Book vs. Movie: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games movie posterThe book is always better than the movie, right? Usually there’s no contest, or else the movie is different enough that they can’t be compared. (See Michael Ondaatje’s The English Patient, which was a sweepingly romantic movie and a very literary, non-linear book. See also: Philip K. Dick.) But once in a while they’re close enough that you can look at them both side by side. The Harry Potter series is one. The Hunger Gamesย is another. (Edit: For another take on the book vs. the movie, see the YouTube video by Anita Sarkeesian of Feminist Frequency (found via The Mary Sue).)

Let me start by saying that the movie version of The Hunger Games is a very good adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s book. If you’re a fan of the book, chances are you’ll like the movie. If you discovered the movie first, the book will give you added depth without making you wonder how the story managed to change so much between the two media. Most of the major plot points from the book are still there in the movie; most of the character portrayals matched what I imagined from the book, as does the visual style.

Having said that, here are some pros and cons to each version of the story. Spoilers ahoy!

1. Katniss’s state of mind. Of course, books always have the edge on this one. But there are a couple of reasons why it’s particularly important to see inside the main character’s head here. For one thing, the book version of Katniss is so oblivious to Peeta’s infatuation that it makes the reader wonder whether he’s just playing to the camera. Onscreen, it’s much less ambiguous, and that’s a loss for the story. Winner: the book.

2. The cameras. Katniss in the book is always aware of the cameras and calculating what she’ll let them see, which means we get nice little glimpses behind her controlled exterior. The movie gets around not being in her head by showing us the people who control the cameras and the chilling choices they make — starting fires, felling trees, and so on. Winner: the movie.

3. The viewers. The movie doesn’t have a tight first-person point of view like the book does. That means it can’t show us Katniss’s mind (as in #1). But it is able to show us not only the control room but also the citizens of Panem who are watching — both at home in the districts and in the Capitol. We get a better sense of the world as a whole. However, by emphasizing the gaze of the viewer, we’re put in the position of the willing and bloodthirsty Capitol audience — an uncomfortable feeling. Winner: the movie.

4. The pacing. The book lags in spots. For example, I was surprised at how much build-up there was before the actual games. Then we get into the games and it’s exciting for a while, only to slow way down during the bonding scenes with Rue and with Peeta. Don’t get me wrong, I like those relationships a lot, but the sense of urgency gets lost. The movie sticks very close to this pacing, and I think this is one area where it should have departed more from the book. On the other hand, the sequence with Rue happens very suddenly in the movie — one minute Rue is pointing out the tracker-jacker nest, the next minute she’s nursing Katniss back to health and sharing dinner. In the book there’s a bit more of a dance before they decide to trust each other. Winner: it’s a tie.

5. The hunger. In the book, there’s a constant focus on survival at all levels. The danger comes not just from the other Tributes, but from starvation, cold, fire, injury, and so on. Katniss spends a good portion of the Games trying to ward off one or another of these — she’s always on the defensive rather than being able to go after her competitors. The movie focuses on the interpersonal clashes — a necessary loss to avoid a very long movie, but a loss all the same. Winner: the book.

The Hunger Games book coverLuckily for me, this is not the Hunger Games, so I don’t have to pick a winner. I read the book first, and books usually have the edge for me, but the movie was such a good adaptation of the source material that I can’t choose. So I’m turning to you.

Which version of The Hunger Games did you like better? What pros and cons did you notice with each? Do you agree with mine?

If you liked this post, you might also like Going Meta: The Hunger Games.


18 responses to “Book vs. Movie: The Hunger Games

  1. Although I didn’t think that the Harry Potter movies were as good as the books I did really enjoy the Hunger Games movie as well as the novels. I think the biggest pro of the film version is that we got an insight in to Gale’s reaction to Katniss’s on screen relationship with Peeta; which we only really hear about in the second novel. This and the scenes of the Capitol crowds and President Snow were something that boosted the film in my estimation. Then again, in the film I found that, like you said, Peeta’s affection for Katniss is in no way under question while in the novels there was more ambiguity; meaning that we didn’t find her so heartless for not genuinely returning his love but playing along for the cameras. Also, in the film, when he said something about watching her go home every day from school but never talking to her, I found this a tad creepy rather than romantic. All in all I think I preferred the books, only because I had more time to get more attached to the characters and to get to understand Katniss better (as she’s a rather unusual character!).

