When a story told in a favorite book is retold as a movie, many fans tend to view the book as the perfect version of the tale and the movie as an inherently imperfect – if not inferior – alteration of the original. This is an understandable perspective. For one thing, first impressions matter a great deal in all aspects of life, so reading the book first unconsciously sets the parameters against which later iterations of the story are judged. For another, reading a book is an extended and deeply immersive experience; extended because it takes hours if not days to read a novel, and deeply immersive because reading requires a constant exercise of the imagination to envision what is described in mere words on the page. When watching the movie version of the story later, it is only natural that the relative brevity and passivity of that experience pales in comparison to what we saw and felt in our personal mind’s eye.
But movies also can entertain in certain ways that are superior to books. By combining visuals, sound effects, and music, a movie can interact with multiple parts of our brains simultaneously, triggering emotional or physical reactions that prose never could. How many times, for example, have you seen someone leap out of their chair from fright reading a book, compared to flinching or gasping or shrieking at a scary moment in a movie theater? Similarly, action sequences or fight scenes that look great on film might be difficult, if not impossible, to write in prose with anywhere near the same level of speed, intensity, and pulse-pounding thrill.
Ultimately, books and movies are two very different mediums for telling stories, and there will always be ways in which each one could never match the other. For that reason, asking how the movie version of a story compares to the book version of a story really is, as the old cliché goes, like comparing apples to oranges. Instead, at the core of both the book and the movie is the story being told, whether that story is Harry Potter or Twilight or The Hunger Games. The author can make the book version as good a book as it can be, and the director can make the movie version as good a movie as it can be – turning the story into the best possible apple and the best possible orange – but each version will still have its own inherent strengths and weakness as a medium for telling the underlying story they share. By reference to that underlying story they have in common they are both adaptations, and neither one will be perfect.
Last weekend’s release of The Hunger Games movie has generated a lot of fan discussion about the differences between the book and the film. Some fans have expressed disappointment, even outrage, at various aspects of the book that were “left out” or “changed” in the movie. Other fans have praised the new material in the movie for expanding the story or increasing its impact compared to the book. And some, like a parent with two children, love them both just as much, but in different ways.
For that reason, The Hunger Games is a great illustration of how the book version and the movie version can exploit the advantages and downplay the disadvantages of the respective mediums to tell the same underlying story to great effect, but differently. Of course, some fans inevitably will prefer one version to the other – but neither version can succeed without a captivating story to tell in the first place.
Katniss Everdeen is the heroine of The Hunger Games, far and away its central and most important character in both the book and the movie. Yet because the two versions tell her story in different mediums, a series of other differences in the storytelling cascade from there. In the book, the story unfolds exclusively from Katniss’ first-person narrative point of view. In some ways, this draws the reader deeply into caring about Katniss and her fate; in other ways, it limits the amount of information the reader can learn about Panem, its politics, and the Games because we only see and know what Katniss sees and knows. The movie mirrors this close focus on Katniss, keeping Jennifer Lawrence onscreen nearly the entire film. But the ability to cut away from her limited perspective – to the Gamemakers and the control room, to President Snow and Seneca Crane, and to the television coverage – actually increases the dramatic tension for the movie audience compared to the book, because the additional information shows us that Katniss is in far greater danger than she realizes.
While much of the book takes place within Katniss’ internal monologue, the movie forgoes the technique of voiceover narration, and these storytelling choices work well for their respective mediums. By drawing in the reader to use his or her own imagination, the book emphasizes Katniss’ intensely personal experience of living the events; by showing the events unfold before our eyes, the movie emphasizes the story’s political allegory about the toxic possibility of reality television as a tool for tyrannical oppression. Exposition about the purpose and operation of the Games that comes in Katniss’ internal monologue in the book is conveyed through external sources in the movie – the Capitol’s propaganda film before the Reaping, Haymitch’s dialogue with his mentees, or the cutaways to Flickerman and Templesmith reminding their viewers about the trackerjackers – that are equally effective, and sometimes even more chillingly disturbing. Similarly, in the book Katniss deduces the clues Haymitch is sending her indirectly with the parachutes, and this works for the reader because we can follow her thought process as she figures it out. But without her narrative in the movie, the story works better by cutting to the quick with Haymitch’s pointed note: “You call that a kiss?”
This shift in storytelling perspective even has implications for the portrayal of Katniss’ motivations and the scope of the ending, without changing the core story. In the book, Katniss’ internal monologue is focused on her primary goal of getting back home because she needs to be there for her mother and Prim; her goal of winning the Games is secondary, because that is the only way to make her main goal possible. Consequently, after Katniss does win the Games the reader needs the catharsis of the full aftermath of the Games, seeing the benefits and dangers from her victory and her realization that her defiance of the Capitol has actually threatened her ability to achieve the goal of keeping her loved ones safe after all. On the other hand, when Katniss’ objective is set out in the movie’s dialogue, her goal becomes to win – as she promises Prim and Gale, tells Caesar in her interview, and discusses with Peeta and Haymitch. It’s not that Katniss doesn’t want to get home to those she loves, but rather that for the movie audience her primary objective is winning the Games. Accordingly, the film is able to significantly trim down the number of post-Games scenes to just the key points that are needed to bring catharsis to the movie audience. The core story in the two version is ultimately the same, but the book plays up Katniss’ internal motivations while the movie focuses on her words and deeds.
