“a filmmaker is an independent artist, not a translator for an established author, but a new author in his own right.”
Filmmakers as Independent Artists
For my final project, I have chosen to examine the popular Hunger Games book by Suzanne Collins and the accompanying film of the same name directed by Gary Ross. The book, an adventure novel, takes place in a desolate and post-apocalyptic America, now called Panem, divided into thirteen districts (one of which was destroyed) and ruled by the Capital and its ruthless president, Coriolanus Snow. The plot of the book follows the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as she struggles to survive in the annual death match orchestrated by the Capital as a punishment to the districts for previous revolts. Gary Ross stays true to the overarching plot, but also makes a number of alterations to the story line in the film interpretation.
The largest change that I noticed was in the level of violence. In the book, Collins describes very violent and harsh behaviors perpetrated by the children selected, or reaped, for the annual Hunger Games hosted by the Capital. The film, on the other hand, implies violence, but actually shows very little. One instance where this was especially noticeable was during the time spent in the cave by Katniss and Peeta. While retrieving the medicine needed to save Peeta, Katniss sustains a massive cut to her forehead culminating in her losing consciousness. In the book, this event is very tense, leaving the reader wondering whether or not Katniss could survive such an injury. In the film, however, this injury is presented as a laughable scratch, one barely warranting a band-aid. Another instance is in how Peeta’s leg injuries were handled. In the book, Peeta loses his leg after sustaining multiply injuries and eventually requiring a tourniquet, something not even hinted at in the film. These choices were undoubtedly made to preserve a rating that would allow young adults, the target age group for the book, to see the film.
Another difference is the physical appearance of the Hunger Games contestants in the film. Jennifer Lawrence, while she does a fantastic job in her portrayal of Katniss, does not fit the physical description of someone who is starving, or as in the end of the book, near death. In fact, she looks like a picture of ideal health, quite robust in her appearance. The same can be said for almost all of the other children cast in the role of tributes. Obviously the filmmakers were not going to starve an actor or actress in order to match Collins’ descriptions, so Ross chose to omit the reason for the Hunger Games being named what they are (that is, a game in which contestants frequently starve to death) likely to avoid this issue in the film. By doing this, Ross focused more on the action of the games and the emotions of the characters than some of the backstory provided in Collins’ book.
One of Ross’s biggest successes was in his use of music. By making smart musical choices, Ross was able to elicit many of the emotions of the book, while maintaining a fast pace for the film. An event that took Collins several pages to explain could take literally seconds to take place on film. Much of the book focuses on Katniss’s inner struggles and internal dialogues, so short of including a narrator, these thoughts would be hard to translate to film. Ross cleverly turned some of these thoughts into actual dialogue for Katniss while other times he established the emotions felt by Katniss through wise musical choices. In addition to providing the emotional connections, the music also added to the setting of the film. Much of the music harkens to folk music found in the Appalachians, the region of the country where the book and film are set. I felt like this musical choice helped to deepen Ross’s interpretation of the book while not taking extra time away from the action.
Another success of the film was the quality of the acting. Ross made very smart choices in his casting. Although many of the actors and actresses were in their teens or early twenties, they were able to provide top quality performances. Jennifer Lawrence, who has been honored by the Academy Awards, did an especially good job as Katniss, instilling a lot of the emotion felt by readers of the book. Another superb job was done by Amandla Stenberg, the young girl chosen to play Katniss’s ally, Rue. Stenberg was able to portray the heartbreaking role with class and talent. Rue’s defining moment in the story is in her death. Many times in films, especially with children, death scenes can seem very hokey and overacted, but Stenberg did a fabulous job, likely due to direction given by Ross.
As I mentioned earlier, Ross was successful in harnessing the emotion found in the original text. While many directors, given the story he was presented with, would have run wild with the amount of violence. Rather than glorifying the violence in the way most modern Hollywood movies do, Ross chose to go a different route. By downplaying this violence, Ross was able to spend more time focused on the story line and he also removed the distraction of violence. In fact, by minimizing the exposure to violent images, Ross was paying tribute to Collins’ message warning of the dangers of violence as a means of entertainment.
