The Hunger Games and the art of adaptation
The Hunger Games and the art of adaptation
The Hunger Games and the art of adaptation

If you have teenagers in your life, you’ve heard of Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel, The Hunger Games, and its two sequels.  The trilogy has become the most recent Harry Potter style literary obsession of the Twilight set.  Refreshingly, The Hunger Games is radical material. 

In content and theme, Collins’ novels couldn’t be more different than the Twilight books.  To start with, they feature a strong, self-sufficient and self-assured young woman in the lead role.  Katniss Everdeen is a 16-year old sustenance hunter-gatherer who supports her family in a postapocalyptic version of the United States.  Unlike Twilight’s helpless and often senseless Bella, Katniss has agency to spare.  She becomes a true role model for young men and women alike and manages to have complex, deeply romantic relationships along the way. 

A big budget film adaptation of The Hunger Games, set to be released this March 21 is one of the most anticipated major releases of the year, not just among teens and tweens.  Given the recent history of U.S. film adaptations of novels, and of foreign and classic films, I can’t help but wonder how much of the novel’s radicalism will end up on screen. 

The novel paints a world of class war and militant uprising against a tyrannical government. In its central storyline, children must fight each other to the death in order to try to award their starving families with extra grain rations for a year as a form of punishment for a previous, unsuccessful militant uprising.  Radical stuff for Hollywood, even when the film is aimed at adults. 

Take, for example, the 2005 film adaptation of Alan Moore’s classic comic series, V for Vendetta.  Title character V is an anarchist revolutionary who uses violent and often theatrical tactics that end up being watered down or eliminated completely from the film version.  The film glosses over the unpleasant political context of the comics and downplays its sexual politics at the same time, focusing instead on a simplified version of the romance between V and one of his followers.  While the film is still radical by Hollywood standards, it’s not hard to tell why Alan Moore, in an interview with The New York Times, intentionally distanced himself from the film, saying “I don’t want anything more to do with these works… because they were stolen from me – knowingly stolen from me.”

Even the title of 2010’s Let Me In, the Hollywood answer to 2008 Norwegian vampire hit, Let The Right One In, showcases the trend of simplifying complex ideas and scenarios for U.S. audiences.  The film itself is exactly what one would expect.  A louder, splashier version of the Norwegian original, with the sexually complex and provocative subplot removed completely.  This removal is short sighted and changes the meaning of the film completely, turning it from a metaphorically rich human tale into simply another scary vampire movie.  Similarly, the 2004 remake of The Stepford Wives changes the ending of the original, and in doing so completely empties it of its feminist subtext. 

Although it remains an uncredited influence, Japanese novel turned cult horror-flick, Battle Royale (Fukasaku, 2000), features an incredibly similar plotline, set up and resolution to Collins’ Hunger Games novels.  The film’s 2003 sequel follows roughly the same structure as Collins’ sequels, in which the surviving children end up at odds with their respective totalitarian governments and become militant revolutionary leaders. The Japanese films manage to retain much of the novel’s radicalism, and are themselves radical, promoting militant overthrow of a villainous government.  Like Battle Royale, Collins’ novels are violent, and the violence is directed at children, by the state. Unlike Battle Royale, the state represents some permutation of the U.S. government. This is our atrocity, perpetuated on our own soil by our own people, a much harder pill for U.S. audiences to swallow. 

I would be surprised if much of Collins’ original subversive content makes it into the film version of her novel.  In order to avoid an R rating, which would alienate most of their target audience, The Hunger Games will have to be edited heavily for content.  I am hopeful this process will not empty the story of its greater political meaning altogether. 

Let’s not forget that Hollywood has produced more than a few subversive classics aimed at teens, Allan Moyle’s Pump Up The Volume (1990) and Brian Dannelly’s Saved (2004) to name just a few.  We can hope that The Hunger Games movie follows more in this tradition of subversion than that of Twilight and other recent film adaptations. 

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Erica Gleichman's picture

Erica Gleichman writes movie reviews for The Precarious, studied Film Studies at The University of Colorado - Denver and currently lives in San Diego, California.

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