  2. It’s a definite tie. This is one of the more true adaptations I’ve seen, and that’s a very good thing. It’s true to the spirit of the book, and that’s the important part from my perspective.

  3. Laura, I agree that in the book her unique and prickly character comes through more strongly, whereas in the movie she’s a little more generic. I think I’m glad I read the book first.

    Patrick, your comment is spot on. Being true to the spirit of the book is so important and yet so rare.

  4. It seems like everyone I know liked (or really liked) the Hunger Games movie. I … really didn’t. ๐Ÿ˜›

    For me, movies and novels are two different storytelling beasts: they have different means of story expression, different tools and techniques, and different criteria of what makes — again, IMHO — good/enjoyable movies and/or good novels.

    I’m not sure I would compare the two on the same merits, but rather, which succeeded most in its medium.

    Movie adaptations of novels are also tricky–because, I agree, that keeping the spirit of the novel (rather than the accuracy of the novel) is a given aim, but I also think it needs to be a good movie by itself, too. I found Hunger Games lacking that.

    Camera work (visual aspect): I was extremely frustrated with the camera work in this movie. The book equivalent would probably be the narrative–and since it was first person, well, it worked in that sense. The prose, Katniss’ perceptions, her thoughts, actions. Yeah, you see the whole thing through a narrow view of one person–but her personality (even though it was kind of touch-and-go for me) delivered context, empathy, understanding to the story. In the movie, I got none of that. I didn’t understand the point of the angles or transitions. In fact the whole beginning of the movie was such a bizarre exerience for me, because if I had NO context of the story whatsoever, the scenes built no empathy or tension for the stakes in the Reaping scene. And here I was, having already read the book so I did know what was going on, and STILL, I couldn’t care when the scene came on screen?

    The pacing: I agree–in the book, the pacing lagged in places (I blame Katniss’ personality and her exposition), but I’m more willing to forgive that in the book than I am in the movie. Novels have more leeway in pacing and structure if it’s offsetted by other things, like narrative style or character. In movies, the structure (and subsequent) pacing is more rigid. By following “almost” exactly the key points of the novel, pacing hurt the movie more than it did in the book.

    I also think that the rating of PG-13 hurt the movie for me. As an adult, even though the book was YA, I was able to “read” more gore and violence in my head when reading the book. I expected that same sort of shock and awe in the movie–even more so, because the movie medium is predominantly visual, where what you “see” is what you get and no more. A book, especially first-person POV, can leverage other things (the narrator’s thoughts and feelings, etc). Instead, the movie was santized for me. It never really dealt with the horror of a spectator game involving children killing children; in fact, it felt like it always looked away at critical points.

    My theory on why the Hunger Games movie is doing well is because that most viewers have already read the book and/or are young viewers for which the PG-13 rating doesn’t hurt. Unfortunately for me, that just doesn’t cut it.

    I actually wrote about all this in my LiveJournal right after I watched the show, but it seems that even time hasn’t tempered by dissatisfaction. ๐Ÿ˜‰ I don’t think it’s a bad movie, but I am frustrated because it could have been so much MORE and I expected more, and instead, I got this lackluster thing.

  5. J., sounds like you have some strong opinions about the adaptation! ๐Ÿ˜‰ I get you on the cognitive dissonance of having everyone around you (including those you respect) love a media property that you just don’t — I had the same reaction to the new Star Trek movie. Might have to blog about that at some point.

    I kind of liked the filmed version of the Reaping scene, though I had to snerk when they showed the propaganda video (*coughAsYouKnowBobcough*). But I see your point on the pacing — books have so much more leeway there.