Overall, Ross made smart choices in his interpretation of Collins’ book. Instead of making a literal interpretation to the story in tune with the model set forth by the makers of the Harry Potter films, Ross made his own interpretation of the story. He wisely infused the main elements of the book that readers fell in love with and stuck true to the emotion of the book, while making the changes he saw fit, thus creating a successful and enjoyable film independent from the book. He obviously recognized the importance of the original text, but also realized that he was creating a film, not a book. In this type of transition, storylines must be streamlined, backstories shortened (or eliminated if not pertinent), and parts well cast, all while keeping a level of respect for the readers and the original story. As a book lover, I was happy with the choices he made, and as a film goer, I was also pleased; a rare occurrence! As an independent artist, Ross was able to stick true to the main plotline and the emotions embedded in the text, but in the end he created a film that could be read independent of the book, establishing it as a piece of art on its own rather than another “accessory” or piece of merchandising in a franchise.
Changes in Perspective
Prior to taking this course, I probably would not have enjoyed this movie as much as I did. When I read a book, I fall in love with every detail and The Hunger Games was no different. When I love a book so much, I always struggle to enjoy the film version because I want to see a version of what I created in my own imagination, complete with all the details and anecdotes from the original text. Maybe it is just that the film version of The Hunger Games was just very well done, or maybe it is that my thinking on film interpretations has changed, but I was actually very happy with the film.
Fidelity to the Original
In Laura’s journal for week 2, the idea of a film’s fidelity to the original text was examined. When translating a book into film, it is obvious that cuts need to be made for the sake of time, but we were left to ponder how the filmmaker decided which cuts to make, and what affect those cuts had. In The Hunger Games, Ross had a good balance between elements from the original text and changes made in order to make a successful film. One interesting choice that he made was in his handling of the mutts at the end of the games. In the book, the mutts are mutated animals engineered by the Capital and are not limited to the dog-like creatures from the film. In fact, the jabber-jay is a result of the Capital’s engineering and is also considered a mutt. The mutts that chase Peeta and Katniss at the end of the games are made even more frightening in Collins’ description because they had been made to resemble the fallen tributes. In the film however, they are not much more than big dogs. Ordinarily, changes like these would have turned me off from the film, but I now understand why they were done and can enjoy the film for what it is.
One interesting departure from the original text is the shift in perspective. In the book, we are presented with only Katniss’s view of the events surrounding her. We are presented with her feelings, her confusion, her opinions. In the film, however, Ross shows a variety of perspectives showing different sides of what is happening in Panem. The most interesting is the increased focus on President Snow. In the book, we form a hatred for the character based on Katniss’s opinions of him. Without the ability to be inside Katniss’s head in the film, Ross had to find a way for viewers to form this opinion without this luxury. By creating scenes with Snow independent of what Katniss would have known in the book, Ross was able to achieve the same goal set forth by Collins but in a method more fit for film. In making this choice, I think Ross established the film as a separate entity from the original text while not only honoring the book, but possibly adding to it with the addition of these different viewpoints.
Perhaps the most formative unit for me in this course was the examination of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz and the more popular film version, The Wizard of Oz. Like many people, I grew up watching The Wizard of Oz, and also like many people, I had not read the book beforehand. Upon reading the book, I came to realize that both the film and the book had their merits as films and books, and idea that I feel like I am now able to apply to new books and films that I read.
In the case of The Hunger Games, the book has been very popular and was published very close to the release of the film, making this situation different from that of The Wizard of Oz where there was a 39 year gap. While the Oz film overshadowed the book version, I would say that the book and film for The Hunger Games are probably close in terms of popularity. In the long term, however, it is hard to say whether one will overshadow the other. The film is very well made, so like The Wizard of Oz, I could see the film becoming more popular. On the other hand though, the book is extremely well written, so I can also see how that would continue to be popular as well.
