I was scrolling through Netflix the other day and started watching a film called Racing With The Moon. It’s an early starring vehicle for Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage, circa 1984, with the bonus of a luminous young Elizabeth McGovern. What caught my eye in the description, though, was the fact that it was directed by Richard Benjamin, the actor turned director who made one of my all time favourite films: My Favourite Year, with Peter O’Toole. Both films are coming of age pictures, period pieces about young men stepping up into the real world. As Racing With The Moon started, I was surprised to see another well-known name in the credits: Steve Kloves. It was his first screenplay to be shot, when he was only 24 years old. Later he would go on to adapt Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, and a little series called Harry Potter, as well as the new Spider-Man film and the upcoming remake of Akira.
It is one thing to adapt a book or play that is not especially well known. Those who love the source material obviously hope for the best, but if the outcome is dismal or varies too wildly from the source, it is a relatively small population to offend. When a film is “pre-sold,” however, because the source material is well-known and beloved by millions (or billions) of fans who will scrutinize and compare and speculate, it’s a double-edged sword. The studio benefits from the guaranteed audience on opening night, but is also under much more intense pressure from all sides to please all sides: fans, critics, executives, foreign markets. And you still can’t please everybody, even if you pull off the impressive feat that Peter Jackson did with The Lord of the Rings. Our hyper-vigilant and supposedly media-savvy modern movie fan is not content to simply see the film and enjoy the story, they need to be on the winning side. They will grudgingly concede that John Carter was an entertaining film but they must mention in the same breath that Disney will lose a bundle on it, as if they are shareholders. Or they will perversely insist that the film was not good at all, seeking attention whether they have a valid criticism or not.
I liked the book this film was based on, very much. I think it is one of the best YA novels I have read in quite a while, and I have had a special interest in YA books for as long as I could read them. (Speaking of, Hollywood, the world could use some good films of Robert Cormier’s.) I liked this film, too. I think it successfully adapts the source, while making the changes necessary to work as a film. If you are one of those who whinges about spoilers, you may want to stop reading now.
The big reason I enjoyed the book (and slogged through the two lesser sequels) is the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. She is charismatic, admirable, dangerous – everything most young men or women would want to be, especially in her position. Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant as Katniss, and the supporting cast is generally working at her level, especially in the Capitol and the Games. For a long film it moves at a decent pace, dragging a bit here and there but covering the key moments well. The production design is impressive, contrasting the poor Districts 12 and 11 with the garish Capitol.
As my lovely fiancee pointed out after she saw the film, the single biggest change in the film script over the book is the fact that we do not hear Katniss’ inner monologue, nor is there any narration. This change does generally work, but as a result the film has to find other ways to communicate the same information. Some of those moments are lovely, like the brief scene of Gale looking at his mountain instead of watching the beginning of the games; or Haymitch watching the Capitol children play with a toy sword. Some are new but not unwelcome constructions, like the increased screen time for the President and his games master, or the exposition by Stanley Tucci as the reality show host. Sometimes the changes are frustrating and superficial. Some might be annoyed that the Katniss/Peeta/Gale love triangle was downplayed significantly, but I was glad, as I felt that was the weakest element of the books and was annoyed at how it was resolved. I was also glad that the muttations were simplified or minimized, wisely concluding that the drama of 24 kids trying to kill each other would be enough.
The only reason to consider The Hunger Games alongside Battle Royale, Harry Potter, or The Lord of the Rings is that they will all be enjoyed as both books and films a generation from now; which is more than I can say for Twilight. When you put aside all the fake entertainment “news” excitement, the fan expectations, the comparisons and the haters, what remains is a solid film about a strong girl in a dystopian future who becomes an unlikely hero. What’s not to love?