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The Hunger Games: novel vs. film

The piles of young-adult books are getting higher and higher, the choice between books more difficult. Themes are varying from post-apocalyptic futures to problematic love. Even a combination of these themes is possible. Take The Hunger Games, a highly successful novel by Suzanne Collins. As an amazing, exciting and romantic story, it is hardly surprising that the novel is received positively by critics. But what about the film? Can it meet the quality of the novel?

For the few among us who are not familiar with the story, here is a short summary.

In a future USA, Katniss Everdeen lives in one of the poor Districts dominated by the rich ‘Capitol’. To pay for their rebellions in the past, the Districts have to provide two young tributes for the annual Hunger Games, a gory pastime for the people of the Capitol. When her sister is chosen, Katniss volunteers to become tribute for her District. This means leaving her mother, sister, and hunting mate Gale behind. She has to travel to the Capitol, where her coach and stylist try to prepare her mentally and physically for the preceding shows and, ultimately, the fight in the arena. An arena which is controlled by the merciless Gamemakers of the Capitol. She encounters vicious ‘career’ tributes, hunger, dehydration and Peeta, a boy of her own District who has certain feelings for her...

Of course, there are numerous differences between a novel and its film version. A film often lacks the subtleties of a novel, but the latter can’t have as much visual effect as a motion picture. Probably the most important difference between the two is the perspective. Whereas the novel focuses only on the point of view of Katniss, the heroine of the story, the film shows how other characters experience the events, too. As you will see, both media have their own strong points in conveying this tale.

The story can be divided in three parts: life in District 12, preparations in the Capitol, and the fight in the arena. Although the fight might be the most important part, Katniss spends quite a lot of time outside the arena. Before she enters, she has to get prepared and appear in shows. Even earlier there are the events in District 12. In this setting the novel begins strongly, with the central position of Katniss. Through her memories the reader learns about her past, and how she acquired her survival skills. One gets to know the place she calls home and her personality. The film viewer, however, obtains a more shallow introduction to the main character.

Another difference is that the film provides us with only a minor portion of facts about the thirteen Districts. The Capitol, however, comes closer into view than in the novel. This might prove to be an advantage of the film, because are not appearances what the Capitol is all about? And what medium is better in showing that, than film? By displaying the almost painfully bright costumes of the Capitol citizens, the contrast between the grey poverty of District 12 and the colourful wealth of the Capitol is sharper than words could make clear.

On the other side, a film cannot show the knowledge Katniss has of past games, the worries about her sister, and the doubts she has about Peeta and his tactics. We read about Katniss’ constant awareness of the cameras that are fixed upon her. Being in the arena means being separated from civilization (as far as this term applies to people who like to watch teenagers slaughtering each other). By keeping to the person of Katniss throughout the whole games, readers understand better what it must be like to experience endless days of trying not to die, and still look amiable to potential sponsors at the same time. The reader learns the intentions of the Gamemakers through Katniss’ interpretations of events. We know what she knows about gifts from sponsors, tracker-jackers (mutated wasps), attacks from Gamemakers , and so on.

The film has to give this information through other ways: by showing Gamemakers at work, by letting other characters, and by displaying what is going on at the side of the viewers. When you have read the novel you will be surprised by the introduction of Seneca in the film, a completely new character. On the one hand, these other perspectives distract us from Katniss’ isolation; and on the other hand the contrasts (again) seem even bigger. The well fed, safe people in the Capitol are watching nearly starved teenagers fighting for their lives. A mere touch of a Gamemaker’s finger on a button can mean a bone-crushing attack on a tribute.

`I hear Peeta’s voice in my head. She has no idea. The effect she can have.’ (Collins 113)Not only is Katniss ignorant of Peeta’s feelings for her, but also of the effect she has on various Districts. She does not know that her actions in the arena stimulated a riot in District 11, or that her outsmarting the Gamemakers will cause her serious trouble later on. The riot, a dramatic scene in the film, but not mentioned in the first novel, is one of the culminating points in the story (reading part two and three makes this clear).The first film already prepares us; this story has not finished yet... Apart from the riot, this preparation is shown, among others, in the character of President Snow, who will prove to be an important character later on in the series. In the novel he is mentioned once or twice, whereas several scenes are dedicated to him in the film.

So we can conclude that the novel is more personal; closer to the protagonist and her thoughts. However, the film might be a better way of showing the story as just one part of a trilogy. Also, for a story about a TV show a screen is perhaps more appropriate. If you have not read the books yet, (shame on you!) start reading them so you can decide for yourself what the better medium is for this fascinating story. Part two of The Hunger Game films will be released in 2013...

by Maj Hansen