From Book to Screen: Notes on the Hunger Games

This well-made film offers a great example of how to turn a popular novel into a movie. The film eliminates several minor characters and shortens something that preoccupies Katniss in the novel, whether she’ll go along with playing someone’s girlfriend to score points with the audience for the Hunger Games. A common mistake for novelists writing a first script would be to take a scene of Katniss looking out a train window and adding that she was ‘pondering if she could pretend to love Peeta.’ This isn’t something that shows up on the screen, so it normally would not appear in a script. (As with any convention, there can be reasons to violate the ‘rules’.)

Katniss’ relationships with her mother, younger sister, and her younger sister’s cat are also conveyed quickly. In the novel, the cat serves as someone Katniss can speak to in a way that conveys information to the reader and as a comic device. In the movie, the cat is just noted briefly as another mouth to feed.

Another common problem in first scripts is the photographic detail that goes into describing environments, whether they are important or not. The absolute poverty in District 12 is conveyed in some quick shots in the movie, while conveying that poverty occupies a number of pages in the novel. The moment Katniss steps into the train transporting her to the capitol, a great deal is conveyed about the difference between life in District 12 and life in the capitol. This is what is meant by showing versus telling.

A film that demonstrates what happens when detail takes precedence of story is the first Harry Potter movie. The novel is a chronicle of narrative tension. The movie is a chronicle of what Hogwarts looks like.

A common mistake for novelists writing a first script would be to take a scene of Katniss looking out a train window and adding that she was ‘pondering if she could pretend to love Peeta.’ But this isn’t something that shows up on the screen, so it normally would not appear in a script. (As with any convention, there can be reasons to violate any particular rule.)

Years ago I stepped into a screenwriting workshop led by Larry Brody. One of his techniques of teaching was to have someone read from the opening lines of script while Larry sat poised with a drumstick and a cymbal. As soon as the writer wrote something in the script that would cause a film executive to stop reading, he would whack the cymbal. Inexperienced screenwriters rarely got through a first page.

The movie deftly conveys the central question of the novel, whether Katniss will be able to keep her humanity when she enters the games? A major secondary question in the book, whether Katniss would have a relationship with Gale, is simply suggested in the movie.

The movie of The Lovely Bones offers an example of how turning a novel into a movie can go off the rails. That movie starts with an image of a penguin ‘trapped’ in a snow globe. This muffles what the story is about, grief destroying the family, to offer a different, unrelated idea, how someone can be frozen in an environment (like Suzy in the after life). The movie continues with narration to try and quickly convey the main character and plot threads, but with the central issue of grief muffled, the opening of the film feels busy and muddled.

And a central feature of Suzie’s after life — that it’s a kind of drab way-station for people who haven’t let go of earthly life — is turned into a kind of super-sized, colorful, amazing theme park that everyone should desire. It’s late in the film before the real purpose of this after life becomes apparent and reconnects to the plot of the film.

By that point, the film has for too long been a series of haphazard plot and character threads, unlike the movie of The Hunger Games, or the novel of The Lovely Bones.

I suggest that people who want to convert a novel into a script focus on the spine of the story, the action of the main characters, and be willing to let minor threads go.

Lastly, people who loved The Hunger Games the novel should enjoy the movie very much, unless you’re a cat person.

Bill Johnson is the author of A Story is a Promise and The Spirit of Storytelling, a writing workbook. He is also the web master of storyispromise.com, a web site that explores principles of storytelling through reviews of popular movies, books and plays. Spirit is now available at https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/52699

He’s teaching a workshop on narrative tension at the Willamette Writers conference August 3-5th in Portland; info, http://www.willamettewriters.com/wwc/3/