What “The Hunger Games” Taught Me About Screen Writing

My goal here is simply to share my opinion as someone who has read the books, watched the movie, and wants to be a filmmaker some day.

I don’t know if a spoiler alert is necessary in this case because I suspect that everybody reading this post has already read the books. Nevertheless, if you want to hear the rest of my thoughts you’re gonna have to click to see more below.

Turns out I had more to say about this film than I anticipated, so I’ll start with the bullet point list, and then let you decide to read the rest of my thoughts below…

Review at a Glance:

  1. The movie was true to the book. (i.e. fans will be happy, but…)
  2. It felt like a low budget film.
  3. The soundtrack was missing.
  4. Relationships were thin.
  5. Special effects weren’t special.
  6. It lacked emotional connection.
  7. Didn’t live up to its full potential.
  8. …but I can’t wait to see it again.

Expectations:

The people who are most excited about the movie are those who have already read the books. In other words, we’re not eager to see the movie because we’re curious how it ends. Rather we want to be immersed in the story, we want to see it, we want to feel it.

Probably the hardest thing about making a movie like this is that the filmmakers are battling huge expectations from the audience. All in all I think they did a good job matching the details of the book, but they failed to leverage the unique storytelling features of film.

In the book we have the luxury of hearing Katniss’ thoughts. Seemingly disparate scenes can be woven together beautifully by revealing what she’s thinking. Unfortunately that style of storytelling doesn’t translate very well onto film. Take Gale for example. He’s the hearthrob who dominates the thoughts of Katniss and all the female readers of the book. Yet if you stop and think about it he’s only in two scenes according to the book (hunting in the woods, and the Reaping/departure). That’s it. She doesn’t even see him again until the second book, yet the readers know him to be a crucial character in the story because she’s constantly¬†thinking about him.

The movie followed the book to a fault. I have to give them credit for covering so much ground in the film. Book purists, I suspect, will be reasonably pleased with the portrayal of events in the movie. However, I think they followed the book to a fault. It seemed like their aim was to accurately depict the scenes of the book even if it meant sacrificing the emotion and motives behind them. For example:

Her relationship with Rue was under developed. They did a decent job of developing Rue as a character, but they were too little too late to make us fall in love with her. Moments after Katniss befriends her they split up to destroy the others’ supplies, and then in the very next scene Rue gets killed. To me, that was the single biggest turning point in the book, and even though that’s how it happened in the story it was way too fast to feel the weight of it in the movie. Instead, they should have become friends early on in the training scenes. In doing so the audience would have more time to like her, and all of the character building traits about Rue would be associated as an advantage for Katniss rather than a threat. It would also give meaning to why Rue helped Katniss in the tracker jacker scene. Most importantly the weight of her loss would be undeniable.

To be fair the movie differentiated itself in a few scenes like when Katniss found the Mockingjay pin at the market instead of it being a gift from Madge, and I think that part of the story developed much better for it. I just think they neglected too many other opportunities to develop the story like this.

It felt like there was no particular rhyme or reason to the things they added and what they left out. For example: on Reaping Day they made everyone take a blood sample for ID purposes (which was not in the book) yet they left out the fact that the mutts at the end of the movie were hairy, wolf-like creatures with human eyes (instead they decided to make them hairless pit bulls –undoubtedly cheaper to create in CGI). The blood sample scene took up additional screen time and it served no purpose later in the film, and the hairless mutts didn’t have the same, bone-chilling association to the dead tributes that was described in the book. I guess I’m just disappointed by many of the choices they made.

The Good:

  • Jennifer Lawrence nailed the role of Katniss. She was beautiful, smart, and likable yet distanced.
  • The Capitol and district logos were well designed.
  • The sets of District 12 and the training center were better than I imagined –they felt like real places.
  • The commentators for the games served as narrators to help fill in some of the holes without consuming much screen time.
  • There was a touch of humor in the film that was missing from the book, not too much to make it less serious but rather to make the characters more likable and real. Effie Trinket was often the personification of this.

