Thoughts On: The Hunger Games - Impressionism: Why Book Adaptations Fail


The Hunger Games - Impressionism: Why Book Adaptations Fail

Thoughts On: The Hunger Games (2012)

In a society set up in economic districts that must send tributes to a tournament in which they must fight to the death, a young woman volunteers to save her sister.

The Hunger Games series is quite unquestionably one of the strongest of the young adult novel adaptations that were uncannily popular between approximately 2007 and 2015 and still have some punch and place today. I always assumed that this series was rather good, having only ever seen each film once. Today, not only did I re-watch the first Hunger Games, but I watched it far closer than I have watched any film in the series. Immediately I was taken aback by the rather shoddy direction and editing - which is at its worst in the first act. We are introduced to the characters, world and story, rather jarringly. The cuts are systematic, fast and very abrupt, they shove us from jittery hand-held shot to jittery hand-held like a bad music video. The coverage, also, is overbearing; too many shots and set-ups are crammed into rather basic, quiet scenes, unsettling them, giving them unnecessary pace and buzz that only ever feels amateurish, never intentional and purposeful.

This unsatisfactory direction calms as the narrative continues and the set-pieces demand far more careful planning. The structure of the film and the editing still remains questionable, however. Alas, let us stop to question the narrative.

As much dystopian sci-fi does, this attempts to speak on tyranny, government and inequality. We cannot judge the quality of the commentary in the first film considering that there are 3 more to come, and in spite of the fact that this narrative is rather self-enclosing. However, what does stand out from this film is its continual emphasis of an audience, of the fact that the games are televised and that, only through lies, can our characters survive. Not only does this say something quite cutting about media, creation, story and character, but it also complexifies the general commentary on governmental tyranny in a way that I don't remember the other films doing. With reference to our characters having to not only satisfy sponsors, but also the world watching them, we are made to see that it is everyone in this society who lives a lie and indulges the spectacle that blinds them to their own misery. The question asked by the relationship sold to everyone is then, why? Why does it take a romantic, sentimental lie for humans to be seen as human?

We cannot delve too deeply into the subtext of this film as it certainly feels incomplete - which is a critique, but not one that I'd stress too much because it exists in a series. What I would like to touch on in more detail, however, is how the technical failures in the direction impact the story of the Hunger Games more generally.

The commentary in the provided narrative provides little to speak on. The characters are all rather flat - apart from Katniss, who gives this narrative thematic weight with her presence as an archetype of mercy. The plot is rather transparent and heavily contrived; this is emphasised with the weak fight choreography that leans hard on the cliche of a bad guy talking to a victim they are about to kill so that time and the day are saved. There are also plot holes and a lack of depth given to the constructed world. Lastly, the dialogue, particularly as it becomes a window into characters, is grating and quite clearly the product of a novel - which is to say it is written to be read, not necessarily spoken, the difference being huge.

All of these faults in the script are made to glare on screen because of the loud, bumbling direction. What this film doesn't, in essence, understand is why many book adaptations fail. Books have the space and time to look into a world and characters with explicit exposition. We will then hear a character's thoughts and have described to us the inner workings of a time, place, world or mechanism of any sort. Novels are not required to be direct in this respect; metaphor and subtlety often add a quality and class to a novel. Alas, in cinema, the medium has very different requirement and very different expectations. Films do not necessarily have the time and space for the exposition that is found in books. Whilst one may just narrate a story to us in a film, this often adds no quality and class to it. The beauty and purpose of film is its central visual nature; sound and more are slightly peripheral in the art as it is the moving image that, above all else, distinguishes and makes attractive cinema and the cinematic story. With a book transposed to screen, it is often too easy to find the heart of a novel's story lost in between the frames of a film; where is the intimacy, the depth, the detail?

It is Jean Epstein who formulated and captured some of the best techniques of overcoming the gap between cinema and other mediums such as the novel. It is both in his writings on photogénie and his films, such as The Fall of the House of Usher, that Epstein developed a cinematic concept of impressionism that sought to raise cinema to the level of other arts. What Epstein essentially managed to do was recognise that the heart of a novel can be lost in between the frames of a film. From here he did not despair and nor did he try to put the novel in the frame as so many directors do with narration and more - Epstein couldn't really do this in the silent film era. So, instead of fishing for the heart of a book in between the frames, Epstein put a window upon the abyss. It is with impressionism and photogénie - morally enhancing material/shots in a film - that Epstein asked us to hear the inner thoughts of a character that were on a page. Whilst his camera patiently watched faces and time slowly dance its path, abstract words of humanity then emerge from Epstein's celluloid. This is impressionism. This is photogénie.

The failure of The Hunger Games lies not in its neglect of impressionism. There are many sequences in which we attempt to tap into a character's perspective, to see as they do. However, this impressionism has a way of becoming spectacle-driven expressionism in this film. That is to say that the world and humanity of characters is not necessarily impressed upon the audience. Instead, the world and characters are expressed inside the frame. Spectacle motivates a movement from impressionism to expressionism as it makes the communication louder. So, instead of Katniss' state of mind being impressed through silence - a successful application of impressionism that is used at a few points - we often find ourselves seeing the world skewed from her perspective; special effects form the world, do not impress it upon us, and thus we have something approaching expressionism of a particularly direct and unimaginative nature.

It is because the film is so eagerly paced, because the direction is so loud and the script so upfront, that a true impressionistic logic is not allowed to naturally exude from the frames. The heart of characters and their world are then masked by needless dialogue, needless cuts, needless exposition and contrived conflict. Calmer, quieter, with greater patience, this film could have used impressionism to seek photogénie that would tell the story that the words on the pages of the books did, yet without all the ink.

In general, I find it to be true that movies adapted from books based on world and character often fail because their impressionistic techniques--if any are utilised--do not allow the interior spaces that books can present directly to be explored autonomously by the audience with the screen as a window into the tangible unknowable. Books based heavily on action and spectacle alongside character and world - Lord of the Rings is a good example, yet so are many good comic book movies - hold the potential for the basic Hollywood treatment, and so not every book adaptation yearns the artistic brush strokes of a silent-era impressionist. Alas, I leave things open to you. What do you think of the impressionism in The Hunger Games? Does the book translate to the screen?

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