When I think about movies that are, I believe, better than the books they are adapted from, for the most part these movies are adaptations of Young Adult novels (also, The Lord of the Rings). I’m not entirely sure what to make of this. One such example of a superior adaptation is The Hunger Games, adapted from the popular YA novel written by Suzanne Collins. I believe The Hunger Games, and its sequel, Catching Fire, were both better movies than books. I believe this is due, in part, to changes that were made that are necessary to adapting a book. I also believe that certain creative changes addressed some of the shortcomings in the series. What we ended up with was a superior product.
The Hunger Games and Modern YA
A WORLD WITHIN HER
Before discussing what was changed in the movies, I would first like to talk about some modern YA conventions that bogged down the novels.
The type of world-building in modern YA is hopelessly egocentric. One does not write a Young Adult novel in anything other than the first person. It is just. Not. Done. The Hunger Games and its sequels are written from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen, our precious snowflake of a human whose mind is the subject of our journey into the world of Panem. The first-person narrative works well enough for the length of the first book. Although, every once in a while, we get a moment wherein it seems like Collins wrote herself into a corner, giving us a suggestion of a story she imagined outside of Katniss’s head but could not manage to relay to her. For example, near the end of the first book when Thresh is killed. The reader is clued into a relationship between Cato, Thresh, the rain, and the field beyond the lake. There’s a story there, something Collins imagined but could not manage to involve Katniss in and so the reader is left in the dark.
The limits of the first-person narrative are augmented in Catching Fire, as the scope of the story of the rebellion in Panem moves physically beyond Katniss. This shift in scope reminds me of the His Dark Materials, a series that was written before YA was really considered a thing and was written in third-person. The first book in the His Dark Materials trilogy, The Golden Compass, follows a young girl who starts out on a journey towards discovering she plays a key role in a war. The first book could have been written in the first-person and not much would have been lost plot-wise. As the series progresses into the second book, however, and more people and locations become implicated in the young girl’s journey, it becomes essential to cut away to these characters to understand the scope of the war as well as how other people are just as important in the war effort.
In Catching Fire, since we cannot cut away to other characters without Katniss being there, the only way to get information about the rebellions occurring in other other districts is by having people (or televisions) tell her. This is much less emotionally affecting than if, say, there were a character who Collins could cut to in another district to walk us through the uprising and its consequences. Or a short chapter, written from no character in particular, chronicling an uprising in another district could be very effective. Show, don’t tell. Show us how devastating these uprisings are, don’t tell us that we should be horrified and sad and expect it to have the same effect.
Because the books are first-person narratives from Katniss’s perspective, all the information the reader needs to know has to be filtered through her. This becomes increasingly illogical as she is presented as more and more of a pawn in a much greater scheme to overthrow the Capitol. It makes sense that she would not know many things, since she is such a small piece in a much larger game. Often, it is important the reader knows things characters do not. But in order for us to know something, Katniss must also know. This culminates at the end of Catching Fire with perhaps the more egregious exposition brick of the series so far. In the space of a paragraph, it is revealed to Katniss the the existence of District 13, the true allegiance of Plutarch Heavensbee, and the machinations of the rebellion that led to her being taken from the arena. This bleeds into another problem where the reader is often two steps ahead of Katniss at any given time (had anyone not figured out that Johanna had removed Katniss’s tracker by the time someone told her?). This single paragraph, though, is so clunky and the reason for keeping her in the dark is so thin. I can understand why they would want to make her think she was going to save Peeta, but everything else just reeked of “I didn’t know where else to fit this in the book, sorry”.
At the end of Catching Fire, and in light of all this clunky exposition, it becomes clear to the reader that there are other, equally important things happening all over Panem that we are not privy to. There are uprisings, betrayals, secret plots, and we are kept in the dark, to have all these interesting subplots “explained” in a single paragraph. But third-person is just. Not. Done.
HE LOVES ME, BUT HE LOVES ME ALSO
Another YA convention that I would be remiss to ignore when talking about The Hunger Games is the love triangle. The biggest problem with the love triangle in the first two books, really, is Gale. Gale is the male suitor that Katniss loves more, but to the reader he is almost a non-character. The reader spends so much time with Peeta, learning about him and coming to sympathize with him. He goes into both Games with Katniss, trains and tours with her, shares a bond forged in trauma and survival. Gale? Yeah, he shows up for a chapter or two or three, gets whipped in the second book, which kind of ups his Woobie factor. But are we supposed to want Katniss to end up with Gale because she wants to end up with him? No. Emphatic no. The reader needs to get to know Gale, like in any courtship, to want Katniss to end up with him. Again with the show, don’t tell problem. Show us why Katniss wants Gale, don’t just tell us.
Another problem with the love triangle, or the love subplot in general, is that it disrupts the pacing of the books. This is more true of the first novel. In The Hunger Games, as soon as Katniss enters the arena it is one danger after another until she runs into Peeta, and then the book just stops for a few chapters as the Katniss/Peeta love subplot takes over. For one thing, this does not help with the whole “Who gives a shit about Gale?” thing, but it also just slows down the pace of the book to a screeching halt. I get the point of these chapters, since they are essential to making the Capitol audience sympathize with the two tributes. They should have been abridged, though. But we need our love triangles if its going to be modern YA marketed towards girls. No single ladies. It’s JUST. NOT. DONE.
…Also, apropos of nothing but modern YA tropes in general, The Hunger Games is awash in literal dreams. You YA authors love your literal dreams, don’t you?
Next time, we’ll talk about how the movies address some of the problems with the books. I would also like to say that I think The Hunger Games are wildly imaginative novels and have a great deal of respect for their author, she has created an exceedingly compelling world full of fun, morally ambiguous characters (something very few YA novels pull off any more) and I actually do like the books contrary to any umbrage I take with them here.