The Bad:

  • The handheld camera, look, and feel of the movie was very unpolished –a stark contrast to the movie poster and promotional stuff they’ve been showing. There was very little color grading and no rich, cinematic shots that I can recall. The majority of it looks like raw footage.
  • The soundtrack was absent. As the first film in a series there should have been a clear score or theme established. Most of the scenes were void of music that so often underscores and drives the emotional cues for the audience. It made it hard to connect to the story and characters.
  • The special effects were often cheesy. The “girl on fire” entrance was less than inspiring, and the mutts were nothing like they were described in the book. It seemed like they cut a lot of corners to keep production costs down.
  • The sound of the canon was weak. I’m sorry but there’s just no excuse for this. The canon should not be mistaken for a hand drum. It should have been heavy and deep, commanding your attention, rumbling in your chest, and signifying the loss of a life. For 99 cents on iTunes you could find a royalty free canon sound effect. Come on.
  • Who on earth is Gary Ross? I shouldn’t be too harsh because I have yet to make a single film, but I have to question the choice of director here. The Hunger Games is expected to be one of the biggest grossing films of the year, and they chose the same guy who directed …wait for it… Pleasantville and Seabiscuit? I don’t know; that one just doesn’t make sense to me.
  • I don’t think too many people are crazy about the casting choice of Peeta…

Conclusion:

Aside from the preconceived sentiments that I carried into the theater there was very little emotional connection for me. As much as I wanted to be moved by the story I have to admit that I just didn’t feel it.

If it were up to me I would have drastically changed the opening scene as well as the ending, but for now I’m just a critic offering my two cents. I think there was a lot of squandered potential, but until I start making films myself then my thoughts will just be speculation.

All in all it felt like a low budget film. Based on the trailers, hype, and success of the books I expected a visual feast deserving of the $155 million dollar opening weekend.

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6 thoughts on “What “The Hunger Games” Taught Me About Screen Writing

  1. The movie was made for $80M. Low budget for a film of this magnitude. The book is gritty. The camera work was gritty. Yes, the film was rushed, they couldn’t develop all the characters in one movie, but I’m sure, with 3 other movies being made, that we’re going to learn a lot more of the complexities of Katniss’s love of both Peeta and Gale. We’re going to see Rue again, in flashbacks in the next movie.

    Scoff all you want about Seabiscuit and Pleasantville, those are fantastic movies. Pleasantville touches on some amazing themes and was beautifully executed. Seabiscuit as well. Gary Ross also wrote Big, Dave, The Tale of Despereaux, and Mr. Baseball. This guy has been around and knows what he’s doing.

    There’s a lot of things that don’t translate to film, like what Katniss is thinking and she spends so much time alone in the games that it would be weird if she talked to herself. The only time the love interest between Peeta and Katniss develops is in the cave and they cut to Gale looking disappointed. Sure it was quick, but what more could they have done without making the movie another 30 minutes? Maybe they should have lengthened the movie.

    Many people weren’t big fans of the third book, but I think the final movies will be much better than this one. They’ll have a HUGE budget and get to do a lot more. Look at LOTR:FOTR to LOTR:ROTK. The first was mostly in-camera magic and the final movie was CGI galore. Look at Harry Potter 1 to Harry Potter 7.2. The scale and CG increased so much. The movies will look more and more polished by the last movie.

    I think they nailed it.

    • I don’t think the movie has to be lengthened. On the contrary, the more you cut the more valuable each scene becomes.

      I thought Seabiscuit was great, but that doesn’t mean I think Ross was the right fit for Hunger Games. I would’ve expected someone with a reputation for unfolding a complicated plot or suspense. I think he missed several opportunities there…

      Rather than adapting, say, her lonesome thoughts in the woods they simply cut them altogether. It left me feeling like some core motives were missing.

      I think you’re right about the series getting better, and I can’t wait for the rest.

  2. I haven’t seen the movie yet (have read the books) and agree with the disappointment of the casting for Peeta. I think he and Gale look too similar and frankly I don’t find either of them attractive in the way I think they should be. But hey I don’t think Robert Pattinson is good looking either so who I am to go against what millions of girls apparently think :) That’s my only rant. Looking forward to seeing the movie.

  3. I agree with almost everything you wrote! Especially – Peeta’s casting choice, the un-inspired “wolf-like” creatures (nothing about their eyes which was traumatizing for Katniss in the book), her undeveloped relationship with Rue, and the lame ‘girl on fire’ entrance (I was expecting so much more). I love what you said “…we want to be immersed in the story, we want to see it, we want to feel it.” That is SO true – because the books just suck you in. I don’ feel like the movie would have that same effect if I hadn’t read the books first. Either way I’m anxious to see the rest of the series! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  4. I think in general, all the relationships were under-developed. I think the character development overall was weak. I understand you have to cut some things because of time constraints that come with a movie but the characters and relationship are so complex and intricate in the book and I don’t think any of the relationships worked really well in the movie.

    Peeta didn’t bug me nearly as much as the casting of Cinna. I just don’t think Lenny Kravitz did a great job with the character (and that’s probably the directors fault but also see the first point).

    Special effects – Agreed. Nothing special about them.

    The film score (or lack there of in your opinion) didn’t bug me. I thought the music that was in the film had a point

    Great review and thoughts overall.

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