Evoking Katniss in The Hunger Games
More difficult is fidelity to the spirit, to the original’s tone, values, imagery, rhythm, since finding stylistic equivalents in film for these intangible aspects is the opposite of a mechanical process. The cineaste presumably must intuit and reproduce the feeling of the original.
- Dudley Andrew
One of the keys of good adaptation from literature to film is, to many people, preserving the feeling of that source. This is, in a lot of ways, one of the biggest hurdles to cross, given that such a requirement is in many ways quite subjective. Whereas issues of fidelity – more a distraction than anything else – can be easily identified on certain objective bases: “They changed the character’s hair color” or “this scene never happened in the book.” These are specific identifiers, not reliant on a subjective reading of a nebulous concept of “feeling.” One remarkable aspect of The Hunger Games is in the performance by Jennifer Lawrence of the film’s protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. All other aspects aside, the transition of Katniss’s character from page to screen is a difficult one.
The main point to keep in one’s mind with regard to adapting The Hunger Games into a movie is that the book is told from a first-person perspective. The use of the first-person can be extremely advantageous for a reader in that it allows, in many ways, a deeper connection to the protagonist – the narrator. Empathy is in some ways much easier to produce in a first-person narrative, where the reader is put directly in the shoes of a character. Katniss’s thoughts, feelings, and motivations are clearly on display. The problem of adaptation of course arises from the fact that film does not inherently allow for a direct first-person perspective as literature does. Sure, one could have a voice-over narration. But I get the feeling that in the case of The Hunger Games, that would feel awkward, and clunky. There are other ways – some of which I will address later. But the main point to realize is in film’s inability to directly translate the literary first-person to screen.
The challenge then for Lawrence was to, in essence, embody the internalizations that are so clearly displayed in the book. Issues concerning her love – or lack there of – for Peeta, can’t simply be said. They have to be shown. A case of adaptation like this one prominently expresses that need, of showing over telling in cinema. The example of her emotions for Peeta are an obvious one, yet many others exist, including but not limited to her anxiety and frustration during the training scenes, her fear during the games themselves, and her affection for Gale, despite his brief appearance.
It soon becomes clear in watching the film that the internal, thoughtful Katniss still remains. In fact, she has very little dialogue. Writers Gary Ross, Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins (the author of the book), changed or added very little in terms of what Katniss actually says out loud and expresses to other characters in the book. When one takes a step back, it becomes clear how risky a maneuver this actually is, because on the surface, the screenplay inherently puts the viewer at a disadvantage, keeping them at a distance from what would otherwise be easily understandable.
As a result, a great deal of the burden of making Katniss the kind of relatable, empathetic character seen in the book is on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence and the strength of her performance. In other words, what is so obviously conveyed through paragraphs, pages and chapters of the book must be conveyed mostly through Lawrence’s physicality; her facial expressions, body movement, etc. Director Gary Ross, in an interview with Charlie Rose, spoke at some length about this, noting very strongly how he wanted, through his filmmaking, to stay with Katniss’s point of view, with her subjective view of the events unfolding around her, saying:
This girl’s in one hundred percent of the movie, and it’s all about her, and it’s an interior journey for her, and it’s going to be completely subjective… It’s a very fine kind of tonal target, that you are completely invested in Jennifer’s point of view, Katniss’s point of view, that you stay in her subjective experience. And that led me into kind of an investigation: what does that mean to shoot completely in a character’s point of view? It kind of necessitated me shooting the movie in a different way than I’d ever shot before, and just making sure that I was just on that course the whole time… There’s a very raw, naturalistic, vérité quality that I thought was necessary to be in this really subjective experience with Katniss.
Here we see that Ross, as the director, committed to keeping intact that subjective perspective expressed through the use of the first-person perspective of the book. In watching the film, this can be seen in both the subtlety of the sound design, to the obvious, such as the scene in which Katniss hallucinates from Tracker Jacker stings. More importantly however, is of course Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, without which none of Ross’s filmmaking would have much of an impact.
The success or failure of her performance then, depends strongly on her ability to convey Katniss, in her entirety as a character and a person, to viewers. It is the difficulty of all of this that makes her performance such an exceptional one, in that it is able to accomplish this. Furthermore, one must remember the burden that she has, in not only creating a full character from so little dialogue, but moreover, in developing and presenting a well-adapted character.
Her performance is one that is easy to overlook, partly because of the phenomenon that The Hunger Games has become. Frequently derided by certain sectors of the public, such as through comparison to the Twilight franchise – to my mind, an unfair and ignorant comparison – it is all too easy to devalue her performance based on such red herrings. However, I believe a closer examination reveals how nuanced, especially in its facial physicality, her performance actually is. Although I believe it would be possible to look at individual instances in which Jennifer Lawrence evokes certain aspects of the character, I also feel doing so would be somewhat of a disservice, in that her performance must be taken as a whole, in that it really does become more than the sum of its parts.
Regardless of one’s belief in the quality of her performance, however, Jennifer Lawrence can be said to really embody the character of Katniss, especially as readers know and understand her. And as a result, she evokes the spirit and feeling of that character, and of the text upon which she is based. Such a concept – the evocation of feeling – is a difficult one to express and to grasp. As I’ve mentioned, in many ways, it is nebulous. Perhaps in such cases, the best one can say is, “I know it when I see it.” In this case, I’ll gladly make such a statement.