|Print | Back||June 1, 2012|
Shark Bite TheatreThe Hunger Games: Books, Movies, and Apple Pie
by Andrew E. Lindsay
I am always bemused at the need some people have to read a book, watch a movie, and then pass judgment on which was better. It is true that most movie adaptations of books differ drastically from the original, and it is the rare exception when a movie mirrors closely the book upon which it was based.
I think Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is perhaps one of the truest adaptations on film of what was also an exceptional book. As is often the case, some bits and pieces have to be trimmed from the story so the movie doesn't end up being twelve hours long, but To Kill a Mockingbird is a rare bird indeed for procrastinating high school students who waited all semester to start reading the book and then decide to watch the movie the night before the exam.
Odds are pretty good they'll still pass the test because the movie is a near perfect adaptation of the book, the perfection achieved in part from a flawless performance by Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch. Having said that, any high school student who skips reading the book to just watch the movie is cheating himself out of an excellent read and deserves to be slapped around a bit by Boo Radley.
My love for both the book and the film notwithstanding, most novels or stories and the movies they inspire do not typically bear such a strong resemblance to one another.
The fact is that many, if not most, movies are adapted from some pre-existing story. Directors and producers read something that inspires them, it sparks some creative (or financial) fire, and they set out to bring to the big screen their vision and version of the story that moved them in the first place.
Along the way and for myriad reasons, the original story detours and deviates in countless ways, motivated by budgets, time constraints, creative differences, political viewpoints, ignorance, egos, and sheer stupidity. So when the final film product hits the theaters and throngs of faithful followers of the book flock to see their story on the screen, well, no one should be surprised when the response is, at best, mixed.
Some readers will immediately focus on the abandoned bits, how their favorite parts were left out, leaving the residue somehow flavorless and unfulfilling. Others will focus instead on how they liked it well enough, but this part or that part wasn't exactly what they had imagined it should be.
And not surprisingly, nonreaders come away with very different reactions because they lacked the preconceived expectations that only come with having read the book beforehand.
I'm not sure why this critical phenomenon is rampant with books and movies and yet doesn't seem to exist with other art forms. When Tchaikovsky wrote "The Nutcracker" ballet in 1892, I wonder how many folks walked out of the theater on opening night muttering about how much better E.T.A. Hoffmann's original 1816 story ("Nussknacker und Mausekonig") was than this piece of theatrical tripe full of dancing sugarplums and way too much music.
Does anyone look at the stark, contrasted beauty of Ansel Adams' breathtaking black and white photography and lament that Albert Bierstadt's chiaroscuro paintings of the same national parks weren't really as good because they were painted in color?
If I like to eat fruit do I have to decide that mangos are categorically superior to apples? Does apple pie have to be better or worse than apple butter?
Which brings me to The Hunger Games, a young adult novel written by Suzanne Collins, first published in 2008. I'll admit that when I first heard of the books (the trilogy also includes Catching Fire and Mockingjay), I was a little disturbed at the subject matter, given that the target audience was middle- and high school-aged kids.
The story is told from the perspective of a sixteen-year-old girl, Katniss Everdeen, who lives, nay, survives, in a post-apocalyptic world as a citizen of Panem, a country that covers what is left of North America. Twelve subservient districts surround the opulent Capitol city, and as punishment for their civil war against the government, each district is annually required to provide two tributes, a boy and a girl between twelve and eighteen, to compete in a gladiatorial death match that ends with only one child left alive.
The tributes are chosen from each district by lottery, with wealthier districts producing dynasties of champions, training their very best prospects to be elite killers, so that their victory in the annual Hunger Games brings wealth and notoriety to their home district. Poorer districts are so impoverished that not only is there no training, families are often forced to essentially buy more lottery tickets in exchange for meager, life-sustaining provisions.
Thus at the reaping, the day when tributes are chosen by lottery, wealthy districts have ready-made champions who volunteer, and the destitute districts have malnourished children whose names may have been entered dozens of times because they were simply trying to keep their families alive. Being chosen at the reaping is a death sentence, and the two tributes from each district are whisked away to the Capitol for the opening ceremonies and subsequent bloodbath.