    As for the lack of gore, I’ve just added a link to a video (near the top of my post) that argues it was a good thing — so many movies these days are so explicit, and the violence could easily have been sensationalized here. But I agree that the choice to play it down weakens the horror that the story is supposed to convey. Instead, we get cozy little campfire scenes with Rue. I felt that way with parts of the book too, but the book plays up the horror in other ways (like the first-person point of view) and the movie doesn’t. So there’s an extra argument in favour of the book!

  6. I skimmed through the transcript of the video you linked. I liked the point the author made about the movie maker’s choice to not sexualize Katniss — she was right: Hollywood could easily have done that and good on them for not doing so. If that had happened, I hope I would have been unhappy about it ๐Ÿ˜› Sexuality wasn’t part of the original story–and adding it in for a movie–would be a cheapening of the story.

    I acknowledge that Hollywood also has a tendency to sensationalize violence — but my opinion on this remains unchanged. (This could be that Hollywood has done its work: I might be de-sensitized o.o)

    I still think that the horror or the issues dealing with the violence is a core part of the story. Instead, the film makers avoided the issue entirely. It felt less like a downplay for me, and felt more like a cop-out. Surely there are ways in which it could have been done without glorifying violence? [I offered a possible way they could have done this with Rue’s death in my post ] How about they humanize the characters before they show their death (even a sanitized version of it)? The movie didn’t do that for the characters, in some cases, even in the main characters.

  7. You make valid arguments, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to weigh in on J. Ng’s side. And I, too, blogged about my disappointment. Basically, I felt that the movie was so boom-boom-boom that the emotion of the book was sucked out of it. In defense of the movie, I will add that I’d finished the audiobook the day before we saw the movie (it was my 3rd time to read the story; my 10yos first). She loved the movie. My husband (who’s never read the book) thought the movie was disappointing.

  8. jodileastewart

    I didn’t read the book. Nor did I intend to. However, I surrendered in order to intelligently discuss it with family, friends and associates. I have also bought the book and spot-read it. When I get my current novel completely written the first time (about 1/3 left to go), I’ll read the entire book. I find that reading novels during the first write of my WIP wobbles my focus.

    I’ll start by complimenting the author for the originality of the idea. A different idea well played.That said, I left the movie with the same criticism I had of the entire concept before I saw it, and I will state my primary objection at the end of my comments.

    As a movie, I found The Hunger Games entertaining. The actress cast as Katniss was a flawless decision. She is perfect for the part with her non-committal, exotic appearance, The actor playing Peeta was a dweed. I couldn’t connect with his look or emotional persona.

    The technological aspect was invigorating, and again, the concept is enviable..

    However, I noticed many dialogue lapses in which it seemed Katniss should be saying something, yet the director relied on her expressions to say it. Lovely as she is, her face is not exactly a conveyor of any deep emotions Also, how many minutes of film must we see of her sitting in a tree? Boring.

    I found the fire balls ridiculous and amateurish. The forest becomes a blaze of fire, yet it doesn’t seem to do all that much damage. It seems “thrown in” for visual effect and computerization sake.

    And finally, my most blatant criticism is the same one I had before seeing the movie or flipping through the novel. That is, it could have been written without very young children violently killing other children. Believe it or not, the concept could just as well be served by using the 18-20 age category instead of 12-18 year-old kids.

    Yes, It would have involved writing Katniss’ great fear and protection concerning her sister in a different way (which should not be so hard with all the editors this novel surely had working on it).

    Remember, this book is wildly popular with the 10-15-year-old crowd. What effect may this have on young, impressionable minds? Will this increase violence among adolescents?

    With the bully situation at an all-time high (estimates say that at least 13 million kids are bullied in this country, and with the child sex predators alarmingly “on the hunt,” we do not need to make our children LESS SAFE by flocking to the coliseum *the theatre and bookstore* to see/read about youngsters thrown into adult arenas of survival, pandering to the powers that be and marketing themselves to adults who will “sponsor” them. How gross that is…even worse than putting makeup, net stockings and garter belts on four-year-old tots and sticking them upon a stage in pageants! Yes, this actually happens!

    Is our present society too blind to find this behavior objectionable? Perhaps we are closer to a society that sacrifices its young than we think.

