Sometimes the coach calls timeout to lecture a player about footwork. About mechanics.
Sometimes the coach calls timeout to say a few words about how the game is approached. About mindset. About how to avoid getting in your own way. To get the most of the talent you are bringing to your game.
This is one of those times.
In this series I’ve called out several ways, and several specific instances, in which The Hunger Games, the film, is different than the book upon which it is based. The author, Suzanne Collins, received a screenwriting credit (which may or may not mean anything in terms of who actually wrote the final shooting script, and it only very rarely signifies a collaboration), so lets assume she was in on this very deliberate departure.
Or at least signed off on it while sitting on a yacht in Cannes.
But why change anything, one might ask?
Good question, that.
There’s always the pat answer that what plays in a novel may not play as well on the screen. That’s almost certainly, to some extent, part of this. But there’s more to it, which is the point of today’s post.
In fact, there’s a lesson for us storytellers — novelists and screenwriters — just itching to make us better at what we do.
Here’s a truth nobody involved will admit to, out of respect to Suzanne Collins: the movie was changed not just to optimize it for the screen, but to make the story better.
But wait, I hear you crying out. How can you make a 30 million copy selling novel better? Why change what has proven to be magic, what is universally loved?
Because — get ready for it… — it can be better.
As novelists, we are a creative committee of one.
We alone get to say what stays, what goes, what changes… at least in our “final” draft. Editors hop on the team at that point, but they’re not likely to make the type of changes the filmmakers made to HG. Which means, the author lives and dies by their creative decisions, which are always made in light of, in context to, what they know and believe about storytelling craft.
Suzanne Collins was no rookie when she penned this story. No matter how the filmmakers switched some things around, her decisions were stellar. But her experience, her craft — the very qualities that empowered her to write this great story –is precisely what played into her acceptance of the changes themselves.
The point: one mind alone, especially the mind of a newer writer, or an unpublished writer, rarely optimizes each and every creative decision that must be made in the course of writing a story. We nail some, we get by on others, a few we tank. The real problem — and the opportunity I’m putting in italics here — is when we unknowingly, or because of ignorance, haste or blinders that fit tighter than a muzzle, settle for the first organic idea we have.
Happens all the time. To all of us. Even Suzanne Collins, to some extent.
Why else would the filmmakers tell her story differently, even slightly so?
To make it better. To jack dramatic tension. To heighten stakes. To intensify reader empathy. To elevate thematic resonance.
Every change in the book-to-story evolution points directly to one or more of these underlying motivations. It’s all about story physics, the forces that make a story work… and those are always up for grabs.
We, as writers, need to do the same with our stories.
Hopefully, before you stuff it into an envelope or hit the SEND button once you get a nibble from an agent or editor.
THG was told in rigid first person. This was Collins’ choice. We see nothing that transpires beyond the curtain of her hero’s awareness. Which limits the ability to fully understand the motives and Machiavellian cruelty of the folks who are pulling the strings of the Games themselves.
The more we understand that, the more emotion we’re likely to invest. This is what the filmmakers knew, and why they changed the story.
In the book we only get a historical overview from Katniss’s POV. We never meet President Snow or the head Gamekeeper. We never see the machinations of folks with crazy facial hair pulling levers that result in fires and parachute deliveries and digital hounds from hell (which, while in the book were representative of dead tributes, were simply generically terrifying in the film, which took great liberties in doing so, because they created new laws of physics that push the story into the realm of fantasy).
That limited first person POV limits the story on almost all the elements of story physics cited above. And so, the filmmakers added scenes from behind that curtain, including a subplot with its own dramatic tension that pits the President against the Gamekeeper.
If you saw the film, you know how that turned out. But if you only read the first book in the series, you didn’t. That dynamic and its outcome aren’t revealed until the second book, and even then, without the up-close-and-personal cache of the film.
There were other changes.
Many of Katniss’ backstory flashbacks were combined and compressed. Gale, who occupies Katniss’ thoughts, is given almost no airtime after she departs for the Games. And in a major add, the film shows us a moment in which Katniss gives a sign of respect to the people of District 11, whose tribute (Rue) has just been killed and mourned by Katniss, the result being a rebellious riot. Which connects to stakes and theme.
Imagine a room full of people wearing cool clothes sitting in front of iPads sipping designer water and lattes.
That’s the team of screenwriters, producers and even actors as they discuss the script they are about to write and shoot, based on your book. You may or may not be there… probably not.
They must love your story, right? Why else would someone driving an Astin Martin have optioned and then green-lighted it? Why else would Michael Douglas and Meryl Steep be sitting in that room?
What are they up to?
They’re trying to make your story better.
They are playing with options on all fronts, asking “what if?” questions, firing off ideas. They aren’t settling for your last and best creative decisions, even if they are in love with the general concept and arc of your story. Even if your name is Suzanne Collins.
And then, at this same moment in time, there’s you. Sitting in an office, alone, sipping tepid coffee while listening to the air conditioner, which you need to replace soon.
What’s the difference?
There shouldn’t be a difference.
Write your story. Let it rip. But then — either in the moment, or via another pass — ask yourself if your decisions, your story moments, are the best they can be. If what you’ve written, moment by moment, optimizes dramatic tension while forwarding exposition, both at the macro-story level and the sequence and scene level.
Do your scenes and sequences have their own tension and stakes? Are they compelling? Will your reader be right there in those moments?
Are you maximizing point of view? Does what happens behind the curtain enhance the story? How are you handling that… and backstory… and foreshadowing, all within the infinitesimal subtleties of your characterizations?
Have you asked… why will anyone care? What level of emotion am I plucking at… at any given moment? Can you make what you’ve written even better? You need to make that your highest priority at some point in the process, over and above moving forward.
You are your own committee. Your story isn’t just a novel or just a screenplay, it should be the best story it can be.
Even if it isn’t the first version that you wrote. Especially then.
A major new story review service — the most affordable anywhere — is right around the corner. Stay tuned, there’s never been anything like this before.