Hunger Games 7 — Lessons From the Film Adaptation

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The point: one mind alone, especially the mind of a newer writer, or an unpublished writer, rarely optimizes each and every creative decision that must be made in the course of writing a story.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.

10 Comments

Filed under The Hunger Games series

10 Responses to Hunger Games 7 — Lessons From the Film Adaptation

  1. Michael T

    As always strong stuff – loved “The Stealth Power of Sequencing.”

    But how often do we hear “the book was better.”

  2. @Michael – totally valid push back. Often, that same filmmaking committee — because of politics or who is most powerful in the room – can make a book worse, water it down, etc. Sometimes the writer, most often the director and sometimes the producer or an actor, has a different vision (which wasn’t the case with HG), and thus, the movie morphs into something very different. It’s all very imprecise. You’re absolutely correct in saying this happens – a LOT – but I hope that doesn’t water down my point: that we, as writers of stories, need to never settle for our first idea, which dawns in the organic fenzy of writing the sequence of our exposition, when there might be a way to jack it up (intensify story physics) or shift it so that it works better. It’s those decisions that often dictate the fate of our stories, commercially, so they are critical. Thanks for chipping in to this discussion. L.

  3. Michael T

    Good points, your reply sheds important light on the process; answers my boggles.

    As someone who worked in the film industry (DOP or DP) I look back on the scripts and recall how bad most of them were, and how clueless the writers (often the director) were. At the time I didn’t notice for being a cinematographer you have waaaay too many things on your plate to care.

  4. Kimberly M

    Thank you.

  5. Norm Huard

    And that’s why they are called movie adaptations. Hopefully, as in the case of The Hunger Games, the movie adaptations will do the stories justice and enhance them. There are so many variables that come into play when creating a story. Taking care of each and every one of them is a true juggling act. So, try adding to that what your story should look like in a screenplay, so that it hits all those required buttons too, is a very data intensive manipulative puzzle to piece together. (Soon there’ll be an app for that.) Knowing the value of each of those elements and being able to keep them all in play in your performance of the novel writing act alone can be daunting. We aspiring writers are lucky to have your blog and your book, Story Engineering, to help us.

    The tools in your book and the storyfix questionnaire, you provided to those subscribers to your blog that took you up on your early-bird offer for your upcoming story review service, have been of true value to me. They have taught me the value and power of the story structure elements and the importance of understanding their interplay. Personally, I have used them to analyze a story I had written. Answering the questions and creating the beat sheet for my story have been eye-openers allowing me to discover my story’s potential. That has yet to be confirmed by Larry’s feedback. (It’ll be headed your way soon.)

    For those out there still questioning story structure, have a listen to Jian Ghomeshi’s interview with Kris Hammond at about the 42:30 spot on the podcast link below (Move time-mark cursor to 42:30. Interview’s about 15 minutes long.) He is the Chief Technology Officer of Narrative Science’s QuillTM Technology platform, which he predicts will write the next Pulitzer Prize winning novel within five years.

    http://podcast.cbc.ca/mp3/podcasts/qpodcast_20120525_90739.mp3

    Many questions spring to mind about this mindboggling technology. My question is:
    Larry, have the engineers at Narrative Science been reading Story Engineering?

  6. Good points! Good points from comments, too! I have so much work to do. But I want to!

    “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.”

    Okay. I guess at some point you need to switch glasses, i.e. from rose-colored to something more intellectual, like bi-focals. 😛

    RE: “Gale, who occupies Katniss’ thoughts, is given almost no airtime after she departs for the Games.” Interesting that just the look on his face was enough, for me. Empathy established. It was enough. They will deal with him later. I can see where the screenwriters can take those liberties and not offend the writer.

