Conventional wisdom dictates that a book will always be better than the movie that it’s being adapted into, regardless of how good that movie actually turns out to be. Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings was great, but Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings was better. David Fincher’s Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was amazing, but Stieg Larson’s was that much more amazing. Franchis Ford Coppola’s Godfather might be the quinessential American film, but Mario Puzo’s novel is just that much better.
So now that Hunger Games has come and gone, you can imagine my surprise that, contrary to everything that I’ve come to know about film adaptation, the movies were actually better. Or, to be more precise, Mockingjay and its sequel were vastly superior to their print version. Despite the fact that it’s adapted from a shockingly well-written novel (call me a literary snob on this one), despite the fact that the last novel was split into twice as many movies, despite the fact that people have seemingly gotten over the story by now, the movies are better.
But why? Why these movies? Why this franchise? What makes Hunger Games so special that it can buck more than a century cinematic precedent? For me, at least, the anwer is pretty obvious upon further review.
Photo via Jwwartick.com.
1) Mockingjay (the novel) was far too condensed. The chief complain leveled against studios for splitting one novel into multiple films is that there’s only so much plot to go around. One book, one movie, one plot. But when you try to make a single plot stretch over two or, God forbid, three films, you have to pad what little story you have to work in order to hit the two hour mark.
Deathly Hallows wrang every scene for every second of screentime that it was worth. The Hobbit drew liberally from Tolkien’s ancillary material to cram extra scenes into its relatively simple narrative. Mockingjay, however, is different.
Looking back on all of these broken franchises, it’s the only one that I felt really warranted multiple films. Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay, for all of its brevity, is stuffed to the brim with plot. It contains Plutarch’s propoganda war, President Coin’s rebellion and Peeta’s brainwashing, not to mention Katniss’ love-triangle, her mental recovery from participating in two consecutive Hunger Games, her siege on the Capitol, her post-war treason and her subsequent exile.
That’s a lot for a 300-something page novel. The only way that she even managed to pull it off is because Collins glossed over pretty much all of it. Sure, we get the Cliff’s Note version of the story, but we don’t explore any of it in any amount of detail. The Mockingjay films each had a full narrative arc to work through and a suitably epic climax to end on. Neither felt stretched thin, either – quite the opposite, actually. The story finally felt like it had enough time to develop its conflicts and progress at its own pace. A single Mockingjay film would have been either so rushed that you wouldn’t have time to make sense of all its narrative twists or so hopelessly long that you wouldn’t care about them all by the end.
Photo via Thefineartdiner.blogspot.com.
2) Mockingjay (the novel) didn’t show why Katniss mattered. Strange, isn’t it? Katniss spends the entire first half of the book not on the frontlines, but in District 13 making propos. Her whole mission is to win over the hearts and minds of the other districts: convincing them to buck their generational instinct to hunker down and do as the Capitol tells them and join the rebellion. To this end, she makes a number of videos, most memorably to the haunting melody of “The Hanging Tree.”
That’s it. That’s Katniss’ role in the rebellion that’s been brewing for the past two books. She makes speaches in front of the camera and prays that people will take her seriously. Sure, she shoots down a bomber in District 8 and she took a bullet in District 2, but she is a surprisingly passive figure in the third novel. Any action that she takes prior to storming the Capitol was both accidental and minor, while her actions in the Capitol are ultimately inconsequential (she didn’t reach Snow and didn’t accomplish anything that the other rebel forces didn’t already do on their own).
The book is a chore to get through because we, the reader, have no metric to judge her successes (or failures) by. In the first two books, she was in constant combat. We could tell she was doing well when she took down or evaded another tribute. We could tell that she was faltering when she got injurred or lost ground to them. In Mockingjay, however, we’re simply told that she’s helping the cause and have no way to verify it ourselves.
The movies are a different matter entirely. We see her shoot the propo in District 10, and then we see loggers in District 7 bombing a group of peacekeepers as they quote her from the propo. We hear her singing “The Hanging Tree” in the bombed-out ruins of District 12 and then we see a suicide bombing on a hydroelectric dam in District 5 as the rebels sing the same song. The film connects the dots between Katniss and the rebellion in a way that the books never did, showing a direct correlation between her propos and the resolve of the rebels. The movies actually make her important.
Photo via Sciencefiction.com.
3) Mockingjay (the novel) forgot who Katniss actually was. Weird as it might sound, when reading Mockingjay, I never once felt that I was actually reading a book about Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire. She wasn’t the stubborn girl from District 12. She wasn’t the winner of the 74th Hunger Games. She wasn’t the accidental rebel.
I honestly couldn’t say who I was actually reading about. She was paranoid. She was small. She was insignificant.
Her mother, the nurse, was more compelling. Her little sister, a nurse-in-training, was more compelling. Hell, even Crookshanks was more compelling.
I understand the idea that she was “broken” by the games, or that the bombing of District 12 took the fight out of her, but I don’t buy it. Her story dragged on and on and all we had to show for it was her hiding in a closet from the world and feeling sorry for herself. When your novel is this over-stuffed with plot, you can’t afford to waste a full third of it moping around. It’s important to show her devastated by war around her, yes, but not to malinger the point well past its welcome.
The movie, however, nailed this difficult balance. We see Katniss broken. We see her struggling. But you know what? We also see her pick herself up an do something about it: sooner, as opposed to later. She grieves, finds her resolve and moves on within the first half hour of the movie: more than enough time to give the character her due, but not so long as to drag the plot point out ad nauseum.