The Trouble with Making Books We Love into Movies

Let us not forget, in the whiplash-inspiring build-up to the Hunger Games movie cumulating in exhausting midnight showings (and screenings for normal people at normal times), that this all was sprung from a far more humble entity.

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Oh, The Hunger Games. Let us not forget, in the whiplash-inspiring build-up to the movie cumulating in exhausting midnight showings (and screenings for normal people at normal times) -- not to mention the reviews of the movie itself, the discourses about the marketing of the movie, and pontifications on the movie's chance to save the entire world of cinema and possibly other industries as well -- that this all was sprung from a more humble entity. A book. Lowly paper and ink, printed words capturing the madly spun ideas of one writer's mind that went on to inspire whatever interpretations and visualizations the reader desires. That is one of the undeniable, sustaining beauties of reading. While you have a compelling descriptive outline in your hands, you can still play it your own way, seeing the characters and their motivations exactly as you like.

Books often lead to movie adaptations, and so much the better for sparking a fire toward both industries -- if a movie gets more people to read, great; if avid readers get to see their beloved characters on the big-screen, that's a boon too. The Hunger Games and the two following books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, are no ordinary books, though. They've been read by literally millions of people. As Brooks Barnes and Julie Bosman write in The New York Times, "There are now 23.5 million books [from the trilogy] in print in the domestic market." These books have not only glutted the market but also, they've done very, very well—they've been on best-seller lists for, cumulatively, hundreds of weeks. And, like the Twilight and Harry Potter franchises, their readers tend to be obsessive, consuming them rapidly and wanting more, more, more. It would have been cruel to withhold a movie from these fans, not that any studio would ever have done so, considering the money-making potential. ($100 million in the first weekend is one figure being tossed around, and it's not even the highest.)

But popular books aren't just indications of how successful the movies they inspire will be; more personally, those books are readers' conduits to other lives and other worlds, lives and worlds informed by those readers' own imaginations. That's why we gripe so much when the actors cast in those movies don't meet our expectations, or why we quibble with plot points dear to our hearts being "massaged" for a more "cinematic experience." The movie is the adaptation for the mass market, more "mass" even than mass-market books, to be sure. Compare a million presale tickets, before the first movie is even out, to the 23.5 million books in the trilogy now circulating since the first book was published in 2008, and you get the idea. Among the challenges of such a mainstream-aimed movie: It must fit into the filmmakers' assumptions of what will be successful; not offend anyone, really; get a certain rating that means it's OK for kids but will also entertain adults; come in within a certain budget; not be too short or too long; be made within a finite period of time given scheduling difficulties and costs; and so on. There are casting questions: Which actors can not only play those parts and do them justice, but also may bring in viewers? The actors have to fit the needs of the publicity campaign as well as reader's expectations for the characters—which is especially hard since the "character" has been determined by each reader. And so on. There are a million ways for the movie to go wrong, the most dangerous, perhaps, being a dilution of the initial concepts that got readers so excited about the books in the first place.

But any way you look at it, the movie version of a widely successful book is bound to go wrong. Has any book lover ever truly been fully satisfied with the big-screen adaptation? The relationship we have with the book is personal and special; the relationship we have with the movie is more distanced from that, more passive, and certainly less demanding of us. We sit back and watch it play out, and we do so with a changed eye, having read the books. We're not going in as innocents but as experts; we know how the story goes, and we know what we expect. If we were more naive, new to the plot and characters, things might be different, but since we've read the books, and read them emphatically, possibly more than once, we can't know that for sure. We can only compare to what we do know, and already love.

Possible spoilers start here: Last night I went to an oddly quiet, lineless midnight showing of The Hunger Games. Quiet and lineless due to the fact that the theater had only just decided to show the film, or that it wasn't in a Times Square multiplex, but at any rate, there were plenty of seats available. The seats that were full, however, were full of book readers. And the comments we had on the movie afterward, in the bleary hours of the morning, were about how it compared to the film. Why was Prim, Katniss's younger sister and the character who, by being chosen in the reaping, sets the plot of the book in motion, so tearful and pathetic when in the book she'd impressed us as calm and even stoic? Would a girl from the 12th District, where Katniss and Prim both live, a neglected district where everyone is often hungry, even starving, a girl from a family whose mother and father are, in different ways, out of the picture, be so wimpy? Katniss as a character, a survivalist, makes sense -- Prim as a baby does not, and the book's description of her and the movie's characterization of her didn't match up. It's too easy, too pat.

Then there's the issue with the Mockingjay pin. As everyone who's read the book knows, Katniss is given the pin by the mayor's daughter, a girl with whom she has a friendship, and that friendship and the pin play into the rest of the books in an important way. But in the first few minutes of the film, Katniss gets the pin from a woman to whom she's trading her game. She sees it in a box of trinkets, and she takes it home to Prim, to "keep her safe." This feels inauthentic, and also unnecessary, but perhaps in the director's mind the added character of the mayor's daughter, and her delivery of the pin to Katniss, was an unimportant plot point too far removed from the story.

Parts of the movie seem stilted, particularly in the beginning, as if characters are reading lines in a play. And later, parts are just too blustery, too shiny 21st century big-screen movie, or maybe too Truman Show, as we transition from scenes in which children are being killed by children to what looks almost like a Verizon commercial, with white-clad gamemakers sitting in a large auditorium-style room putting mutts and other dangers into the world of the tributes with just the touch of a finger to a computer screen. In another sort of "breaking the third wall" moment, Katniss seems to notice a camera installed in a tree trunk. Brief hilarity ensues, or did so in the theater -- a feeling a bit off given the reality of the book. Meanwhile, the scenes of horror and tragedy -- for example, the scene in the end, in which mutated mutts (in the book) are said to have the eyes of dead tributes -- are lighter, glossed over, and easier to take, when really, they shouldn't be.

Lenny Kravitz as Cinna seems to lack a certain nuance. For some reason, in this blogger's mind, President Snow always looked a bit more like an evil Ben Bernanke and less like Elizabeth's dad in Pride and Prejudice (another book-to-movie adaptation, don't get me started). And then there's Woody Harrelson, or Haymitch -- in the books, the character is portrayed as a misanthropic alcoholic who copes with the memories of his own experience in the Games by self-medicating and closing himself off to society, yet in the movie he's something of a wheeler-dealer, surprisingly chipper and circulating on the sponsorship circuit to get money to send Katniss medicine when not being a caricature of Woody Harrelson (who is something of a caricature anyway).

But maybe the biggest beef is one of tone. In the end, even the most vicious male tribute, Cato, seems to show a regretful pang, and that's weird, as is the sort of "Mean Girls" quality to the alliances of the "bad" tributes. The darker, starker quality to the books are a bit lost in the big shiny movie, in which it seems clear that at least some people making the film wish there could have been a happier ending. That seems a shame.

At the same time, it would be hard to say that the movie wasn't entertaining or enjoyable. Rue and Katniss are particularly well-drawn, with the actresses playing them are up to the challenge. And while big and blustery, Stanley Tucci's turn as blue-haired game-show host Caesar Flickerman is just fun, and effortlessly Capitol-esque; it's one of the places the cheesiness that often comes through in the movie actually works.

Still, in fairness, we should ask ourselves whether we want the movie to be better, or even as good as, the books in the first place. Because a criticism of how it should have been -- and it almost always plays out better in our minds -- is in some ways part of the fun of seeing the movie made from a book we love. Perhaps most importantly, we kind of can't wait for the next installment.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.