This post explores the translation of The Hunger Games from novel to movie. However, it does not focus on the usual issues of how closely the movie version retains the details and themes of the novel. Rather, it focuses on how closely the movie version retains the point-of-view crafting of the novel, a challenging task when working with a “first-person” novel like The Hunger Games.
The story of this novel is told in its entirety by one of the characters, the distinguishing feature of a first-person novel. The narrating character is Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl who ends up being the female “tribute” of her District 12 in the fight-to-the-death Hunger Games, with the whole novel consisting of her giving her observations and thoughts related to her becoming a tribute, going through the needed preparations, and participating in the Games themselves. This style of narration, of course, provides the readers with the events as through Katniss’ point of view which has the effect of having the readers empathize with her and pull for her to come out victorious in the Games, an effect characteristic of first-person narration.
There are inherent challenges in converting a story of this type into a motion picture. Remember, the story is nothing but the observations and thoughts of a character in the story line–what she is seeing, what she is hearing, what she is thinking, what she is feeling–and it is difficult to render material such as this up on a screen.
The 1947 film Lady in the Lake attempts to do so by shooting practically the whole of the movie with the camera mounted as if it were between the eyes of private investigator Philip Marlowe, thus capturing only what Marlowe’s eyes would capture. Therefore, the viewers are made privy only of what Marlowe could see and hear, and a voice-over by Marlowe provides the viewers with what he is thinking and feeling.
Gary Ross, director of The Hunger Games, does not go to this extreme, but he does utilize this through-the-eyes technique liberally throughout the movie. For example, at about the 5:00 mark, Katniss is shown hunting in a forest. Coming upon a deer, she readies her bow and arrow to take it down, and the camera settles just off her right shoulder to give the viewers a shot right down the arrow toward the deer in the distance, the very sight being experienced by Katniss herself at that moment.
A through-the-eyes shot like this is used rarely in the movie. A more common way of capturing this dynamic is seen at about the 21:00 mark. Here, Katniss is on a train transporting her to the Games, and the camera captures her entering the dining car and looking around at the car, with the camera then cutting to table after table of fancy foods, mimicking Katniss’ eyes passing from table to table as she surveys the spread. This technique of catching Katniss’ looking at something and then cutting to what she is seeing is used dozens of times throughout the movie, and it creates the same effect as the through-the-eyes camerawork of Lady in the Lake, though to a lesser extent.
Director Ross also uses what might be called a through-the-ears technique to mimic what Katniss is hearing. For example, at about the 1:37:00 mark, Katniss is shown causing a huge explosion that knocks her off her feet, and as she collects herself, the sounds of what is happening around her fade to nothingness, replaced by a high-frequency pitch, thus mimicking hearing loss Katniss suffers as a result of the explosion. This through-the-ears technique is used only a few times, but it does make a contribution toward the viewers experiencing events in the same way as Katniss is experiencing them, and thus, perceiving the story through her point of view.
Another technique crucial to bringing a first-person novel to the screen is never removing the viewers from the presence of the narrator-character; this only makes sense, for if the viewers are led to experience the story through the point of view of the narrator-character, obviously, the viewers cannot be made privy to details of which the narrator-character is not aware. Director Ross is pretty good on this score though not perfect, for he does take the viewers out of the presence of Katniss on occasion, but usually only for a few seconds at a time.
However, more extensive scenes outside of Katniss’ presence do occur on two occasions. The first is 49:30 – 50:38 which covers a discussion between President Snow and the Head Gamemaker in a garden that is obviously far away from the arena of the Games where Katniss is at that time. And a second sequence of scenes keeps the viewers away from Katniss for an even more substantial extent. From 1:43:25 – 1:44:37, the camera covers events in the far away Distinct 11–first, a shot of residents seeing Katniss on a huge outdoor screen, and then shots of a riot breaking out–and this is followed by a 7-second shot of the Head Gamemaker in the Games Control Center; together this sequence constitutes an even longer stretch of time away from Katniss. Then, after a mere 13 seconds trained on Katniss back in the arena, the camera shifts away from her first for a 25-second shot of her mentor negotiating with the Head Gamemaker, and then for a 46-second shot of the Head Gamemaker talking to the President about making a rule change. This means that in a 2:46 stretch, the viewers are out of Katniss’ presence for 2:33, exposed all that time to details about which Katniss has no knowledge, and this functions to tear the viewers away from experiencing the story only through her point of view.
Given how the material shown with these shots outside of Katniss’ presence serve a significant development in the plot, I can understand why Director Ross decided to go the route he did. However, in doing so, he effectively breaks the spell of having the viewers become lost in Katniss’ experiences, a spell he had been casting pretty much consistently up to that point, and this is something that never happens for the whole duration of the novel.