In Defense of Adapting Books, Such as ‘The Hunger Games’, to Film

I liked the book better. 

In addition to combining for a poorly constructed short sentence, those five words have transformed from matter-of-fact explanation to obnoxious hipper-than-thou bravado in recent years. Convinced it’s an indicator of intelligence, there has been a noticeable rise in the amount of individuals who seemingly just can’t wait to utter such a phrase after tearing through pages at warped speed and sleeping overnight in front of movie theaters to ensure early screenings.

Let’s face it: The act of merely only watching the movie is frowned upon if there happens to be a book attached to its premise. If you can’t go to bat for the book, the assumption seems to be that you “don’t understand the whole story” or “you are too lazy to read” or “you aren’t smart enough” or “you don’t care as much about the film as others who took the time to read about it”. 

Thus, to have read the book is a badge of honor. An aura of smugness hangs over anyone who vehemently proclaims this particular opinion and those who do not share that thought process instantly feel a sense of inferiority because of their lack of interest in exploring a particular story further by sitting down to read the book.

But, why? Why is the phrase, “I liked the movie better than the book” almost never uttered? Why is there an underlying desire to feel superior to someone else, when that someone else clearly shares similar tastes and interests with whomever is touting book knowledge if only because there is obviously a common affection for a particular story — either in book or movie form — in general? Why does it feel so wrong to merely like a movie for the movie it is, all books, plays and other versions of the telling be damned?

Last week’s release of The Hunger Games film adaptation may shed some light on such questions, if only because it served as a harsh reminder of exactly how popular a series of books-turned-movies can be. Not since the Twilight franchise’s films first shot to pop culture prominence in 2008 has a series been so anticipated, so adored and so … cluttered with fans who will undoubtedly claim the books were better than the movies.

Ahhh, but you see, that’s the point. 

It’s no secret that The Hunger Games, the Harry Potter franchise and other such pop culture staples cater to a younger crowd. Sure, there are many adults who crave each Lord of the Rings release, and yes, there are a great deal of soccer moms who admit to accompanying their children to see these types of blockbuster releases and enjoying every minute of it themselves. But even J.K. Rowling once noted that her Harry Potter franchise was initially intended for children between the ages of nine and 12, and Twilight — the last book-to-movie infatuation before The Hunger Games — took home the “Children’s Book of ohe Year” award during the 2008 installment of the British Book Awards.

Naturally, then, the problem presents itself as such: it’s human nature to want to upstaging others. Combine that notion with the teen angst these types of novels are admittedly trying to profit from and the influx of generations that have become increasingly eager to obtain more information than anyone else around — quicker than anyone else around, too, mind you — and what you have is a recipe for heightened elitism in books and film. 

The intriguing part of the story, though, is that such a practice isn’t applied exclusively to teenagers and young adults. We connect it with that particular demographic these days only because that’s the most recent faction of individuals who express such ideals. Or, to dumb it down, grown-ups are guilty of this mindset, too. Such recent adult-centric hits as The Help and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy are prime examples of the “I liked the book better” plague that diminishes our self-respect every now and then. In fact, the latter even has the possibility of earning you 30-, 40- and 50-somethings a few extra cool points if you claim to “like the 1979 BBC miniseries” adaptation of the 1974 novel, which, by the way, you of course would have read decades before Gary Oldman even read the screenplay for 2011’s hit film, right?

It starts at the top. The more intrinsic this approach becomes within the masses, the more likely we are to find today’s youth subscribing to such ideals without thought or consideration because their beliefs and values are subsequently compromised. That’s where this practice becomes particularly problematic because of its sheer dependance upon ignorance. No, the book doesn’t always outshine the movie, and conversely, the film isn’t always superior to the written word from which the movie came.

Manohla Dargis of The New York Times wrote that in spite of Jennifer Lawrence’s widely acclaimed performance, some fans of the book series may be searching for more when they leave the movie theater. “For some fans of the three novels, the screen version will inevitably be disappointing”, Dargis wrote, “especially for those keeping inventory of the details, characters, grim thoughts and cynicism that have gone missing.” Still, she was quick to point out that not everyone would be — or should be — disappointed with the film’s adaptation. “For others the image of a girl like Katniss taking up so much screen space with so few smiles may be enough to keep faith,” she continued. (“Tested by a Picturesque Dystopia”, 22 March 2012)

Movie critic David Edelstein, meanwhile, slammed the film in the opening paragraph of his review. “The audience at Monday’s packed preview of The Hunger Games came out juiced and happy, ready to spread the good word, while all I could think was, They’ve just seen a movie in which twenty-plus kids are murdered. Why aren’t they devastated?” he wrote. “If the filmmakers had done their job with any courage, the audience would have been both juiced and devastated”. (“The Slick Hunger Games Purges All the Horror”, 22 March 2012).

