The Hunger Games and the Dilution of Story

The Hunger Games blew the doors off movie theaters this past weekend, rakiing in $155 million during its opening. That’s the fifth highest gross in history in terms of dollars and even beat out the Twighlight movies. The Hunger Games, however, is nothing like the Twighlight books or movies; Suzanne Collins has written an idea-driven action novel, something I’ve talked about elsewhere on a more political blog. (See also my youtube video where I discuss the parallels with George Orwell’s powerful and generation defining novel 1984.)
And this raises a critical question for authors: What happens to the ideas that are so often crucial to plots, themes and characters when books are transformed to the big screen? Alas, the ideas become secondary, replaced by character-driven plot points and tensions. While authors may lament this result, it’s almost inevitable and reflects the fundamentally different media of the written page versus film.

Movies are fundamentally visual in the way they convey story, tension, and conflict. Some have even gone so far as to say that movies are 80 percent visual, 20 percent script. (I think I read this many years ago in  Robert McKee’s excellent book on screenwriting called Story.) The script is essential, but it’s merely the skeleton; it’s the director and actors that bring the story to life through their ability ability to connect on a very emotional, almost interpersonal, level with the audience. As a viewer, we don’t imagine someone crying over the death of a child in a movie, we actually see the tears flow down the face of the actor. We see the pain in their eyes, without a word spoken. (Viewers of The Hunger Games will understand what I’m referring to when they see the final scene with Rue in the movie and compare it to the book.) We empathize directly with the characters in a deep and visceral way; they are, afterall literally right in front of us. The mark of a good actor is one who plays the part so well the audience doesn’t think they are acting; the viewer feels like he or she is right there, in the scene, with the actor.

The result is that movies lend themselves to personal journeys and portrayals of stories that are fundamentally human in nature. Ideas are very hard to convey in this type of venue. Even in the Harry Potter movies, the audience is taken up by the plight of Harry Potter as he fights a very personal battle with Voldemort. While the the institutional oppression of totalitarianism is a core part of the books series, it is most visceral in the books where author uses her descriptive powers to channel the ideas, but readers use their own imaginations to conjure up their own personal terror.

So too, alas, with The Hunger Games. I found the movie to be a very good one (and I will likely pay money to see it in the theaters again). But, artistically, the movie also instructive about how authors should think about how their own work might translate into the big screen if they are ever lucky enough to have their books become a platform for one. Indeed, Suzanne Collins is also a professional screenwriter, so we can be assured that the movie reflects her artistic choices as a book author and a screenwriter.

Movies are a different convas on which to paint our story and characters, not a mere extension of the printed page. So, when we evaluate movies, let’s be careful not to compare them too literally. Let’s evaluate them within their own defined limits and constraints.

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About SR Staley

SR Staley has one more than 10 literary awards for his fiction and nonfiction writing. His award-winning Pirate of Panther Bay series ( has won awards in historical fiction, mainstream & literary fiction, young adult fiction, and reached the finals in women's fiction. His most recent book is "The Beatles and Economics: Entrepreneurship, Innovation, and the Making of a Cultural Revolution" due out in April 2020 (Routledge).

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