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Why Changes to the Hunger Game Script Made the Movie Better Than the Book

6 June 2012

From author Larry Brooks on Storyfix:

In this series I’ve called out several ways, and several specific instances, in which The Hunger Games, the film, is different than the book upon which it is based.  The author, Suzanne Collins, received a screenwriting credit (which may or may not mean anything in terms of who actually wrote the final shooting script, and it only very rarely signifies a collaboration), so lets assume she was in on this very deliberate departure.

. . . .

Here’s a truth nobody involved will admit to, out of respect to Suzanne Collins: the movie was changed not just to optimize it for the screen, but to make the story better.

. . . .

Suzanne Collins was no rookie when she penned this story.  No matter how the filmmakers switched some things around, her decisions were stellar.  But her experience, her craft — the very qualities that empowered her to write this great story –is precisely what played into her acceptance of the changes themselves.

The point: one mind alone, especially the mind of a newer writer, or an unpublished writer, rarely optimizes each and every creative decision that must be made in the course of writing a story.  We nail some, we get by on others, a few we tank.  The real problem — and the opportunity I’m putting in italics here — is when we unknowingly, or because of ignorance, haste or blinders that fit tighter than a muzzle, settle for the first organic idea we have.

. . . .

Why else would the filmmakers tell her story differently, even slightly so?

To make it better.  To jack dramatic tension.  To heighten stakes.  To intensify reader empathy.  To elevate thematic resonance.

Every change in the book-to-story evolution points directly to one or more of these underlying motivations.  It’s all about story physics, the forces that make a story work… and those are always up for grabs.

. . . .

THG was told in rigid first person.  This was Collins’ choice.  We see nothing that transpires beyond the curtain of her hero’s awareness.  Which limits the ability to fully understand the motives and Machiavellian cruelty of the folks who are pulling the strings of the Games themselves.

The more we understand that, the more emotion we’re likely to invest.  This is what the filmmakers knew, and why they changed the story.

In the book we only get a historical overview from Katniss’s POV.  We never meet President Snow or the head Gamekeeper.  We never see the machinations of folks with crazy facial hair pulling levers that result in fires and parachute deliveries and digital hounds from hell (which, while in the book were representative of dead tributes, were simply generically terrifying in the film, which took great liberties in doing so, because they created new laws of physics that push the story into the realm of fantasy).

. . . .

Write your story.  Let it rip.  But then — either in the moment, or via another pass — ask yourself if your decisions, your story moments, are the best they can be.  If what you’ve written, moment by moment, optimizes dramatic tension while forwarding exposition, both at the macro-story level and the sequence and scene level.

Do your scenes and sequences have their own tension and stakes?  Are they compelling?  Will your reader be right there in those moments?

Are you maximizing point of view?  Does what happens behind the curtain enhance the story?  How are you handling that… and backstory… and foreshadowing, all within the infinitesimal subtleties of your characterizations?

Have you asked… why will anyone care?  What level of emotion am I plucking at… at any given moment?   Can you make what you’ve written even better?  You need to make that your highest priority at some point in the process, over and above moving forward.

Link to the rest at Storyfix

Fiction Fundamentals, Writing Advice

17 Comments to “Why Changes to the Hunger Game Script Made the Movie Better Than the Book”

  1. brendan stallard

    P.G./Writers,

    Is that the view of you all?

    I took the view, having read the book before the film, that the film was very respectful to the important elements and scenes that were crucial to the story. Very little of importance was changed.

    This points to me that Collins had a huge hand in the screenplay and worked together with the director, who is also a writer.

    The two arts are very different media and it is impossible to make the two work precisely together. THG was maybe the best I’ve ever seen of book-into-film.

    A new director, who is NOT a writer, has been hired to direct Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Apparently, this is because Gary Ross felt that there simply wasn’t enough time to do them properly within the studios time requirements. (The studio wants to cash in quick.)

    I think Catching Fire might well provide a decent answer, and will be well formatted for film, explosions, burly men in lycra, and not at all in the spirit of the books, a happy ever after pablum ending.

    Them my opinions about a work, which I was hesitant to read, but loved it once I had. I’d love to know what you proper writers think of StoryFix’s findings.

    brendan

    • Hollywood really isn’t about making stories (scripts) better — the Suits and Devos are into making them more “gettable” to the movie-going audience.

      Collins likely didn’t have a huge hand in the actual script development beyond the first drafts; then she was “fired” and replaced by other writers favored by the producers and director who could retool the draft into the shooting script from which the film was made. This happens all the time, and it’s the primary reason screenwriters feel substantially maligned during the filmmaking process. (The other reasons are pay and the fact that they’re almost always shut out from other revenue streams, such as gross points, soundtrack sales, ancillary sales, and even merchandise derived from the film.)

      Of course, the only way to know the full scope of her participation is for her to speak about it, and for others involved to corroborate.

