Since my previous post about The Hunger Games posed some questions about how the movie would measure up to the books, here’s my follow-up, now that I’ve watched the movie: overall, it’s one of the better book-to-movie adaptations I’ve seen, certainly better than the Harry Potter films. It tightens the plot, provides exposition without being too clunky about it (Hello, Austin, Basil Exposition here!), and nicely sets up the sequels. However, it doesn’t quite rival the immersive, visceral experience of the books, and I have doubts about how the sequels will reflect Suzanne Collins’ searing indictments of social inequality, unjust power, and violence.
My doubts begin with Madge; more specifically, with the lack of Madge in the film. The mayor’s daughter gives Katniss the mockingjay pin in the book. Getting rid of Madge may streamline the plot, but it weakens Katniss’ emotional connection to her community – a connection which is central to Katniss’ growth as a person, provides a sense of history for the district, and validates Katniss’ tremendous sense of loss and anger over the fate of District 12 later in the series.
Getting rid of Madge also keeps us from examining class differences in District 12. While all district residents are subject to the Capitol’s whims, the poor and less well-connected are clearly more vulnerable. Children from poorer families enter their names extra times for the annual Hunger Games reaping in exchange for extra rations and supplies for their families. Madge’s character highlights the differences between privileged and poor children in the district. By eliminating her, the film elides the series’ harsh criticism of a system that allows a privileged few to prosper at the expense of the poor and vulnerable, that strategically keeps some people satisfied so that they have no interest in joining with the oppressed to challenge the status quo. Poor children at statistically higher risk of being sent off to die is a particularly trenchant comment on our own society, where young men and women of lower socioeconomic classes are overrepresented in the military, and thus more likely to bear the brunt of wars decided on by the privileged political classes.
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay do offer incisive social commentary, but their primary attraction is the reader’s immersive, intimate relationship with Katniss. The series is told exclusively from Katniss’ perspective; the film, by necessity perhaps, has a more omniscient perspective, providing an effective tool for exposition and context. By not being in Katniss’ head, however, we lose our visceral understanding of her almost ruthless pragmatism, her constant mental calculations for survival. We lose the transition from her disdain of everyone in the Capitol to her grudging affection and even respect for characters like Cinna. Perhaps most crucially, we lose her evolving assumptions about Peeta, as she tries to figure out whether he’s a true ally or simply doing everything he can do to survive.
The film robs Peeta of nuance and humor, partly because Josh Hutcherson doesn’t fully capture the character and also because the script itself doesn’t allow for much depth. A case in point is Katniss and Peeta’s interlude in the cave during the games. The film gives it short shrift, which is too bad, because it becomes an emotional touchstone later in the series. What we learn in the cave about Peeta’s memories of Katniss – her little-girl pigtails, her beautiful singing, all the little details that make him love her – makes his fate even more heartbreaking. *SPOILER ALERT* The Capitol brainwashes Peeta, basically torturing him into hating Katniss, taking his memories of her and poisoning them, turning his deep affection into correspondingly deep hatred and fear. This is what ultimately makes their relationship so moving: it’s not just a crush or attraction he can’t help, but a powerful act of will for Peeta, a testament to the trust he places in Katniss when he can’t even trust his own memories. He has to re-learn his own history with Katniss, and it’s a constant physical struggle for him to fight the compulsion, programmed into him by the Capitol, to destroy her. In the end, their love isn’t about a nostalgic connection based on rosy-hued memories, but about two damaged people who slowly, painfully, find a way back to each other, who find in each other a balm for their traumatized psyches.
Okay, so I clearly strayed from the movie there, but the books are so absorbing, I just can’t help it! I’m actually re-reading the series now, so I’ll probably have more related entries over the next several weeks. For now, though, enjoy this post and remember: Have a comment, leave a comment!