In Book vs. Movie, we look at novels of any genre and compare them to their feature-film adaptation. This will not be a review of the merits of either version of the story, but an essay on how each version of the story acquits itself within its medium. After analyzing both versions of the story, we’ll arrive at a verdict between which medium is more successful at telling its story, and whether any disparity between the two can be reconciled in a way that doesn’t impeach the winning version. Spoilers ensue.
Book vs. Movie - The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2
By Ben Gruchow
November 28, 2016
The Hunger Games trilogy
The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins, is about the nation of Panem (which has grown out of the remains of North America following catastrophic events), its 12 “districts,” each specializing in the production of a valuable resource for the central autocratic Capitol, their creation of a grisly, televised fight to the death between children called the Hunger Games, and a growing rebellion against the Capitol’s tyranny. The first book introduces us to 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, both of District 12. They are responsible for the first dual victory in Hunger Games history. Katniss is our protagonist and a central figure in a populist rebellion that grows over the course of the trilogy. This rebellion escalates into warfare and comes to its conclusion in the third book, Mockingjay, and the fourth film, Mockingjay Part 2.
Note: To address the bifurcation of the adaptation, we will consider only the second half of the source novel.
Mockingjay Part 2
The rescue of an abused and emaciated Peeta Mellark from the hands of the Capitol, and the subsequent reveal that he has been tortured into the role of deranged sleeper agent - made to see Katniss Everdeen as a threat and a monster and driven to kill her on sight - arrives almost exactly at the midpoint of Mockingjay, and it forces the story into a kind of reset. We are acquainted with two of the three other prisoners taken in the aftermath of the Quarter Quell: Johanna Mason and Annie Cresta (the third is District 2’s Enobaria; she is alluded to and briefly glimpsed but never really constitutes a factor in the story again).
The main story of Mockingjay’s back half concerns itself with a military incursion into the Capitol by rebel forces comprised of virtually every District in Panem. Alma Coin, the President of District 13, spearheads the incursion from a strategic perspective. One of these strategies is to deploy a unit several days behind the front lines of battle, termed the “Star Squad” and existing principally to continue producing and airing propaganda films for the benefit of the rebels - and Capitol citizens, during the increasing instances where they can break through security. To this end, the Star Squad consists of Katniss, Finnick Odair, Gale, and most of the previous members of the film crew: Cressida, Castor and Pollux as cameramen.
The complicating factor is the existence of pods: landmine-like traps set by the remaining Gamemakers in the Capitol, designed to kill anyone unlucky enough to trigger them. This has the effect of transforming the rebels’ incursion into the Capitol into a bigger and randomized version of the Games; the city basically becomes another arena.
Katniss’ goal in this is simple: she cares nothing for the purpose of the Star Squad, or much of anything having to do with the revolution at all; more or less all of her remaining will to live is set on getting to and killing President Snow for what he’s done to her district and to Peeta. Set against the character positioning here are subplots that threaten to disrupt the proceedings: Peeta is assigned to the Star Squad, ostensibly to provide better optics for the rebels and clearly as a tool designed to reveal Alma Coin’s true sentiments toward Katniss as a future ally: the “good” President doesn’t like or trust the story’s protagonist, views her inability or refusal to merge her goals with Coin’s as a liability, and intends to control the narrative of the Mockingjay regardless of whether or not the actual person is alive or dead.
If the first half of Mockingjay was about control and manipulation through political propaganda, the second half is about how far exertion of that control and manipulation will be pressed, and what manifestation that control and manipulation takes in order to assert its presence and dominance. In quite another sense, it’s about the failure of risk-averse institutions to maintain a stable and workable emotional temperature in a population prone to populist appeals. Here we have a pretty linear escalation of the core themes encountered in Catching Fire, and there is a sense of inevitability that pervades the final phase of the story’s rising action.
Collins teases the reader pretty effectively with this, drawing the post-Peeta, pre-invasion stretch of the book out with precision. A chunk of the book’s third quarter is given over to Katniss transforming from an undernourished trauma victim to something approximating an adjusted soldier, with Johanna as her companion in both states of physical and mental shape (although the actual passage is done well, the moment where Collins begins structuring the shape of the book’s final act, involving a spur-of-the-moment decision by Coin, positively creaks with wheezy plot mechanics; a follow-up sequence involving a convenient medical procedure to accelerate healing is even more so.