Politics of Reinterpretation
Prior to taking this course, I will admit that I was rather shallow in my viewing of films, especially films based on books. I have really enjoyed being able to think more deeply about the underlying messages found in film and now find myself making these connections in the things I see on TV and in film.
The Hunger Games is a very political book and film. The story focuses on the problems that arise when governments become too powerful and take power away from the people. The power of the Capital is shown throughout the book, but the games themselves are the biggest display of this power. As mentioned outright in the book and film, the games are a way to remind the people of the power of the Capital and that any attempts at revolting would be useless. Katniss, sometimes unknowingly, challenges this power, thus inspiring others in the districts to have the strength to rise up. This is seen in her handling of Rue’s death when she decorates the body with flowers, showing the viewers in the districts that this was not just another body, but an actual human, a little girl, that has been killed. The most controversial challenge to power, however, is when Katniss brings out the deadlock berries. In the book, Katniss is portrayed as naïve and also a survivalist, doing whatever is necessary to survive. In the case of the berries, I believe that Katniss saw this as the only way for her and Peeta to survive the games, not as a way to stick it to the Capital, although this is how it was interpreted by many in the districts, and especially by Snow.
One of my favorite realizations was the gender role reversal of the book and film. Typically, the female character is in distress, waiting to be rescued by the male hero. In this case, however, the roles have been reversed to some extent. Typically, the female in a story is more emotional while the male is the more logical one. In this case, Peeta is the obvious romantic of the two, while Katniss is more focused on the logistics of survival. Also, Katniss, on many occasions, comes to Peeta’s rescue, repeatedly saving his life. It would have been easy for Collins to make Peeta useless, dependent on Katniss for everything, but she chose not to do this. Instead, she made the two very complimentary to one another in terms of their strengths and weaknesses. This was very refreshing as normally authors and film makers feel the need to have relationships that are dominated by one gender or the other. I did not feel this was the case with The Hunger Games.
Teaching the Book and Film
As a third grade teacher, this is not a book that I would be teaching to my students, however, I can see the value of teaching this to middle school or high school students. If I were to teach this, there are many directions in which I could go, but the most intriguing to me are some of the themes and the historical connections.
As a history teacher, I think this would make a great connection when teaching about Ancient Rome. The most glaringly obvious connection is to that of the gladiators. Like the Hunger Games, the Romans also employed blood sport as a form of entertainment. Gladiators would fight to the death as the audience watched and cheered on their favorites, exactly like in the Hunger Games. After digging a little deeper, there are more connections to be made, mostly in the use of names. Panem, the name of the country, comes from the term “Panem et Circenses” which means “Bread and Circuses” in Latin. (Everett, S.) This is the means by which the Romans controlled their people; bread and entertainment kept the citizens happy, thus causing fewer problems for the government. (Capitolium.org, 1999) While the games did not make the people in Panem happy, other than those in the Capital, it did keep them from rising up for at least 74 years. Using this comparison as a jumping off point, it would be interesting to challenge students to make connections to other names in the book and research how those connections are relevant to the stories being told by Collins and Ross.
A less obvious, but just as interesting, connection could be to that of the Nazi regime. For students studying World War II, an examination into the similarity between Nazi Germany and the practices of Panem would likely elicit some interesting and enlightening perspectives. While the Romans hoped to keep their citizens complacent and distracted, the Nazis operated with fear tactics more similar to what was in place in Panem. In The Hunger Games, the citizens in the districts were being punished for revolting by taking place in the annual death matches. Similarly, Jews were being punished by Hitler for his belief that they were the cause of society’s problems. Not only are these messages described in the book, but the visuals created by Ross also harken to the Nazi era. In looking at the architecture of the Capital and the Justice Building, a nod to Nazi design was apparent. For students, it would be interesting to see what other connections they could make, specifically to the Holocaust and the treatment of Jews by the Nazis.
