When adapting an immensely popular book, a filmmaker must always be wary of evoking the wrath of fans if the film diverts—even slightly—from the page. Although the third Harry Potter film is by far the most successful, Alfonso Curón was still criticized for adding gothic elements and cutting superfluous Quidditch scenes. Gary Ross was clearly conscious of this fact when creating the entertaining but slavishly faithful Hunger Games.
Initially, I thought The Hunger Games could be easily adapted to the screen because it is a well-paced narrative. After watching the film, my initial reaction matched that of most other critics: the atmosphere of the reaping was pitch perfect, the cornucopia was horrifying without fetishizing the violence, the slow pacing of the film’s first half and the quick pacing of the second was jarring, and the shaky cam was annoying precisely 99.9% of the time. What was most striking, however, was how the film’s tone and characters differed from the book even though the film was basically a page-by-page adaptation.
I was immediately reminded that this first book takes place almost entirely in Katniss’s head. Entire relationships are formed and played out through her thoughts, and we see her character develop less through her actions—save in a few key scenes (e.g., the reaping, Rue’s death)—and more through her psychological battles and internal reactions to her circumstances. The classic response to this dilemma is, “Well, it’s impossible to film interior monologues unless you include intrusive voiceovers violating every show-don’t-tell law ever written.” I disagree. Yes, you cannot film exactly what is going on inside a character’s head through language, so you should instead use the tools unique to cinema to express the same meaning.
Director Gary Ross’s inability to pierce Katniss’s psyche diminishes her status as an unconventional female heroine. Jennifer Lawrence was precisely how I imagined Katniss. She is physically strong and an odd mix of gender types—not wholly masculine in that she refuses to celebrate the carnage of battle, yet she is clearly uncomfortable with traditional female roles. Katniss initially appears in the form of a dystopian Diana—a flurry of brown leather set against the green of the forest. Diana was not only the goddess of the hunt but also a virgin goddess who was the protector of young girls, so this myth-evoking entrance was one of Ross’s more thoughtful choices. This Diana correlation does not imply that Katniss is supposed to be a Twilight virgin preparing for a purity ball; instead, she represents a young woman who has a decidedly complicated relationship with her own pubescent sexuality. When Katniss tells Gale that she does not believe she will have children, she suggests not only that she does not want to bring children into such a world but also that she does not see herself as part of an erotic economy necessitating intimacy, trust, and warmth. Katniss differs from most female heroines because of her ability to defend and support herself as well as her almost frightening stoicism (which only breaks with Prim and Rue). She embodies the conflict zone mentality, viewing the world as a landscape defined by struggle and animosity not beauty and tenderness. She clearly has sexual stirrings even though she is unsure of her emotional longings or her capacity to fulfill them.
The Peeta/Katniss/Gale love triangle, which should showcase this emotional complexity, is almost entirely absent in the film. The knotty, ambiguous nature of Katniss’s feelings for both men become reduced to a more simplified, easily digestible love story. This is obviously due to the fact that Gale’s presence in the book is almost entirely in Katniss’s thoughts, wishes, and memories. Except for a few strong early scenes, Liam Hensworth’s Gale is little more than a pretty boy with a penchant for looking forlornly into the distance. During Katniss’s moments of dehydration, hunger, and hallucination, Ross could have easily incorporated images and memories of Gale to reinforce their connection, which is always leaning toward eroticism but never quite getting there. Yes, this would have strayed from the pages of the book, but it could have done so in order to capture the book’s overall meaning.
The love triangle in The Hunger Games differs from standard young adult love triangles (with Twilight as the most obvious example) because the romance is not about whom Katniss most desires. The triangle concerns which man (if any) she can be with due to her unique position as a revolutionary and an emotionally scarred survivor. Although Katniss seems better matched with Gale due to their shared contempt for society and warrior natures, Peeta is an important interjection into her world because he is a totem for warmth and kindness (he significantly never kills anyone and is more akin to Rue and Prim than to Gale). Peeta is feminized in the books, and this is only hinted at in the films. His primary survival skill is an artistic ability he learned decorating cakes, and he always has to be carried or supported due to his multiple injuries. Unlike a weak character such as Twilight’s Bella, however, Peeta is not weak simply so he can be saved by the big, strong hero. He is weak because the world of the novel cannot quite allow for such sweetness. He does not belong in this cold universe.
Although readers will easily see that Peeta is in love with Katniss, her feelings do not develop in a linear fashion, even to the end of the book when she is sharing intimate moments with him in the cave. The movie unfortunately truncates these cave scenes and makes them climax with a kiss that contains little of the ambiguity in the novel. Again, added dialogue, lighting, editing, music—anything cinematic should have been used to highlight the true importance of these quiet periods in the cave. Not only does the film weigh the love triangle heavily on Peeta’s side but it also simplifies this relationship: Peeta and Katniss are falling in love; Gale looks on forlornly. Full stop.
By making the love story nothing more than Katniss deciding whether or not she loves Peeta more than the absent Gale, the gender subversion and darker theme of conflict’s effect on normal human development is absent. If Ross had been bold enough to add scenes and elements that explored these unique aspects of the novel, the film could have moved beyond the realm of the entertaining action film. Nevertheless, the depiction of an unsmiling, fierce young woman, especially one who never allows herself to be defined or controlled by men, is incredibly welcome on screen.