Thursday, December 27, 2012

Reversing the normal order

With books that get made into movies, I usually do one of two things: 1) Read the book and then see the movie; 2) See the movie and never read the book. (I suppose there are also plenty of situations where I do neither.)

Not so with The Hunger Games. I'm sure this has happened before, but not in a long while: I saw the movie and then circled back to read the book. I suppose I should say, to "read" the book -- I listened to the unabridged audio book, which is the same as reading it in terms of the processing your brain does.

I hadn't planned to do that. In fact, my original plan had been to try to read the novel before seeing the movie, as discussed here. When that plan didn't pan out, I assumed there was no more "plan" related to The Hunger Games at all.

But in early December, I was at the library looking for the next audio book for my commute, and came across Suzanne Collins' novel. Even then I might not have selected it, but I had my son with me, and he was being particularly squirmy. So I just grabbed it and went, deciding at the very least that it would make an interesting experiment in order reversal. With an audio book, which has the benefit of being a more passive experience than sitting down to read, you can afford to take gambles on reading experiences. Which is just one reason I've been enjoying the audio book phase of my life over the past six months since we moved 25 miles from my office. I may even "read" some harlequin romance just to see how bad it really is.

I could write this post just about what I gleaned from my experience of this story by reversing the order, but I added an extra layer to the venture by watching the movie again this past weekend. My wife hadn't seen it, and had it on her list of movies she wanted to watch around Christmastime (most of which I had already seen). I probably would have been interested in seeing The Hunger Games again anyway, but having just read the book gave me extra incentive.

Let's just say that the movie, which came out early in the year and has been steadily inching down my list, immediately shot up a dozen spots upon second viewing. And having read the book in between definitely made me appreciate how good a movie it actually is.  

SPOILER ALERT: I will probably spoil aspects of the plot as we continue. So if you have somehow still neither read the book nor seen the movie, you may choose to bail at this point.

For starters, let me say that I loved the book -- to a point. I found that the first two-thirds of it raced along, and Collins' prose manages to be both direct and evocative at the same time. I got more insight on some parts of the movie I initially thought were underdeveloped, and I really enjoyed having unfettered access to Katniss Everdeen's thoughts. In case you haven't read the book, it's told entirely from her perspective. We hear what she's thinking at every moment, and we know only what she knows.

But the final third of the book dragged for me. This may have been where knowing how it ends really affected my enjoyment. In either scenario of consuming a story for the second time -- whether as a film or as a book -- you're often looking forward to when such-and-such happens, to how they chose to depict such-and-such. However, that wait can seem interminable in text form. A quick analysis of the pace of the story's events and the number of discs remaining told me that the book was going to spend a lot of time in the arena, whereas the film's action is a bit more front-loaded. And I quickly realized that the movie's front-loading was to its advantage.

Simply put, there's way too much of the book where Katniss and Peeta are "playing house" in the arena. We're down to just a few tributes remaining, and the announcement has already been made that this year's rules are changing to allow two winners, as long as they both come from the same district. At this point, the novel pretty much grinds to a halt. The danger seems to disappear, and Katniss and Peeta have literally days upon days of hunting, gathering, treating Peeta's wounds and falling in love (though Katniss does not recognize it as such, thinking instead that it's part of their game strategy).

And here we truly see the novel's status as a product for young adults. It's called a YA novel, but really, that means teens. And teens want to know all the ins and outs of how people their own age fall in love. It's the thing that preoccupies them the most, and one can't blame Collins for lingering on that aspect of the story for longer than most regular adults could possibly stand. To be clear, she never loses focus on the overall thrust of the story, but she indulges in the star-crossed blossoming love between Katniss and Peeta more than one would think she needed to.

Apparently, she didn't think she needed to dwell here, either, once the novel became a movie. As one of the three credited screenwriters on the movie, Collins leaves much more unsaid about what develops between Peeta and Katniss. Whereas they kiss probably a dozen times in the book, a movie can afford to be a lot more subtle, can choose individual moments and give them greater significance. It has to, because a movie is essentially an efficient form of storytelling, while novels are generally more flabby. So in the movie, Katniss and Peeta share only a single kiss -- two at most. Which is just as it should be. And a bone is definitely thrown to the adults who will help make the movie a hit, as a couple time-lapse sundowns and sunups show the passage of their time together that the novel explicates in exhausting detail.

The most important other difference between the novel and the movie is the viewer's perspective on the events. As I said, the novel is told entirely from Katniss' perspective. We meet and understand characters only as she meets and understands them. Characters she does not meet are really not characters at all. Which creates a strange kind of void in the book, especially when you've already seen the movie. The only character who personifies an antagonist is probably Cato, the District 2 "career tribute" who is widely viewed as the arena's alpha male. Katniss never meets the Gamemaker Seneca Crane (played in the movie by Wes Bentley) nor President Coriolanus Snow (played in the movie by Donald Sutherland), although Snow is referred to. So for the people who have only seen the movie, the two faces they most associate with the nefarious Capitol don't even appear in the book. In the movie they can appear, because the perspective is omniscient.

