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The Hunger Games Movie: Better than the book?

3/28/12
We went and saw the new Hunger Games movie. I guess you probably did too since it is, like, the third-highest grossing opening of a movie ever. One of the people sitting next to us was seeing it for at least the second time. That was Sunday. I guess they couldn't get enough of kids fighting to the death.

This is probably the first time that I've seen a movie and thought, "Wow, I wish the book had been this good." If there's a movie that is based on a book we almost invariably like the book better. I was thinking about why this might be, and it strikes me that we movie-goers are a self-selecting group of people.

When we read a novel, we create a vision of that world in our minds and we create a vision of the people in that novel and what they look like while they do the things that they do. Most times an author will tell us what a person looks like, but there are lots of times that we sort of skip that description if it isn't drilled into our heads. Some authors are pretty heavy-handed in this regard.*  Other authors seem light on description and just let us decide for ourselves what a character looks like. In the second case, we do a lot of the creative work for the author. I don't think it's a bad thing, but I bet it leads a lot of people to be disappointed when they see that character onscreen in the flesh of some actor or actress. I bet that's not news to anyone, but I just typed it and I'm not going to delete all of those characters. It's my blog.

The self-selection that takes place in the theater stems from the fact that if we have read a book and it sucks (Twlight, for example) we are much less likely to go to the movie. We've already paid for the book or spent the time reading it and we are loathe to fork over another $7 to see the same tripe acted out for us. We are pretty unlikely to enjoy it, and we don't want to pay double.

If we've read a book and enjoyed it, on the other hand, you're likely to go see the movie but your enjoyment will depend on how closely the product matches your pre-conceptions. If the product is good, but it doesn't match what you were expecting then you're going to be disappointed. This probably doesn't have anything to do with the goodness of the movie. It's way more dependent upon your judgment that your imaginary version of that story is "the right way" to portray the story, and the director's imagining of the story is totally wrong and bad.

If you've read a book and it was so-so you might go see the movie, or at least you won't resist when someone suggests that you should go see it with them. You've got an imaginary version of that story in your mind, but it's probably less concrete and you're not so taken with it that you can't imagine a better version. In fact, you probably hope that the version that will be on the screen is better than the version in your mind.

I was in this third category when I went to see The Hunger Games. I read the trilogy, and it was okay. The first book was good enough to get me to read the second one, and the third was total crap (I mean, total nonsense-crap). My wife was pretty psyched about seeing the movie, and I wasn't opposed to it. I was cautiously optimistic. The previews looked pretty good.

The movie was a bit gritty, and that fit my expectations. The camera work was really nice, and they used interesting focusing and camera positions. I found myself saying, "yeah, I bet that's what my point of view would be like if I were to experience that situation."

The really nice surprise, though, was that I didn't detest the main character. Katniss was much more like a real person in the film as compared to the novel. She seemed to have a genuine range of human emotions, and I could empathize with her and the choices she made. This surprised me because the Katniss in the novel was cold, distant, and super-damaged. I don't think it's giving away anything to say that she had a hard life, and that life left her in a condition which was not conducive to being a fully functioning person. She couldn't love anyone but her sister (and I'm not totally sure that she really loved her sister either). She didn't really have compassion for anyone except for her sister. She had a hunting buddy named Gale, but she didn't love him (she seemed... accustomed to him in the sense that she would miss him if he weren't there and he added to her efficiency). She had this partner in the games named Peeta, but she didn't love him either. She had a mom, but she only felt a sort of cold disdain and disappointment in her. Her main attribute was something like "loyalty" to her sister, her family and District, and eventually the rebellion. All of the things that we know about the world that Katniss lives in are filtered through her damaged and broken perspective. It made for an interesting main character that it was nearly impossible to like or to root for. I kinda liked that about the book. I thought it was brave for Suzanne Collins to do that in a "young adult" novel.

I think the difference might have been due to the perspective from which the story was told in the novel and the film. The novel was a first person narrative. It was told from the perspective of this profoundly damaged and pretty naive teenager. She was focused on  survival. There was no room in her for such petty things as love. The film gave us largely the same story, but from a more objective third person perspective. We could see the actions of others, and of Katniss, without it being filtered through Katniss' perception. This made her more relateable and gave her character more depth.

I think this was a really good move for the Gary Ross (the director), but I don't know if the character is really the same as the character in the books. She's not nearly as closed off to the world, and she seems to be able to be at least intermittently happy and engaged with the people who surround her.

I enjoyed the movie. What did you think? Can you think of any other movies that rose above their source material?



*Stephenie Meyer (of Twilight (in)famy) relentlessly drilled the phrase "flawless alabaster skin" (or some such similar nonsense) into her reader's skull. Those books would have been far skinnier if she had not used those ridiculous adjective-laden descriptors over and over and over. (I have a hunch that she had to do so in order to make the reader overlook the paucity of characterization, but whatever.)
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