Since the story is set in America, it is hard to ignore the comparisons to the early formation of our own country. In the book, the country was divided into thirteen districts, similar to how our country was originally organized into thirteen colonies. Like the colonies, the districts provided goods for the Capital, or in our case, the British. Like the Capital, the British ruled in a totalitarian manner, allowing for few freedoms for the colonists, leading to a revolution orchestrated by everyday citizens. Allowing students to explore these comparisons would likely lead to a deeper appreciation of the book and a better understanding of the motivation felt by the colonists.
In examining the idea of power in the Hunger Games, one first thinks of the obvious holder of power, that is the government and the president. Looking deeper, however, we come to find that even someone as seemingly unimportant as a teenager from a lowly district has just as much power as an entire government. This study into the power structure of The Hunger Games could provide an opportunity for students to discuss the roles of citizens in different types of governments, a valuable lesson in any political science class. Students could further debate why they think the structure of government in Panem was successful for as long as it was, and whether they think a system like that could work in today’s world.
Class is a very important element in this story, with glaring differences between those in the Capital and those in the districts. Economically, socially, and physically, the people of the Capital could not be any different from the citizens of the districts. While the people in the Capital are concerned with entertainment, their appearance, and food, the people of districts are simply trying to survive. While described well in the book, these differences are even more apparent in the film where the outlandish appearance of the Capital dwellers is brought to life. Challenging students to draw comparisons between the lower, middle, and upper classes in America with the class structure of Panem would provide for an interesting look at what happens when people are placed in a class without a means of moving up. In America, we can move between classes based on merit and our ability to work (ideally at least). In Panem, however, you are essentially stuck within the class you were born in, unless, of course, you can survive the Hunger Games.
Suzanne Collins’ book is full of symbolism and provides a great platform for teaching this idea to students. Flowers, for example, are used in a number of ways throughout the book and film, from Katniss’s love of dandelions (a symbol of hope and a reminder of her self-sufficiency) to Prim’s name (Primrose), to the way Katniss uses flowers to decorate Rue’s body, flowers play a very symbolic role in the book and film. Bread is also another important symbol used throughout the book. As mentioned earlier, the name Panem actually means bread. Peeta (Pita) is a type of bread. Peeta’s father is a baker, and Peeta saves Katniss’s family from near starvation by giving her bread. After Rue’s death, District 11 sends her bread from their district. Over and over, bread and used as a symbol of life. Having students examine these symbols, as well as other such as the mockingjay, the three finger salute, and food, would provide a focus for deeper exploration of the text and film while strengthening their understanding of symbolism.
Teaching as a Form of Interpretation
Just as filmmakers are independent artists, so too are teachers. Like a film maker, we are often presented with an overwhelming amount of information. It is our job then, as teachers, to pare that information down and present it to our students in a way that will provide a depth of understanding while remaining within the constraints of the overarching theme or topic, much in the way a film maker translates a novel into an hour and a half film. This need for decision making and editing is true in literature and film, but could also be extrapolated to anything for which teachers may be responsible.
In Literature and Film
Like filmmakers, we are responsible for helping to shape a story for our students. A filmmaker, however, is more limited in their translation of the text. Without making a major departure from the text, filmmakers are typically limited to making omissions and minor additions, rather than the more interpretive take that teachers can employ. Making too big of a change will upset the fan base of the book, while an interpretation that is too literal, such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, can cause a film to be watered down and pale compared to the original text. As teachers, we are free to explore the themes, backstories, and social implications of a text without the limitations found by a filmmaker. Just as Laura posed the question in week two, “How did they decide which cuts to make and what effect does that have?” As teachers, we should ponder this question as well as, determining what to focus on when instructing our students. What is important to the point I am trying to make with my students? By leaving out other points, am I going to be doing a disservice to the text/film or my students?
While it is vital for teachers to help students in reading a film or book, there is also a reason for caution. When guiding children through a text, it can be very easy to instill our own feelings and opinions into the text, but this should be avoided. Students should be encouraged to come to their own conclusions about a film or book, so taking care to choose the correct questions to ask and ideas to develop is key to allowing for self-discovery and true internalization of the ideas being presented. For example, in our study of The Little Mermaid, we were encouraged to come to our own conclusions before reading the critique of another reader. Had we been presented with the Trites’ article beforehand, it is likely that many of us, myself included, would have more critical in our descriptions of the story and film.