    • I don’t always agree with everything I post, Brendan.

      I try to put up information that authors will find interesting or thought-provoking without trying to provoke thoughts in a particular direction.

  2. I never read or seen the movie. The whole dystopian genre is not my thing.My daughter and her friends weren’t even into it and never bothered to see the movie.
    As for the writing of your story I believe at the end of the day you should be happy and proud with what you have written. I don’t mean revising it to death, that can ruin it but just keep yourself focussed and let you voice come through.

  3. For my money, I thought the book was significantly better than the movie.

  4. No.

    The changes were not made to make the story better, but to condense a complex book into a two-hour film that even the slowest kid on the block would immediately understand.

    Novels can be told in either first or third person. Movies MUST be told in third person. The author of this piece seems to think Hollywood made a deliberate choice about POV. No, the medium made the choice.

    Changing the medium forced changes in the storyline. “Better” is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Exactly. The changes in good movie adaptations IMO make the story more efficient. It’s not about “better,” it’s about cramming 400 pages into a two-hour movie.

  5. A book is 80,000 words with unlimited special effects at nearly no extra cost. A movie is 20,000 words where every setting, special effect or character can cost the price of a house or even a street. A book can be a vast success while appealing to a small fraction of the numbers a movie needs to sell to in order to be a failure.

    Adaptations are different, not necessarily better or worse.

    • Exactly. I just finished the trilogy, which I never intended to read, and I found them brilliant. Far and away better than I ever imagined. I can’t see any improvement AS BOOKS, but I can see how you have to make a movie different.
      Different medium. Different techniques.
      For one thing, a movie has to find other ways to tell you what the characters are thinking, feeling. I agree on the first person perspective. Not as powerful in film. Amazingly powerful in the books.

  6. I read only the first book of the trilogy before the movie. Maybe if I had read more of the trilogy I would have differently, but I thought the movie was better than the book. The movie did a better job of building a richer world and developing more of the characters. I was more interested in continuing the trilogy after seeing the movie than I was after reading the book.

  7. Went there, read that, and I respectfully disagree with this [deleted]. I am a huge fan of The Hunger Games novels, and almost every change the film made was for the worse. (Where was the bread from District 11 after Rue died? You know, the bread that basically began the revolution in Catching Fire? Hence the title?)

    I went to see the film the first day, and walking out of the theater, two young fans, I’d guess about ten, were talking. Kid 1: “They sure changed a lot.”
    “Kid 2: “Yeah, the books are always better.”

    I understand that you tell a story one way in text and another way in film. I don’t expect to see a carbon copy of the book I read up on the screen (and good thing, too, because I never do). But you don’t, if you’re smart, gut the film of the book’s important plot points and most touching moments.

    That said, this film’s success means there will be two sequels, which means Collins is making a fortune, plus the books are up on the bestseller lists again. Anytime an author makes a fortune, I’m happy.

  8. Came here to leave a disagreeing comment, and upon reading all the other disagreeing comments, am wondering if Larry Brooks threw in the stuff about the movie being “better” on purpose so people will come argue with him.

  9. Ironically (?), everything I’d heard about the book suggested that it would be a style that would intrinsically annoy me, so I’ve skipped reading it. (Doesn’t mean it’s bad. Just means that certain things annoy me. More book for other people.)

    On the other hand, the movie pretty much glossed over the stuff that would’ve annoyed me, and the special effects were pretty nifty, and — while I had pretty low expectations — it was a pretty entertaining bit of time spent.

  10. So what do we think of the advice he’s extrapolating for writing? Make every scene PUNCHY. I…tend to like books that have scenes where not much happens except you learn something about a character. Obviously that’s not all the scenes, but advice like this rubs me the wrong way. Probably because it describes a different aesthetic and makes me wonder if I’m just deluding myself about readers like slower styles too. 🙂

    • And certain things that you could do punchily in a film (like cutting to all the behind-the-scenes work that makes the Hunger Games happen) just wouldn’t be punchy in a book. You couldn’t just cut to the behind-the-scenes work; you’d have to introduce another set of characters and switch over to them, all to tell the reader something they already know because Katniss already knows. It wouldn’t work.

  11. This is the same drum Larry Brooks beats in every blog post. His book Story Engineering has some great points on story structure, but what it all boils down to is that he thinks the three act format is the only correct structure for a story, whether film or book.

    I don’t agree, but he does have some useful things to say about structure. Just not here. That he thinks a film in the Hollywood/three act formula is better than the book is no surprise.

  12. I’m another person who didn’t read the series because I was afraid it was over-hyped YA. (Teen angst doesn’t do it for me.)

    Then I saw the movies and realized I should take a look at the books.

    I’m glad I read them.

    I’m not a fan of 1st person POV – usually the inner dialog of the MC annoys me – but I liked the books and will watch the movies…in the theatres not DVD.

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