Dir. Gary Ross. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland
Textuality is a difficult concept to handle. In my experience, limited as it obviously is, it’s very hard to get people to separate two different texts when they are purposely similar. Think about a music video that goes with a song. Or a movie based on a book. Or a song covered by a different group. This is probably my favorite example of intertextuality, even if it’s slightly dated. Behold, and behold.
“Call Me Maybe” and the “Call Me Maybe” music video are different texts. There is an immense deal of intertextuality between the two: if you close your eyes during the “Call Me Maybe” video, it certainly sounds like the same thing. But that doesn’t mean that the music video somehow adds more meaning to the song: the song isn’t about Carly Rae Jepsen trying to attract a guy who, surprise, turns out to be gay. That’s what the music video is about. The song is still about the narrator having a surprisingly inviting encounter with someone she’s interested in. We’re talking about different things here.
A movie based on a book…well, maybe you could tell, but we’re going to get back to that. All I’m going to say here is that a book doesn’t become a movie unless it’s got some sort of following, and that there are two reasons why the people making the movie have obligations to make it like the book in some way. The first reason is because they will make more money (in other words, get money for a sequel) if the book’s fans feel satisfied by seeing what they were previously familiar with. The second reason is because if you make a movie like The Hunger Games that’s actually more like Steve McQueen’s Hunger, that’s false advertising.
I won’t go into too much detail in this post about covering songs (or, dearer to my heart, different casts of Broadway musicals), but there’s a mistaken idea that the cover needs to “live up to” or be like the original, when that’s patently untrue. Josh Groban’s “Anthem” is a different text from Anthony Warlow’s is a different text from John Owen-Jones’. And to be perfectly honest, each time someone performs a song, it’s a different text again. Michael Ball is the definitive Marius in Les Miserables, and for good reason. But when you hear his renditions of “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” from the Original London Cast, the Complete Symphonic Recording, and the Tenth Anniversary Cast, those are all different texts. Aside from the different contexts, there are different shades and nuances in the performances as well.
The short version of what I’m saying is that just because two things have the same title doesn’t mean they have to be the same thing. In fact, not only don’t they need to be the same thing, they are by the fact of their plurality different things. There are no correct fidelities, but there are certainly preferred ones.
That brings us back to The Hunger Games, which kickstarted last year’s blockbuster season almost hilariously early. The movie was pretty faithful to the book, I thought. In fact, it was much too faithful in almost all of the wrong places, a flaw that I find is best exemplified by Effie Trinket.
Effie, played by Elizabeth Banks, is an important character in the novel. She’s the representative who comes to District 12 to administrate the Reaping, and she pops up now and again to assist Katniss and Peeta before the titular competition. She does not, however, play a very large role in the other two books in the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, which will be three movies by the end of 2015. Effie is never more important in the series than she is about a third of the way through The Hunger Games. What I’m saying here is that if she didn’t appear in The Hunger Games, they wouldn’t be sacrificing anything in Catching Fire or Mockingjay. If she didn’t appear in The Hunger Games, there would be several minutes of free screen time, because let’s face it, who really cares who announces the Reaping as long as Katniss volunteers in place of her sister, Prim? And it’s not as if she does very much in the film once Katniss and Peeta have arrived at the Capitol. Effie Trinket’s appearance in the film is a failure of imagination. She is a relatively important character in the book that they felt they needed to include…but judging from how important she is in the movie, that’s not actually true. It’s a case of mixing up the two texts they’re working with.
This wouldn’t even necessarily be a problem, but they kept the movie at a reasonable length. That means you’ve only got so much time to tell the story and bring some levels of depth into a film that turned out to desperately need it. And so what happens is that the thoroughly shallow character of Effie Trinket, who ends up being dispensable, takes screen time away from a character who I think is immensely important in developing Katniss as a protagonist, and that’s Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson, who has had a genuinely fascinating career).
In the book, Haymitch is a classic crotchety old curmudgeon who also happens to be a riproaring drunk and the only champion District 12 has ever had. But the novel also makes it necessary for the able reader to understand Haymitch before really comprehending Katniss. Haymitch and Katniss seem to have a way of understanding each other without speaking, knowing what needs to be said and done in a specific situation without even being in the same time zone. It’s Haymitch who is in charge of sending Katniss and Peeta the gifts that sponsors buy for them. Unfortunately for Katniss, Haymitch refuses to send those gifts (water, medicine, etc.) unless Katniss is doing what he thinks will win her sympathetic sponsors and ultimately, the Hunger Games. So when Katniss is severely dehydrated, he won’t send her water: he makes her keep looking for the water he knows is nearby. When Katniss needs broth for a dangerously ill Peeta to eat, Haymitch won’t send it until Katniss pretends that she’s in love with Peeta the way that Peeta has publicly announced he is. And so on. The bond between them is one of the most interesting facets of the novel: it evinces how canny, practical, and occasionally ruthless the two of them can be. Haymitch is made into an essential part of Katniss and Peeta both surviving the 74th Hunger Games: it’s clear that they couldn’t have done it without him.
It binds them together in a fashion that, in my mind, is more interesting and more creative than any of the other foils which dominate the novel. The other characters define Katniss through what she isn’t: Peeta is (in love) patient and thus Katniss (isn’t in love) is headstrong; Prim is gentle and thus Katniss is ruthless; Katniss’ mom is overwhelmed and thus Katniss is merely whelmed. Katniss’ great attribute, other than being about as dumb as a rock when she’s not shooting a bow or identifying poisonous fruit, is her pragmatism. Haymitch, who is likewise pragmatic, reinforces that trait and makes it stronger. It’s vastly simpler to define something by what it isn’t rather than what it is. Thus, Haymitch-as-foil is probably the most complex feature to what is too often a very simplistic story.
So naturally, when the filmmakers essentially have a choice to include Effie Trinket or strengthening Katniss via Haymitch, they choose the former. And they do it because they appear devoted to this idea of recreating one text in a different format rather than embracing the idea of two different texts capable of doing two different things. The result is that they’re privileging an unproductive section of the text rather than one which most effectively builds the protagonist, who dominates her series even more than Harry Potter or Bella Swan dominate theirs.
Of course, having said that, the one place where I think The Hunger Games really succeeds as a separate text is when it separates from Katniss. The novel is a first-person affair, which is why most readers over sixteen want to put Katniss’ head through a wall at some point during the novel. The film is not a first-person affair at all, which gives us a really interesting look at the workings of the Capitol and the Hunger Games themselves. In the book, you get this idea of “Hey, I bet Katniss is kinda shakin’ things up by being all resistant.” In the movie, they show you the riots in District 11, they show you Wes Bentley playing Seneca Crane, and best of all, they show you Donald Sutherland’s President Snow. Cutting to Crane and Snow allow for context that’s totally missing in the novel. But bringing it back to Snow occasionally highlights just how menacing he is. Sutherland really did a good job at doing an understated dictator (the most unlikely combination of words ever), which pays off nicely when we’re thinking about the larger consequences of Katniss’ actions.
My parting shot for The Hunger Games is that a rabid fan base (or at least one that appears to be) is a dangerous thing for any studio or creative team that intends to adapt a book or graphic novel. You’re always going to get judged for not making a literal recreation of the original; heck, you’re usually going to get condemned for, “Well, I didn’t imagine Katniss to look like Jennifer Lawrence.” Let it go, people who make the movies. Let it go, people who see the movies. We’re looking at golden opportunities to explore the multiplicities of interpretation, and too often we’re not even recognizing that the multiplicities exist.