Saturday, 14 April 2012

Hungering for accuracy

– how the Hunger Games movie fails to capture the spirit of the books.

After reading and falling in love with Suzanne Charlton’s trilogy about a dystopian civilisation oppressing the populace by making their children take part in an annual blood-bath, I was apprehensive about seeing the first Hunger Games movie. How could the movie-makers possibly do it justice?

In my view, they didn’t.

Not that they didn’t make a very enjoyable film: it’s just that Charlton’s first person/present tense  narratives are so well-written and take the reader so deeply into the soul of the main character, Katniss Everdean (played beautifully well by Jennifer Lawrence), that a film could only ever be a partial success.

By now, most people will be familiar with the basic storyline: every year, each of the 12 districts of Panem (North America, as it is after a breakdown in society) must supply one girl and one boy (aged 12 – 18 years) to take part in the Hunger Games. Katniss becomes a contestant when she volunteers to take the place of her twelve-year-old sister, Prim.

I’m not giving out any spoilers out here, but I can tell you that the trilogy is about corruption, exploitation, manipulation, divided loyalties and love. Where the book succeeds the film fails: all it could ever be is a form of edited highlight of the actions scenes. Lawrence comes very close to capturing the cynical and dour personality of Katniss, but the movie-makers have restricted her with a limited script and also by pandering to a young audience. Woody Harellson is perfectly cast as the mentor and previous victor, Haymitch, but the role has been reduced to so little that it will be difficult to expand it to its importance in the next two moivies. So desperate were the makers to get a 12A certificate in the UK (not sure what the US equivalent is) that the power of the book’s narrative is severely curtailed.

In an attempt to trim the storyline they have altered what, to my mind, is the single most important element of the first book – how Katniss obtained the mockingjay pin (a small broche displaying a hybrid bird). The mockingjay is an insult to the Capitol: it represents rebellion and become the symbol of the uprising that soon take place. Mockingjays are descended from Jabberjays – genetically altered birds that the Capitol used to spy on the instigators of the previous uprising that preceded the Hunger Games. The earlier rebels used Jabberjays against the Capitol, so the capitol tried to dispose of them: some were not destroyed and cross-bred with mocking birds: these were symbol of the Capitol’s failure. Then there is the history of the physical object itself: as I said, no spoilers here, but it was important enough for Charlton to name her third book Mockingjay. Doubtless the movie-makers will fudge the issue in the sequels, but the whole impact will be lost.

Another thing that totally lost its impact was the attack by wild dogs just before the games are ended and the winner is announced: in the book it is clear that the Capitol has manipulated the gene pool of these animals and there is a specific and chilling horror that proves just how far they will go to unhinge its population and keep them under control.

After seeing the movie I re-read the entire trilogy. I enjoyed it far more than I did the first time. To anyone who thought the third book was an anti-climax after the first two, I urge you to read them again. The third book is a magnificent novel that details the total mental breakdown and gradual reconstruction of Katniss who, by the age of seventeen, has been subjected to more corruption, manipulation and violence than most people will see in a lifetime. And she’s still being manipulated, this time by the people she thinks she can trust.

Book 1 was violent; books 2 and 3 are more so and have far deeper themes running through them. I hold out no hope of the movie-makers doing them justice.

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