    Personally, I object to SHOCK ENTERTAINMENT in which CHILDREN ARE USED AS BAIT, whether it’s in The Hunger Games or in front of a movie/television camera.

  9. You guys should all go read J. Ng’s and Julie Kenner’s posts. They make some excellent points. ๐Ÿ™‚ I think I was influenced in my viewing by having recently read the book — thinking back, I remember myself sort of overlaying Katniss’s narration in my head while watching the movie. In this scene she’s feeling X, she’s doing that because of Y…things that weren’t explicit onscreen. I’m not sure what kind of reaction I would have had if I’d seen the movie before reading the book.

    Jodie, I respectfully disagree with your position on the age of the characters and the violence in the book. It’s a dystopian novel — the very point of it is to show an objectionable society and raise questions about parallels with our own society (bullying, toddler pageants, reality TV, and so on). In the story, Katniss represents the moral high ground struggling against a government gone wrong. Here’s a fantastic blog post that agrees with you, followed by an equally fantastic bunch of comments, some of which make my argument better than I’m able to:

  10. I had this post earmarked because I didn’t have the time to read it when it popped up, but now it looks like a couple of folk beat me to the punch.

    While I didn’t exactly dislike the movie, I didn’t think it was a very good adaptation at all on most points. I thought, as is usually the case with movies, too much attention was paid in the wrong places and too little was paid where I most wanted to see it. I had expectations for a Tim Burtonesque Capitol that would set a much more stark comparison with District 12. Instead, it was almost as if someone had opted for strange colorization work on a black and white of some old Oscar’s Ceremony footage. Leaving out Cinna’s assistants might have been a detriment to understanding how ridiculous the citizens of the capitol are.

    Casting was spot on for Effie, Snow and Rue, but I think Lenny Kravitz fell short as Cinna and Peeta was too far off and hardly so good that his size was ignored for talent. Haymitch started off great and then his story was so abbreviated that his character lost interest.

    The pacing was roughshod for me. I want to assume that editing was the pitfall as the movie was pushing the limits of how long most people will sit for a film. For my preferences, the focus provided in the movie missed all the parts that I thought were vital to understanding the story. Too little attention was given to the overarching theme in favor of repeating the same Katniss backstory clip over and over and over.

    Again, I didn’t dislike the movie, exactly, but I won’t go see the next two. That has as much to do with the movie adaptation of the first as it does the fact that I think the second and third books fell far short of expectations after the first.

    My vote for best adpatation is The Green Mile.

  11. Tobias, thanks for the comment! I agree it would have been nice to see Cinna’s assistants — then there’d be a sense of relief when Cinna shows up and is sympathetic, which was nice in the book and is absent in the movie. Love the idea of a Tim Burton-style Capitol.

    I haven’t read The Green Mile, but I thought the movie was great.

  12. I also thought that katniss had a better relation with peeta before the games. Also, when they got the pin she got it from the cement house when in the book she got it from Madge.

  13. Thanks for not being a hater because you know, haters gonna hate… Anyway, I thought that katniss and peeta had a better relationship before the games in the book. Also, I did not like it when in the movie she got the pin from the cement house. Don’t get me wrong, I am a total crazed fan of the hunger games and love the movie but I mean I feel like all fans could’ve changed something right? Everybody please leave a comment and tell me what you think about my comment… Thanks!!!

  14. Also, for all the haters out there this is an awesome movie and it took a long time to make so you better not say anything and keep your comments to yourself because Gary Roos would be very sad to hear that because it is an awesome movie!!! And the sexuality was in the book too. I know EVERYTHING about the hunger games so don’t tell me different. ๐Ÿ˜œ

  15. Ross I mean!!!

  16. *raises an eyebrow*

    I disliked Haymitch in the movie. He was supposed to be a drunkard. Instead he’s… all spiffy and clean and…

    Although J.Law as Katniss was especially on the mark, or so I thought. Also, the movie scene of Katniss shooting the apple was superior. No question there.

  17. Agreed on all counts!

  18. Pingback: The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale | ReelTalk

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