Typically, the main element missing in film adaptations of novels—specifically those written in the first person, such as Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games—is the inevitable intimacy we develop with the story’s narrator, which we take for granted in our experience of the text and only notice when experiencing the same story without such privileged access. When a character’s most private thoughts are perpetually available to the reader, the resulting experience is at once more sensual and more narrow than its cinematic counterpart, our window to the world only as large as a single narrator’s experiences, revelations, and prejudices. We know, for example, when Katniss Everdeen, the spunky female protagonist of The Hunger Games, is faking a reaction or hiding an emotion, not telling a particular story out loud even when its implications are at the forefront of her mind. And all of this is difficult to properly translate to the screen, despite Jennifer Lawrence’s best efforts here in Gary Ross’s adaptation. The experience of the film is more closely aligned to that of reality television, an entertainment predicated on our desire to know people intimately just by watching them live their lives in front of a camera, regardless of how much of the material is scripted, staged, or simply the result of a series of moments strung together in montage while in actuality having nothing to do with one another. If the experience of reading Collins’s novel is one of being inside a horrifyingly brutal reality television show, the experience the film adaptation offers is one more akin to watching one, and its success depends on our awareness of this relatively new medium as well as our willingness to critique it.
The titular Hunger Games of Collins’s novel are an annual fight-to-the-death among a group of pre-selected teenagers, a la Battle Royale, painstakingly chronicled on television to varying degrees of excitement and horror for an audience composed of the nation’s entire citizenry, each district’s relationship to the Games heavily dependent on their distance from the Capitol—and as such to their increasing level of poverty. Katniss is one of two tributes from District 12, notoriously the poorest of the districts, and the injustice of it all is most cruelly felt by her and her fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) as they are ushered to the Capitol after their nationally televised lottery and forced to bear witness to all the luxuries they have previously missed out on—luxuries which are only available to them now as a slap in the face before their seemingly inevitable deaths. The Games were originally established as a reminder to the nation of Panem of the power and control of the Capitol as it tightens its hold on a nation which attempted a revolution decades before. The power is in the implication rather than the practice: If we can make your children suffer this way, imagine what we can do to you. And the fact that the Games are televised only strengthens the punch of this desire to frighten and terrorize. After all, we too are a nation that needs to see something for it to be true. Shouldn’t Panem be the same way?
Ross offers something in his film adaptation of the novel that Collins, writing with Katniss’s voice, never could: the experience of watching the Hunger Games, rather than being a contestant in them. The language of reality television is aptly utilized by the characters as they fake (presumably, so far) a tragic love story in order to bolster public sentiment, thus offering them “sponsorships” in the form of beneficial gifts during the Games (medicine, food, etc.) as an exchange for providing the viewers with some good TV. When Katniss kisses Peeta in a cave where they’re hiding out and recovering from injuries sustained during the Games, she’s simply trying to be liked—not by Peeta, necessarily, but by the people watching at home. She’s fighting to survive, rather than to secure a second season or a particularly lucrative endorsement deal, but the game—mastered already by Snooki and her popular housemates—is essentially played the same way. And our allegiances are tested as viewers of both Ross’s film and the televised Games within the film.
For example, at the screening I attended, the audience cheered loudly during the kiss between Katniss and Peeta, which is the reaction Katniss was hoping for from the rich citizens of the Capitol and its adjoining districts but maybe not expecting from us, educated viewers who are more aware of her plight and its implications and who should be more resistant to the sensationalized aspects of what the Games require of her. But such is the nature of a train wreck, and the best things about Ross’s film are those which register the immersive feeling-like-you’re-there elements of reality TV alongside the more critical distancing provided by the calculated rebellion being enacted beneath the surface by Katniss and her comrades. We are at a point with reality television where we can recognize its fabrication yet still enjoy its drama, and The Hunger Games succeeds by allowing us to care about who teenagers are hooking up with while also still feeling smart about it.