All of this is televised throughout the country, and citizens are forced to watch every disgusting moment. Residents of the Capitol consider it a great holiday, something akin to the Super Bowl meets Mardi Gras. The districts resent the entire spectacle, and struggle to hide their rage and contempt for the Capitol, because any open rebellion is punishable by death.
The arena for the games is miles wide, and the terrain and conditions are created and controlled by the Capitol. Cameras are ubiquitous, so every bloody moment is captured and transmitted to the masses. Temporary alliances are sometimes formed, but in the end there can be only one victor, so allegiances are short-lived, as are most of the contestants.
So this was the storyline a friend enthusiastically explained to me a year ago, assuring me that once I started reading it I wouldn't put it down. Perhaps, I thought, but it seems a little grisly for a teenage audience. And then I read it and he was right; I couldn't put it down. It was a fast read but very compelling, constantly grabbing me in ways I hadn't anticipated and turning the tables just when I got comfortable with the seating arrangements. I liked it.
What really made me scratch my head, though, was a conversation with another friend whose children are much younger than mine, still in elementary school. The Hunger Games was apparently on the recommended reading list for fourth- and fifth-graders! His daughter and all her friends had read all the books and were anxiously awaiting the movie!
Now, maybe I'm old fashioned, but the idea of letting nine- and ten-year-olds read a book that graphically describes kids disemboweling other kids as part of a big game, well, I don't know, but that just seems like a really bad idea.
One of the magical qualities of a good book is that you become an active participant in the storytelling process, and your imagination fills in all the blanks, creating a virtual world inside your head where you are living an adventure vicariously through the printed words on the page. I wouldn't want a nine-year-old to be painting that kind of imagery into his psyche, but like I said, maybe I'm old fashioned.
You get a little older, you have a little more perspective on life and death. You become more aware of politics and governments and freedom and oppression. Then you can read the book and we can talk about it. But that's just me.
So I went to the movie, trying not to have any preconceived ideas but still having to suppress the natural tendency to look for favorite parts from the book. And I have to say that by and large I really enjoyed the movie. Collins herself co-wrote the adapted screenplay, which is fairly unusual in Hollywood (where the prevailing wisdom is that just because you can write books that millions of people love doesn't mean that a committee of idiots and a meat grinder can't do a better job of translating your story to the big screen. But I digress). The other co-writer was the director of the film, Gary Ross, who also co-wrote one of my favorites, Big.
The role of Katniss was played with quiet restraint by Jennifer Lawrence, who previously starred in the Oscar-nominated Winter's Bone and also played Raven in X-Men: First Class. Katniss's fellow tribute from district twelve is Peeta Melark, the son of a baker. Peeta is played by Josh Hutcherson, who seems to be growing up into a fine actor since his younger roles in Zathura: A Space Adventure, RV, and Bridge to Terabithia.
One of my favorite performances, however small, came from the ever-brilliant Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the Capitol's favorite television personality and host of the Hunger Games.
The story moves along well, packing a lot into 142 minutes. Do you need to read the book to understand the movie? No; they do a good job of quickly establishing enough background to let the movie tell its own story. Is it appropriate for children to go see? Well, it has a PG-13 rating for a reason, largely because the subject matter is pretty heady stuff, what with kids killing other kids while a morally bankrupt country watches with delight.
On the other hand, I never felt the violence was gratuitous or even graphic, which it could have easily been.
But since you asked my opinion (OK, I asked myself on your behalf, so you're not actually obligated to read further or consider what I have to say) I would say that as an adult you'll have no problem processing the complicated amorality of the Capitol's culture.
If I was allowing a child to see it, I think I'd rather go with him than drop him off; this ain't Little Mermaid. This is a story that needs to be talked about, thought about, not simply consumed. As for the age-appropriateness, my thought is that if your child has already read the book, watching the movie is probably not a big deal, because in many respects the book is far more graphic.
So after everything I said at the beginning, here I am apparently comparing the book to the movie. I'm not, really. They are two separate and distinct works of art that will appeal to some and not to others.
I liked the book and I liked the movie, but in many respects the movie I saw wasn't the movie I watched in my head while I read the book. Similar characters and places, sure, but it looked different, it sounded different, smelled different. Not better or worse, just different.
So will you be disappointed if you've read the book? How should I know? Do you like apple pie more than apple butter?
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