The portrayals of other characters also gain the benefit of different viewpoints for the audience in the movie. Over the course of the story, Haymitch transforms from fatalistic drunkard to cautiously interested mentor to deeply invested champion pulling out all the stops to save the lives of his charges. In the book, Katniss is constantly doubting how much she can count on Haymitch to help her, wondering when his next drunken binge will sabotage her chances of survival. During the Games, she even fears she has been abandoned until the parachutes begin to arrive. In the movie, on the other hand, the audience gains the benefit of information Katniss herself lacks – we can see that his pride in her apple shot and his dismissiveness toward Effie are genuine, and we know from the start that he is paying close attention to the Games and working the sponsors to get what he needs for his tributes. In that way, his character arc is actually clearer and more resonant for the movie audience, because we can see it for ourselves instead of hearing it filtered through Katniss’ anxiety and mistrustfulness.
Similarly, the Reaping occurs very early on in both the book and the movie, and Gale remains behind in District 12. Yet he is an important character in Katniss’ life and the trilogy’s story, so it is important to keep him present throughout. In the book, past-tense flashbacks during the Games revisit Katniss’ memories of moments with Gale, establishing his character and his actions toward her. The internal monologue also gives insight into how Katniss misjudged some of Gale’s actions and feelings in the past, just as she also misreads Peeta in the present. In the movie, though, flashbacks likely would be distracting and confusing, but the visuals provide other ways to establish the same elements. For example, the opening interaction between the characters shows their comfortable familiarity in the woods, and Gale’s protectiveness when he keeps an arm around her as the hovercraft flies over them; later, he doesn’t hesitate to scoop up Prim when Katniss volunteers, and he somehow finds a way to be the only other person than her mother and sister to get to say goodbye. During the Games, real-time cutaways back to District 12 show that Gale initially doesn’t watch it on television like he suggested in the meadow, but then he needs to watch to his best friend’s fight to win. Yet the movie does not reveal everything: are his scowls from disgust at what the Capitol expects Katniss to do to win, or from concern that she might genuinely be developing feelings for Peeta? At the end, though, Gale stands proudly cheering for the victors, Prim atop his shoulders, and a brief exchanged glance speaks volumes about the bond he and Katniss still share.
The movie version of The Hunger Games also takes advantage of the strengths of the cinematic medium to bolster some of the thematic elements of the story. Katniss herself is unaware of the political impact of her actions until Haymitch explains them to her after the Games are over – but from the movie’s cutaways the audience knows all along how high the stakes have risen, including in the scenes with Snow and Seneca, the riot in District 11, and Haymitch himself suggesting the star-crossed lovers ratings bonanza to Seneca as a ploy to spare Katniss’ life after her defiant memorial for Rue. This foreshadows the rebellion in Catching Fire and Mockingjay much more overtly than the book’s limited narrative perspective. Similarly, in the book, Katniss simply experiences the Games occurring around her; in the movie, the cutaways make clear that Seneca and the Gamemakers are deliberately manufacturing events in the Games solely for the entertainment of the viewing audience in the Capitol, reinforced by the commentary of Caesar and Claudius. This make the reality television allegory far more powerful. So does the manner in which the movie deliberately avoids any voyeuristic appeal to gratuitous violence, the very thing The Hunger Games is allegorically condemning. In the book, for example, Thresh bashes in Clove’s head with a rock, a frighteningly quick death that is easy to envision from a prose description. To avoid the gore of such a killing onscreen, the movie deftly uses the strengths of the medium to portray an equally frightening and vicious death: a loud, sickening thump against the metal Cornucopia and a lifeless but bloodless corpse flopping to the ground.
Even though a movie is often necessarily much smaller in breadth and duration compared to a book, the core nature of the underlying story can be maintained even in the pared down version. For example, The Hunger Games movie reduces the number of parachutes that Katniss receives from her sponsors. One of the eliminated parachutes is the sleep drug. In the book, Katniss sneaks it into Peeta’s food to ensure he will be unconscious when she breaks her word to him and heads to the “feast” at the Cornucopia to retrieve the medicine needed to save his life. In the movie without that parachute, Katniss never drugs Peeta – but she still breaks her word to him all the same, simply counting on his infection-induced feverish stupor to keep him incapacitated while she is away. Perhaps not affirmatively drugging him makes Katniss seem a little bit less ruthless, but her core breaking of her word to Peeta remains, and that is the fundamental characterization element of her decision in that scene. Similarly, as the Games are winding to a close Cato is trapped amid the fury of the muttations. In the book, from Katniss’ perspective it seems to take hours of waiting for him to die before she realizes the Gamemakers are forcing her to untie the tourniquet from Peeta’s leg to use her arrow to finish off Cato. In the movie, with the need to avoid voyeuristic graphic violence thematically more prominent, Peeta does not suffer a second gruesome leg injury – and Katniss draws an arrow and puts Cato out of his misery almost immediately. Perhaps this makes Katniss seems a little bit more compassionate, but it certainly works better in advancing the movie’s plot swiftly forward to the imminent catharsis of their victory in the Games.
The Hunger Games is one of the rare stories that achieves success in captivating and emotional portrayals in two different mediums, in this case Suzanne Collins’ book and Gary Ross’ movie. Perhaps no movie version could ever have matched the intensely personal connection provided by the novel’s first-person narrative, but for the same reasons the book lacks much of the allegorical power from the movie’s visual impact. In the end, there’s no need to choose whether one version or the other is “better” – because fans of The Hunger Games are incredibly lucky to have two highly effective versions of the story to enjoy.
B.J. Priester is editor of FANgirl Blog and contributes reviews and posts on a range of topics. A longtime Star Wars fandom collaborator with Tricia, he is also editing her upcoming novel Wynde. He is a law professor in Florida and a proud geek dad.