This is a key difference. I didn't necessarily think it was to the novel's detriment that there is no personification of what Katniss is fighting -- fighting in the larger metaphorical sense, not in the literal sense of her competitors in the arena. But that never would have flown in a movie, to have just an abstract faceless villain. So while I'm not necessarily sure this is a misstep in Collins' novel, it's definitely a smart decision by the movie to make these two characters flesh and blood. Especially since Sutherland is so wonderfully chilling (which goes with his name, I suppose). His story to Crane about why there is a victor in the games is one of the movie's most telling moments, the moment that really gets us inside the mindset of a totalitarian regime fully wary of its loose grip on power.

However, the existence of Bentley's character in the movie but not the book played tricks on me. One of the main drawbacks of reading a book after you see the movie (or even after you're aware a movie exists) is that you can't help but see the characters as the actors who were cast in those roles. If you cherish the way a novel allows you to imagine how the words might look, you lose that as soon as a movie version becomes widely publicized. That had a particularly strange effect on me as I was reading the novel when it came to Bentley. I remembered that Bentley was in the movie, but apparently, not what role he played. So when Katniss' sympathetic stylist Cinna made his first appearance in the novel, my mind latched on to this character as the character Bentley must have played. So for the rest of the book, Bentley was Cinna. It was to my surprise when I watched the movie again, and Bentley's character is being interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) at the start. When Cinna appears probably 45 minutes later, I thought "Duh -- it's Lenny Kravitz." Still, any time I'd see Bentley again, I subconsciously thought "Cinna, what are you doing creating unholy hounds from hell that are sent into the arena to kill Katniss?"

Having Snow and Crane appear as antagonists (albeit a conflicted antagonist in Crane's case) also has the effect of softening the portrayal of the monstrous tribute Cato (Alexander Ludwig). He's still a lethal killer and a massive douchebag, which is in part so we don't feel so bad about his eventual demise. In fact, a number of characters are portrayed as vicious and sadistic, which I think helps us process their deaths better. But with Cato in particular, his death scene allows for the possibility that he is not just a single-minded killing machine, but rather a confused 18-year-old who has spent his life preparing for an event in which the odds were never really in his favor. We don't quite give ourselves over to fully sympathizing with him, but his final moments on screen remind us that the true enemy is the Capitol, not this man-sized boy who is just doing what society has raised him to do. I don't know that (or I should say, can't remember whether) we get that kind of ambiguity in Cato's final moments of the book. Since he's the only real antagonist, he has to fulfill that role more unwaveringly. This moment of ambiguity gives us a good taste of what I know the thrust of the next two books will be, which is to overthrow the Capitol. We get that spirit of rebellion more overtly in the book, since we have direct access to Katniss' thoughts.

However, I should say that there are certain things the novel definitely does better. For example -- and this may be intentional to minimize the horror of what's happening to these children -- the novel does a much better job keeping track of how many tributes are remaining in the games. Upon first viewing, I was frustrated by how poorly the tributes' deaths were marked, and was surprised at how rarely they used the effect of showing their profiles in the sky after they've died. There were also times in the movie (such as Rue's death) when there is inexplicably no cannon blast accompanying the death. The novel mentions a cannon blast at the death of every fallen tribute, and discusses seeing each one appearing in the sky at day's end.

Then there was Elizabeth Banks' character, the wonderfully named Effie Trinket. When I first watched the movie, I didn't really get what her role was supposed to be, since none of the novel's dialogue about her trying to get assigned to a better district appeared in the movie. I got that she was some kind of envoy, but her role remained pretty nebulous to me. I didn't have this problem the second time -- but I think that's only because the novel helped me get a better idea of who she was.

It may just be my much-discussed notion that the first version of any story you experience is the version you're going to like best, but my ultimate conclusion, especially after my second viewing, was that the movie version of The Hunger Games was a better distillation of Collins' core ingredients than the novel. Not only do I find the casting flawless (again, a hard assessment to make since I saw the movie first), but I find that I can apply to this movie one of the highest compliments I can give any movie: There are no wasted scenes. So even clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, The Hunger Games feels streamlined and fast-paced. It's a major success, a success the fullness of which I now appreciate all the more given my knowledge of the source material that was adapted into the movie.

Lest you think the novel comes off poorly in this discussion, let me say this: This is not likely an order reversal I will undertake again with this series. Its "flaws" notwithstanding, reading The Hunger Games excited me enough that I definitely plan to read Collins' next novel in the series, Catching Fire, before the movie hits theaters next Thanksgiving.

Because let's face it: Reading a book is a lot more exciting if you don't know what's going to happen, and if apparent slow points in the plot have the effect of building tension and anticipation rather than stalling before an inevitable conclusion.

Now all I need to do is read Catching Fire before November. Which will be easy if I can find it in audio book form -- and sadly, not if I can't.

Oh heck, even a slow reader like me can probably find the time before November to make it through the page-turner that I'm sure Catching Fire is. Might make some good beach reading. Which is probably the last thing anyone's thinking about at this time of year ...

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