Goal Setting as a Teacher
The best way to teach a text and film would be to choose a goal and base all of the other choices around this initial goal. For example, when teaching The Hunger Games, I may want my students to understand how totalitarian rule is dangerous to a society. From there, I can choose to examine elements of the text that support the understanding of that goal. We can draw comparisons to the Roman Empire, the British rule over colonial America, as well as Hitler’s reign over Nazi Germany. I could also focus on the social impact, drawing on the living conditions of the people of District 12 or the feelings of fear and unfairness felt by Katniss. This could be contrasted with the lives of the privileged living in the Capital, with food being so plentiful that they purposely make themselves throw up in order to eat more and where physical appearance trumps everything else in life. All of these examples, while varied, tie back to my original goal.
Applying Interpretation to All Subjects
Going a step further than just literature and film, I feel that teachers are independent artists in their interpretations of almost anything that they are teaching. Just as we all interpret a text differently from one person to another, so too do we interpret other ideas differently. In math, for example, I may use the cross multiplication format, the traditional method for multiplying, as well as manipulatives, to help students understand the process of multiplying, realizing that all children learn differently and one method may work better for one student, while a different method works better for the person next to them. Being able to interpret the same idea in a variety of ways is vital to helping students understand. In returning to The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins was able to elicit emotional reactions in her readers through her carefully chosen words. Gary Ross achieved this emotional response through casting and musical selections. As a teacher, I might help students to make this emotional connection by encouraging them to make connections to their own lives.
As teachers, we are more similar to a filmmaker than a writer, especially in terms of time constraints. Like filmmakers, teachers have a limited amount of time to teach a world of material. This is where the art of interpretation comes in. As a teacher, I need to decide which concepts need more time and which others can be touched on more briefly, or possibly even be combined with another topic. For example, I may see a need for extra work on ending punctuation and less on capitalization, even though the curriculum may dictate the same amount of time for each. As a teacher, it is my job to identify the needs of my students, set goals for their instruction, and make decisions about how to achieve that goal in the most efficient and effective way possible.
As interpreters of film and literature, it is vital that we are able to distinguish one medium from another, placing the value of each within the context of its own presentation. A film should not be judged in the same way that a book is judged, and vice versa. While fidelity to the original text is vital, it is also important that filmmakers act as independent artists, with an end goal of creating a great, quality film, rather than a film that hits all the points in a book, but misses the emotion and intangibles that can only be elicited through smart cuts and additions. We also need to be cautious about getting caught up in the hype surrounding popular books and films so that we can make accurate determinations of quality. Conversely, we should not dismiss a text or film just because it is overly popular – it is popular for a reason, so it should be given a fair chance to stand on its own. As teachers, these points should be made with our students as well. We should push them to question why filmmakers made the choices they did and how those choices improved or diminished the quality of the film. In doing so, we are not just teaching students how to read a film or book, but how to think critically and deeply.
Capitolium.org (1999). Capitolium.org - Imperial Fora Official Website - Rome, Italy. Retrieved from http://www.capitolium.org/eng/imperatori/circenses.htm.
Everett, S. (n.d.). A Conversation: Questions & Answers. Retrieved from http://www.scholastic.com/thehungergames/media/suzanne_collins_q_and_a.pdf
This is a great paper about The Hunger Games, Edie. I'm so glad to read your perspective on both the book and film. It's clear that you're thinking about these "interpretations" in engaged and complicated ways. Great job tracing your developing thinking across the course: from ideas about fidelity to the original, to cultural appropriation and popularity, to political considerations. I wish you would get a chance to teach this (but not to third graders!!)--your ideas are very thoughtful in considering historic parallels and notions of power and social class. The best part, though, is your section on teachers as independent artists. Lovely.
I'm Edie - wife, mom, teacher, instructional designer, home renovator,
and lover of nature, travel, technology, and vintage campers!