised at this fresh, dynamic, young female protagonist. In the second of my two part series on The Hunger Games, I’ll compare the book to the movie and talk about some of the shortcomings of the adaptation and a few things that the film actually did better than the book.

Check out part 1: http://www.feministfrequency.com/2012/04/the-hunger-games-katniss-part-1-the-novel

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Transcript

In my last video I took a look at Suzanne Collins’ dynamic young protagonist Katniss Everdeen and deconstructed her character in relationship to gender, violence and feminism over the course of the first novel in the Hunger Games trilogy. If you haven’t seen it yet, go ahead and check it out.

The Hunger Games movie adaptation directed by Gary Ross and starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, was released in March 2012. The film broke records at the box office proving yet again, that women can lead successful blockbuster films. Take note Hollywood.

I had two big concerns going into the movie. First, that the violence would be glamorized, especially considering the medium of cinema tends to sensationalize explicit violence and gore. I was pleasantly surprised that the filmmakers strategically chose to limit the depictions of violence and largely avoided celebrating the bloodshed.

My second concern was that Katniss’ character would be sexualized on screen, thankfully the filmmakers very intentionally chose not to sexualize her at all, even in a scene when she’s taking a bath. This is a truly remarkable accomplishment given Hollywood system that insists on sexualizing practically all their female leads on and off screen.

Obviously, whenever a novel is turned into a movie there will be notable differences because of time constraints and other factors. Let’s take a look at just a few of those differences.

If you haven’t read the book or seen the movie yet [spoilers] fair warning.

While reading the book we are inhabiting Katniss’ mind, via first person narrative. We’re following her inner dialogue so we know her fears, desires, and needs, in a much more intimate way then the film can deliver. This isn’t necessarily a flaw in the movie but I did feel like the horror of the Hunger Games themselves, and the debilitating fear and anxiety that the tributes would feel didn’t come across quite as well. However, on screen we are given some hints and clues into the complex feelings of Katniss via Jennifer Lawrence’s incredible acting and because the camera was allowed to linger long enough for her non verbal expressions to come through. A lesser actor wouldn’t have been able to pull this off.

Although I did really enjoy the movie there are a few major shortcomings worth mentioning in the film adaptation.

While I was impressed with the overall look and feel of the wealthy Capitol city, it was disturbing that the art directors chose to have effeminate and apparently queer men exist only as part of the decadent, superficial and rather sociopathic ruling class society. The decision to portray genderbending as somehow exclusively the product of uber high fashion elitism is deeply problematic.

In the first novel, it is made clear that Katniss (and presumably the other tributes) are hyper aware that their every move and action is being watched and scrutinized by the arena audience, much like the reality TV shows of today. So in addition to trying to survive, the tributes are performing and acting as a way to gain sympathy and gifts from sponsors. Strangely, this performative layer to the story is not emphasized or prioritized in the movie, at least while they are inside the arena.

So for instance, in the book it’s made clear that Katniss is faking her affection for Peeta in order to solicit medical supplies while, in the movie its more ambiguous and we are lead to believe that she may be genuine in her feelings for him. Later, what’s interesting about the novel is that Katniss has difficulty separating the performative aspects of her relationship with Peeta for any genuine affections they might feel for one another, underneath all the pretense.

Secondly, when I watched this film in a packed theater on opening night, I experienced this horrible moment of cognitive dissonance in the scene where Thresh brutally murders Clove, the young, female tribute from district 2. Here is the problem, we as the audience in the real world are watching a story in which, a fictional capitol audience in turn is watching and deriving pleasure from the murder of children. So understandably, you and I are supposed to be horrified by the whole media spectacle of the Hunger Games. But when Clove’s head is bashed in and her lifeless body is thrown to the ground, the real life audience in the theater I was in actually cheered and gained satisfaction from her death.

Ironically, we are encouraged by the filmmakers, through the construction of this scene to behave in the same way that the Capitol audience does. Disturbingly, the filmmakers intend us to enjoy Clove’s murder and see it as justified because they have set her up as a dehumanized and ruthless figure. This is an utter failure on the part of the filmmakers to be consistent about portraying the horror of the death of children. If the filmmakers are trying to make any statement at all about the reprehensible nature of the hunger games, they need to be consistent about all deaths as being just as horrific. The fact that Clove’s death wasn’t portrayed as appalling, was a major failing. Interestingly, even when Cato, the main villain in the arena is killed, we weren’t meant to celebrate his death, and I’ll go into that in just a second.

Although, Jennifer Lawrence does a phenomenal job in the role of Katniss, we should take a moment to talk about race and casting in the film. In the book Collins clearly describes Katniss as having olive skinned and straight black hair, so you’d think that the casting call would reflect that, asking for actors with olive skin and straight black hair. But, in fact, the casting call specified that only Caucasian actors would be allowed to audition for the role of Katniss.

Unfortunately, this is not just an issue with just one film or one casting department in one studio, this is a problem across the board, everywhere in Hollywood. And one of the major consequences of this type of systemic whitewashing is that the stories of women of color rarely make it on to the big screen and actors of color aren’t even allowed to audition for most leading roles. For more information on challenging white washing in Hollywood check out the Racebending website.

I do want to point out a couple things that I think the movie did better than the original novel. First, the film’s format allows us to see multiple events happening simultaneously in different locations. So when Katniss shows compassion for the fallen Rue and then signal’s her solidarity with Rue’s District 11. We are shown a cutaway of the spontaneous uprising in that district. This is missing from the book but ends up being one of the most powerful and effective moments in the movie.

While I think one of the major failings of the book and the movie was that there was no attempt, not even a little bit, to humanize the career tributes including Cato, Clove, Glimmer and Marvel.
In the movie especially, they are portrayed as completely sadistic, inhuman monsters who take pleasure in killing to an exaggerated and unbelievable degree. However, the film version treats Cato slightly differently towards the end.

In the scene where the three remaining players are trapped on top of the cornucopia, an emotionally distraught Cato, laments the fact that all he knows about life is killing. He realizes that he isn’t going to emerge victorious and we see his carefully constructed, entitled reality fall to pieces. We are given a glimpse of the human being underneath the learned savagery. During this interaction, Cato turns towards the sky taunting the game makers and the capitol, saying are we giving you a good show in a desperate and unhinged voice. This is a critical humanizing moment that illustrates the twisted brutality of the games and its emotional impact on even the most ruthless players.

This stands in stark contrast to the novel where Cato is completely dehumanized from beginning to end. I’m really glad the film made this change, but I wish they had also humanized the other career tributes, at least a little bit.

So in conclusion, I still highly recommend reading the first book and highly recommend going to see the film. I think overall and in comparison to the rest of what Hollywood has to offer Katniss is one of the best young female characters I’ve seen on screen in a long time. Disappointingly, over the course of the next two books, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, Katniss’ character growth not only stops but actually regresses in many ways. I’ll go into details about the failings of Books 2 and 3 in a future video, but for now I’ll just say, if you haven’t read the two books already, I wouldn’t bother.

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One Response to “The Hunger Games Movie vs. the Book”

  1. This is a great analysis and I agree with (almost) everything you say. We just had a huge feminist analysis of the film and characters on our blog. I’m reading the books with my college students and they’ve been great teaching tools for discussions about violence, media, race and gender. But, I still like Peeta!