Prior to all this, though, we have what might be the sharpest passage in the final novel, one that acts as a primary moment of reckoning for Katniss’s character arc in the series up to this point. It occurs as the rebels secure District 2, a mountainous region containing most of the Capitol’s defense and weapons arsenal. The workers inside the primary mountain caves are smoked out in destructive fashion, and the moment in question involves a lone, injured miner with a gun. Collins has to this point been building toward the climax of a secondary narrative, that of the districts being led to see each other as enemies. This is, of course, the product of Snow’s incitement to inter-district violence from Catching Fire. This climax arrives when the gun in question is pointed at Katniss, and the sentiment here echoes Peeta’s from the first installment of the series: if you’re going to die, do it in a way that is your own. Of course, the tone behind the sentiment then was one of uneasiness and tension. Here, we have the opposite; this sequence, set at night in a bombed-out ruin and populated by victims of war, exudes not much beyond exhaustion and a kind of get-it-over-with mentality.
This mood sticks through the remainder of Mockingjay’s back half, even through set pieces that are ostensibly there to make the reader feel some kind of empathy or warmth, such as a wedding between Finnick and Annie that contains almost as much prose detailing the bureaucratic review process the event goes through as text of the event itself. The passages of the book where Katniss and Johanna undergo their training regimen has moments of clarity, but it’s mostly going through the motions.
Even once we do get to the outer range of the city, the characters - and by extension, we as the audience - are in stasis as we go through Peeta’s reintroduction and the slow mixing of military action with propaganda. Thus mostly caps an odd chunk of the final novel in the series; what technically should be depicted in scenes of tension and momentum is instead approached with the mundane (and arguably more realistic) sense of wasted time and potential getting the right angle and framing on a significant act rather than any significant act actually being performed.
This comes to an abrupt end with the detonation of a land mine concealed in a paving stone and the gruesome death of a major character. The final plot point of this intended assault on the Capitol - that Katniss fakes a special mission from Coin to kill Snow - is established, and we cease receiving much explanation as the story morphs into halting passages of forward movement and character development, punctuated by sudden violence. Going through the pace and tone of this final run-up in the book, I was reminded of one of the many times that Stephen King broke into the narrative to directly address the reader of the final (underappreciated) book in his Dark Tower series. The first death of a major character in that book, too, triggered the book’s final cascade of events: “The story of their fellowship ends here,” King writes, “on this make-believe street and beneath this artificial sun; the rest of the tale will be short and brutal compared to all that’s gone before.”
So it is here. There are several further pods triggered and traps sprung on the group, and several more deaths, but none seem to really register to Katniss beyond a flicker of recognition and a flat, emotionless description of the event. Not until the tail end of the final action set piece - a massively-scaled riot in front of President Snow’s mansion, involving indiscriminate warfare, a pod the size of a city block, and a truly gruesome manipulation of human emotion that doesn’t lose much of its impact for how predictable it is - is the incident portrayed with much more than analytical detachment.
This is probably the only reason why the chain of events following this set piece, resolving story thread after story thread by a methodical and consistent rhythm, isn’t completely jarring; the procedural that follows the action component of the final part of the book would read as a brutal downshift in pace from anything that was perceptible as excitement, and it may have thrown off the resolution of the book’s theme entirely. Even as it is, this final stretch of events - involving the aftermath of the war, the settling of the Capitol, and a decisive end to the question of leadership and power-exchange with the District 13 administration - doesn’t really “work”; critical incidents are described to Katniss after they’ve occurred, which worked in the context of a suspense narrative and doesn’t work nearly as well in the tragic context of Mockingjay.
The flat, displaced perspective that reads in one way during passages of urban warfare reads as far less cathartic in passages intended to address a traumatic state of mind. The book and series do ultimately close on a strong note, mostly because the narrative choice once again fits the situation (from an unspecified point in the future, Katniss ruminates on the lasting damage of both the Games and the war, on the nation and on herself).