    Although most people don’t want to hear this — look what HBO did to Charlaine Harris! She seems pretty happy about it whenever we see clips of her. I have not read any of the books but I have seen the comments made by others, “But that’s not what happens in the book!” It’s all about blood and sex, in true HBO fashion. But I love True Blood! I can’t help it. I figured I would hate it because they are all a bunch of ignorant, uneducated, gullible hicks and I need some intelligence! Fangs. Fangs with attitude. Sexy fangs with attitude. Several thousand people are hooked, self included. Damn screenwriters! 🙂

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  9. Ti

    I get your point, but I don’t think HG makes it for you. Watching the film, I found the few scenes that cut away from Katniss’ POV to be jarring and forced. Still, there are things in the book that simply can’t be translated to film without adding scenes: for example, the explanation of tracker-jackers. In the book, the explanation is all part of Katniss’ inner monologue. In the film, the explanation is provided courtesy of Caesar. I recognize the need for such devices, but I wouldn’t say they make the story “better.” For example, I feel that, in spite of the filmmakers’ efforts, a lot of the tension was lost re: Katniss’ feelings for Gale. In the book, she spends a lot of time worrying what he’ll think, realizing that she actually has feelings for him, experiencing pangs of guilt and betrayal; etc. All part of her emotional journey. I can’t think how they might have translated that to the screen, but I feel it was severely truncated. Maybe they’ll try to make up for it retroactively in the second movie.

  10. mike lawrence

    hmmm…. I would be more inclined to say that the movie people reshaped the story to fit the proper film story paradigm. And there’s a reason for that, beyond making the story “better”.

    Last year, I made a machinima film. I didn’t even know that’s what it was, that there was an actual genre for what I was doing. I was that clueless about what I was doing. It was my first one ever. And it was a ton of work. I wrote the story, scouted the scenes inside the game, constructed a shooting schedule, assembled the guys in my guild for my principle photography sessions, filled up 750G of my hard drive with FRAPS footage. And that was the easy part. Then there was the editing. The digital foley, where I took sounds from the game sound file and applied them frame by frame to the edited film, augmented here and there with additional sounds from sound libraries on the Internet. processing a lot of these sounds in Audacity. Editing the raw voice audio from my actors, processing that in Audacity and editing it into the film. Then composing and recording the film score. I did all of this myself over a period of 11 months at the cost of about 500 hours of my time. And what I wound up with is a 42 minute film that isn’t very good.

    The point here is that it takes a hell of a lot of work to make a film, even a half-ass machinima. (By the way, the difference between a film totally sucking and being half-ass is about 400 hours in my case.)

    The script was the easiest part, bar none. I created the original story and the scenes for the film were composed based on that story. But the script evolved over time in a series of e-mails between me and my main character actor. I explained to him what the dialog meant, what tropes applied, how it all fit into story structure. He got all that and spent a lot of time reworking the script, one scene at a time. I’d send a draft. We’d go back and forth in e-mail and on Teamspeak, polishing, expanding and making it better than what I originally wrote. We even came up with new scenes to add to make it work even better. Hard choices, those new scenes, because every second of film added about 12 minutes of work in post. No iPads, just two guys working the lines. I guarantee you that what you saw on the screen when you watched Hunger Games was *not* the final product produced by those iPad-tapping producers, writers and actors. It changed even more after that. Even as the film was being shot. More when it was being edited. The script is *never* done, even after it’s gone to DVD and fallen of the “In theaters” list at rottentomatoes.

    Why? Because, making a film takes an enormous amount of resources. Script? 10% max. The other 90% is the hard stuff.

    So, what I’m getting at here, the long hard way, is that the main reason they are not ever going to take a story and adapt it verbatim is that it absolutely has to work *as a film*. They cannot afford for it not to. I’m not so sure it’s about making it “better” as much as it’s about making it work – according to a set of methods and procedures that have been worked out over a century of making films. They are not going to take one iota of risk that they don’t have to. Unless they have a bunch of money left over from that year and have a moment of giddiness after too much champagne at the last wrap party. (“I told M. Night what?”)

    This is the reason screenwriting is rigid. Because it is just the beginning of a very long and expensive process that can’t afford to miss. (and still does from time to time)

    We’re often told that a writer has a lot more room to maneuver when writing a novel. This may not be a good thing, especially for the non iPad-tapping new guy in the room. I’ve been writing since I was 14, have read lots of articles and books and never could glue it all together. My, how complicated it all is! Not. There is a way of doing things and the film guys do it best because they have to get it right. Not better. Not half-ass, either. Right.

    And right is hard as hell. And, yes, right can always be better. But right will do.