The Perils of Adaptation
April 6th, 2012
The hype surrounding the Hunger Games series and the first of four film adaptations (they’re making the last novel into two films, à la Harry Potter and Twilight) leading up to this past weekend’s release reached unprecedented levels, and was rewarded with the third-highest opening weekend gross of all time at $152.5 million. It remains to be seen whether the series will maintain the same momentum and dominance as its predecessors, but for now it can safely classified as an unqualified success.
Or can it? The Hunger Games book series by Suzanne Collins has been justifiably praised for its young adult mashup of some of the great works of dystopian and allegorical literature (the influences of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale, George Orwell’s 1984 and William Golding’s Lord of the Flies are most prominently felt). The prose is suitably brisk and the plot consistently entertaining, enough to compensate for underdeveloped characters and a lack of true originality. The book’s rapid rise to popularity and rabid core fan base inspired Lions Gate Entertainment to purchase the rights just six months after its release, and the film was quickly put into production once it became clear that the series was becoming a cultural sensation.
After viewing the finished product a few days ago, I have to wonder at how the film suffered because of its remarkably brief transition to the screen. Twenty years ago, a book series such as The Hunger Games would have had to prove its popularity over decades of sales and multiple generations of readership. The beloved Harry Potter books took roughly the same amount of time to be adapted, and they have sold over 450 million copies, or more than 15 times as many as The Hunger Games. The gap between a cultural phenomenon’s emergence and its subsequent film adaptation is constantly shrinking as studios attempt to capitalize on the initial wave of excitement and profitability.
The Hunger Games is by no means a bad film; in fact, it’s quite good. Jennifer Lawrence is captivating as the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, and director Gary Ross translates the horrible tension of the novel well, throwing the wretched, poor lives of the citizens of District 12 and the glamour and wealth of the Capitol, which forces each of the districts to submit two children every year to fight to the death in a televised battle as a reminder of the danger of rebelling against their government, into stark contrast. The film is exceedingly faithful to the source text, to a fault. It feels like a paint-by-numbers adaptation that is checking the novel’s boxes rather than striving for excellence in its own medium. I might have enjoyed it had I not read the books so close to viewing the film, or had I not read them at all and was therefore not so aware of how precisely it adhered to the book’s guidelines.
Now, there’s no question that a quality film adaptation should pay due respect to its origins. But when does honoring the author’s vision and meeting the requirements of passionate fans go too far? A quick turnaround from page to screen ensures that the details of the characters and story are fresh in the audience’s mind (though apparently some people have reading comprehension issues), and sometimes, as was the case for The Hunger Games, that the author is heavily involved in the production of the films. These factors only serve to handcuff the filmmakers, forcing them to match someone else’s expectations, no more and no less. Snatching up the most recently popular, safest literary properties makes for cautious filmmaking that lacks the aesthetic dynamic of a new perspective on old source material. Studios want to ensure that they will retain fans (both old and new) for the full, arbitrarily extended length of the series, and so they release adaptations that are workmanlike and sufficient, but strive for little else.
I’m writing this because I am an enormous fan of adapting works of art from one medium to another and love engaging with my favorite stories in multiple forms. I have felt the frustration of excessive creative license with beloved narratives, and I understand the delicate balance artists must uphold when interpreting someone else’s work. The condensed timeline of contemporary Hollywood, however, requires everyone involved in an adaptation to translate stories as if they were following instructions, rather than creating a new, individual artistic entity. Films like The Hunger Games are supplementary rather than complementary, so perhaps it’s not so bad that some of my favorite novels of the past 15 years are stuck in production limbo. Maybe this means they will someday emerge with their own unique take on a vision that I know and love.