In light of that conclusion, it is immediately obvious upon watching the film that director Francis Lawrence’s primary concern with Mockingjay Part 2 - probably with both parts - was sticking the landing. Almost as important, by the result, was streamlining the narrative and making each of the plot points funnel into the final act in a way that was cinematically legible. There are two major changes the filmmakers made to the material in adaptation and a handful of minor ones in between those two; thankfully, we can more or less address these in order.
Major Change #1: The sizable chunk of narrative involving Peeta’s slow climb toward lucidity is whittled down to a single tense conversation between him and Katniss, one that leaves her single-mindedly bent on killing President Snow. The segment taking Katniss and Johanna through military and weapons training is excised entirely, replaced with a spur-of-the-moment plan for Katniss to stow away in one of the hovercraft as it delivers supplies to the troops on the front lines. Johanna gives her the intelligence that lets her do this.
Minor Change #1: In the novel, there are a couple of off-the-cuff deaths in the Star Squad as they initially breach the city, due to errant pods. These are remarked upon, but only in the past tense, and it’s the type of action that works only on the page and wouldn’t work at all tonally with the pace of the film, where the Star Squad stays intact until the triggering of the landmine.
Minor Change #2: It’s made more explicit in the film that Snow is tracking the Squad’s progress; we see him monitor them as they move into the sewers, and it’s clear that he specifically triggers the lizard muttations*. This is in keeping with the broadening of perspective that we’ve seen in the cinematic incarnation of this series so far.
Minor Change #3: The lizard-muttation sequence itself - and its follow-up through a disintegrating subway station - reminds me a little bit of the Bridge of Khazad-Dum sequence in The Fellowship of the Ring, in that a passage equating to a couple hundred sedate words on the page translate to perhaps the flagship action sequence of the entire film. This one, though, with its explosive kick-start, nightmarish fire-lit imagery, gunfire, and shrieking score, may take the prize as the standout action set piece of the entire franchise. It’s a minor change in the context of plot, but it’s a massive one in the context of pure incident.
Major Change #2: The final assault on the Capitol is simplified and accelerated. Instead of the city-block pod, we have a visually straightforward and arguably more realistic kamikaze charge, amid a firefight, in a straight line from a crowded street to the gates of Snow’s mansion. This takes place over four clearly delineated fronts: Katniss and Gale running toward the mansion, District 13 rebels advancing (they start the firefight in both mediums), Peacekeepers pushing back, and unarmed Capitol citizens caught in the middle.
Despite these changes, Mockingjay Part 2 is surpassingly loyal to the source material in both incident and tone, more so than any of the other films in the series, and it gets to hold the candle of being the only one of the Big Three YA adaptations (the other two being Harry Potter and Twilight) to present its climactic action, wind-down, and resolution mostly unaltered in both book and movie form.
The chief area where Catching Fire stumbled as a movie in comparison to the book was in its methodical chess-game nature and the evident build toward a larger plot working behind the scenes of the superficial action. With Part 1, I concluded that the movie was an improvement on the book, depending on how well its broader themes (which it more or less had to initiate from Square One, given the previous film’s lack of space for them) were resolved in this final installment.
Part 2 does address these themes, is a superior incarnation than its written counterpart, and corrects the shakiness of the denouement and resolutions to an extent that what was the weakest segment of the back half of the book becomes by far the strongest part of the film. And when the two films are put together, the cinematic Mockingjay achieves a fullness that is inherent to both parts but not apparent should they be seen separately. This occurred with the final Harry Potter installments, too. Director Francis Lawrence employs several bookending and mirroring techniques to stitch the two together; the ones that jump to mind immediately are the use of a cat coming through a kitchen window and triggering very different reactions, and the use of two rehearsed on-camera segments transforming unexpectedly into emotional appeals, one involving unstable rage and the other weary resignation.
He does something else, too: he and his filmmaking crew stress the routine of plumbing a revolution’s inner workings, and the cynicism that arises from it. This is particularly true of Part 1, but it finds its way in here - generally in the shortening pauses between violence as the movie winds its way toward the conclusion. Collins did this in her book too, but it was necessarily limited by Katniss’s point of view: we saw only as much as she saw, and she sees comparatively little.
The visual medium of film is going to almost by default present that cynicism in a more relevant way, and it’s one of the more significant factors in the difference between the book and movie. