It’s always strange watching a film that’s based on a book you’ve read. Things, obviously, will have been changed. Scenes that work in a book might not work on screen (check out the TV version of The Shining’s topiary scene for an example of that), and, unless you’re willing to sit through a six hour long film, some plot elements will need to be simplified, subplots removed, and details lost. That doesn’t mean that film adaptations are always bad, or even necessarily worse than their literary counterparts – they’re just different.
Take The Hunger Games. The book is 464 pages long; the film is 142 minutes long. That means every minute of the film needs to pack in more than three pages’ worth of story. Obviously, it’s not quite that simple, but you can see where some things would need to be trimmed. Especially since the film doesn’t stick strictly to the book, but actually adds in some extra scenes. Those scenes are great, and a lot of the stuff we’ve lost isn’t all that important – but some of the missing stuff might actually turn out to be quite crucial.
Because I’m a massive nerd, I’m going to look at the specific things the film changed, or handled differently from the book.
Be warned – there are an awful lot of spoilers in this article. While I’ll primarily be talking about the differences between the movie and the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy, there’ll also be a reference or two to things that happen in Catching Fire and Mockingjay, the second and third books in the series, so continue at your own risk.
What the film added
Although the film doesn’t add too many new scenes, they’re all fairly significant. We get to see things that Katniss isn’t privy to, and the world of Panem is opened up to us a little bit.
So we get to spend time with President Snow in his rose garden, doling out advice (and thinly veiled threats) to Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane. These insights into the people running the show are actually really valuable, and let us see for ourselves – outside of Katniss’s limited understanding – how Panem works.
It’s also massively enjoyable to watch Donald Sutherland being creepy as all get out as Snow, and it’s great to see Crane’s character rounded out a little bit. As the Gamemaker, we mostly encounter him showing off, throwing all sorts of horrendous obstacles at the poor kids in the arena, which doesn’t make him a very likeable character. In his interactions with Snow, though, we get to see a little more depth to him; in some ways, he’s at the mercy of the Capitol as much as anyone else.
Because we don’t get the benefit of Katniss’ internal monologue to explain events to us, the film had to find another way to communicate certain plot points – and cleverly, it does so with the insertion of a few scenes of sports-style commentary from Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith. It’s brilliant, a spot-on parody of the kind of commentary and analysis you see on TV; I wish they’d used this device a little more. The character design for all the characters from the Capitol is brilliant, and the more time they spend onscreen the more we can appreciate how utterly freakish, terrifying, yet oddly familiar their world is.
We get a few more brief glimpses into that world through some added scenes of Haymitch rounding up sponsors for Katniss. In the book, Katniss has to figure out for herself what each gift from the outside world means, based on when they arrive; since we get to see her entire thought process, we go along with her reasoning. In the film, each present includes a short note from Haymitch making it clear what he wants her to do, which is a useful shortcut.
Haymitch, generally, is a bit more likeable in the film than in the book. Mostly that’s down to Woody Harrelson, but it’s also because he gets half the best lines in the film (Elizabeth Banks, as Effie Trinket, gets the others). While it’s not entirely clear why he stops drinking so heavily and starts paying more attention to Katniss and Peeta, it’s interesting to watch what he’s doing once they’re inside the arena – particularly when he persuades Crane that viewers want to see young love blossom against the odds. We’re never allowed to forget that the Games are, essentially, reality TV; a high stakes version of Big Brother.
But the eviction of a Big Brother contestant has never started a riot. Because the books are all told from Katniss’s point of view, we can’t find out until the second book what happened in the Districts while she was in the arena – but the film shows us exactly what’s going on. When Katniss sings a lullaby to Rue as she dies, then covers her corpse in flowers, District 11 erupts into riots. We get to watch as the workers take to the streets – and as the white-clad Peacekeepers march in to control the situation.
It’s well handled, suggesting the possibility of rebellion at any time, but also showing how quickly the Capitol will act to smack down anyone who tries to start an uprising. It’s clear right from the start how enormous the consequences of Katniss’s performance in the Games will turn out to be.
The best thing the film adds, though, is only a few seconds long – but those seconds really count. At the climax of the Games, Katniss and Peeta face off against Cato, the scariest of the Career Tributes, on top of the Cornucopia. In the book, the Careers are basically just the baddies. Trained for their entire lives to compete in the Games, they’re lethal, and we’re scared for Katniss every time she runs into them, but beyond their status as deadly human weapons, we tend not to really care about them as characters. They aren’t people. In the movie, though, the scriptwriters give Cato a moment – just one tiny moment – before he dies to demonstrate that he’s just as human as anyone else.
Suddenly, the fate of the Careers seems tragic. Those poor kids never had a chance; as soon as they were old enough, they were turned into soldiers. They were taught that dying for the glory of their District was honourable. (And most of them will die, remember – even if Career Tributes are more likely than any others to win the Games, only one of them can survive in any given year. In the book, there are six Careers per Games. Five of them will die. It’s kind of a joke to even call them “Careers”; it’s not much of a career, really, is it?)
We do get to feel a little bit of pity for Cato in the book: while Katniss and Peeta huddle together atop the Cornucopia, he spends literally hours being eaten alive beneath them before Katniss decides to shoot him and put him out of his misery. But that’s mostly just because the idea of dying the way he does is horrifying, not because we care about him as a person. The film cuts down on the length of time he has to suffer before he dies, but gives us a solid reason to care anyway. Somehow, the film manages to make the idea of the Games even more horrific than they were in the book, which is a hell of a thing to pull off.
What the film leaves out
Speaking of that scene at the end of the film, though – there’s a pretty major component of the fight missing. Because while those smoosh-faced dog creatures are pretty deadly in the film, in the book, there was an added component to that terror. Those mutts all had the eyes of the dead Tributes. Katniss looked into their faces and saw her fallen opponents – including Rue.
While it seems unlikely that the Tributes had actually been turned into ‘muttations’ (though it can’t be ruled out) there’s still an emotional kick involved in killing something that looks like your friend. Muttations that crop up later in the trilogy will also feature some kind of emotionally manipulative component, so while it’s not vitally important that we see that in this film, it’s a shame that an extra twist of the knife was lost.
It’s also a bit sad, though not overly important, that we didn’t get to find out anything about the Tribute known as “Foxface”. She’s never named in the book, and the film shies away from naming her, too; Katniss calls her Foxface, and we just have to take it that, yeah, she kind of looks like a fox, maybe. The most important thing Foxface does in the book is show Katniss that the Careers have booby-trapped their food supplies; this scene is in the film, but it’s truncated.
The very short conversation Katniss has with Rue about the supplies seems to suggest that she plans to steal them rather than blow them up. Something doesn’t quite work about this scene, and we don’t really appreciate Foxface’s cleverness as she steals only what won’t be missed. That lessens the impact of her death a little bit, too; again, it’s not massively important, but it’s something that the book handled better than the movie.
The removal of the Avox subplot also lessens our appreciation of the Capitol’s cruelty. In the book, Katniss and Gale are out hunting beyond the boundaries of District 12 when they see a young girl being captured by a Capitol hovercraft. She cries out to them, but they can’t save her, and Katniss is haunted by the memory of that girl, whom she wasn’t able to save. It’s one of our first hints that Katniss is the kind of person who’s likely to endanger herself to try to save someone else.
So when she arrives in the Capitol and recognises one of the mute slaves in her swanky apartment as that very girl, it’s an affecting moment. Just the idea that the Capitol removes the tongues of rebels and turns them into slaves is pretty scary, but seeing that very girl again is one of many things that finally spurs Katniss into rebellion.Perhaps the most important thing the film didn’t have time to explain fully, though, is the significance of the mockingjay.
For starters, in the film, Katniss is given her famous mockingjay pin by a woman in the Hob (possibly Greasy Sae, though she’s not named) and takes it home to give to Prim – who almost immediately gives it back during their emotional goodbye. That’s nice, in a way; it gives Katniss and Prim a poignant moment together, however brief, and helps convey how much they love one another.
In the book, though, the pin was given to Katniss by another girl from District 12, Madge. Madge is the daughter of the mayor of District 12, and is one of Katniss’s very few friends at school. She doesn’t play a particularly important role in the rest of the books, so it’s no great loss to lose her.
Losing the explanation of what the mockingjay stands for, though, might present problems later on. In the book, Katniss explains what the mockingjay means on page 51, describing it as “something of a slap in the face to the Capitol.” As she tells it, during the rebellion, the Capitol created several muttations to use as weapons against the Districts. One of those muttations was a bird called a jabberjay – basically, a living Dictaphone. The birds would fly out into the Districts, listen to the rebels’ conversations, and then fly home to repeat those conversations to the generals in the Capitol. But the rebels figured out what was going on, and started feeding the jabberjays lies, rendering all their reconnaissance pointless.
The Capitol gave up and released all of the jabberjays into the wild, expecting them to die – instead, they mated with wild mockingbirds to create the hybrid mockingjays. Mockingjays can’t speak, but they can repeat melodies they’ve heard; workers in District 11, like Rue, use the mockingjays to send signals to one another by humming predetermined melodies to them and letting them repeat it. It’s a fun story, and one that shows how the Capitol’s plans sometimes backfire.
So the mockingjay is a fitting symbol for Katniss, as she defies the Capitol and becomes the face of the rebellion. As a new rebellion begins, Katniss’s image is frequently used in propaganda; she is the mockingjay this time around, and she’s even dressed as a mockingjay at one point. So it might not have been a bad idea to make sure we knew what those little birds were there for, right from the beginning.
And some other tweaks
Apart from the major changes noted here, there are also dozens of other tweaks that have been made to reduce the length of the film, or take a shortcut in conveying something or other. Some of these work better than others.
For instance, cutting down on Haymitch’s drunken boorishness at the beginning is probably a wise decision. (He doesn’t faceplant into the dirt at the Reaping in the film; neither does he vomit all over himself on the way to the Capitol.) The film doesn’t have time to wait for him to pull himself together, so some of that has to be telescoped.
Similarly, some of Katniss’ more questionable decisions are removed – so, after Peeta admits to having a crush on her, she just shoves him up against the wall, rather than pushing him into a vase and leaving him in need of stitches. When the Feast is announced in the film, she merely sneaks out of the cave, leaving Peeta sleeping; in the book, she actually drugs him with the sleeping syrup that arrives in a parachute, knocking him out against his will so she can go to the fight. It’s probably for the best that those sequences were simplified, but it’s interesting that Katniss is more immediately likeable in the film than in the book.
The romance between Katniss and Peeta isn’t explored in any depth in the film, though, and that is a pity. The flashback to the day Peeta saved Katniss’s life – deliberately burning some bread, getting a smack from his mother for his troubles, and tossing Katniss the ruined bread destined for the pigs – is truncated in the film, and unfortunately it’s not made clear that what he did meant the difference between life and death for the whole Everdeen family. Fans of the book will fill in the gaps, but Katniss’s internal conflict between her ambiguous feelings for Gale and her developing feelings for Peeta is somewhat lost in the film. Hopefully the second film will make up for that, though.
I’ve done an awful lot of nitpicking here, I know, and I’m sure some of you reading this – if you’re still reading! – will want to accuse me of being a pedant. Go for it. I can’t argue with you on that count. But I hope it’s also clear that I think the Hunger Games movie was a great adaptation of the book.
It’s a shame that some of the subtler points of the book had to be lost, but the film does add some interesting and powerful stuff, and considering it’s a very, very long film, I certainly wouldn’t want to make it any longer. (Although I would, maybe, have let it run on for just a minute or two longer if that meant we could have explained what mockingjays are.)
I think fans of the book will be pleased; I hope people who see the movie will pick up the book. I know I’m too old for it, really, but I can’t help but love this story, in whatever medium it’s told. Roll on Catching Fire.
You can read our review of The Hunger Games here.