Outspoken Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers went to bat for the movie, being sure to note “Hollywood didn’t screw up the film version”, proclaiming “We have a winner” for fans of the book series. “The screen Hunger Games radiates a hot, jumpy energy that’s irresistible”, Travers said. “It has epic spectacle, yearning romance, suspense that won’t quit and a shining star in Jennifer Lawrence, who gives us a female warrior worth cheering”. (“The Hunger Games”, 21 March 2012)

Cavan Sieczowski, of the International Business Times, gave five reasons why the book outmatched the film regardless of the success the movie enjoyed over the weekend. Sieczowski cited the movie’s inability to showcase heroine Katniss Everdeen’s full and complex personality. “Of course Katniss’ bravery is palpable when she cries out ‘I volunteer!’ to prevent her young sister Prim from having to enter the games”, Sieczowski wrote. “The audience surely realized Katniss was potentially sacrificing her own life in a means to save her sister’s. However, this seemed to be one of the only instances Katniss got to reveal her inner complexities. Since she is not an emotional character, seeing inside her mind the way the novel allowed offered greater understanding of her many unique layers”. (“‘Hunger Games’ Movie Box Office Gold, But Did It Outshine The Book?”, 26 March, 2012)

Conversely, Cinema Blend’s Katey Rich argues why the movie outshines the book on her piece, “Why The Hunger Games Movie Is Better Than The Book”. In it, she notes that the film’s success can be almost singularly attributed to Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. “… I know I can’t be the only person who occasionally got annoyed with Katniss too, sick of reading her inner monologue about how confused she was by Peeta’s affections, how much she didn’t understand how to communicate with other people, and especially how she was constantly convinced at every turn that her death was imminent — even though, holding the book in your hands, you knew there were a bunch of chapters starring her left to go”, Rich writes. “… from the moment The Hunger Games begins Lawrence inhabits the role, her soft face looking exactly young enough, her movements loping and tense, her willingness to fight and scream and piss people off coming through even in a cold, silent glare. And when we enter the arena with Katniss, that quiet presence becomes all the more vital.” (“Why The Hunger Games Movie Is Better Than The Book”

Instilling those opinions into middle- and high-school-aged teens’ conscience is practically ensuring an adverse effect from the always-encouraged “reading is good” mantra that is preached to most children today. Allowing them to read under the condition that whatever they are reading will forever upstage other interpretations of said work is stifling a learner’s ability to truly learn from whatever type of art he or she is consuming.

In fact, the one true beauty of art is that it’s meant to be interpretive. How we connect with and feel about any work of art is subsequently all that should be relevant to us as individuals, thus proving exactly how important perception is when considering abstract things. Altering the ability of perception before one even has a shot at constructing opinions will almost certainly result in the antitheses of what art was initially meant to be.

The trouble with The Hunger Games is the exact thing that makes it great. On one hand, it’s the latest in a trend based around the type of book-to-movie elitism that has become increasingly prominent amongst young people. On the other, it’s a book that might get children who wouldn’t normally pick up a book, to pick up a book… and read it.. Then, if we get real lucky, some of them will pick up another book somewhere down the road when they are looking for something to do. Looking forward, the ripple effect of these types of popular culture lightning rods could be both enormous and positive when considering the future of the world, regardless of however irrationally large that statement may sound.

But becoming overtly dismissive toward one interpretation of a story over the other isn’t going to allow that possibility to flourish. A book is a book and a movie is a movie. They are both interpretations of stories and they both can be great educational tools for children, teenagers and adults alike. Though in order to fully realize and appreciate the potential of both expressions, we should probably be more cognizant of the implications our thoughts and opinions may provide to other individuals’ perceptions of what they see or read. 

There’s certainly nothing wrong with liking a book’s version of a story more than a movie’s adaptation of the same thing, of course. But to hold the two interpretations directly against one another is unfair to both the minds behind the art and the art in front of the minds. Come to think of it, it’s also unfair to you, the consumer, whose possible preconceptions could stand in the way of a satisfying reading — or viewing — experience that you otherwise might have missed out on.

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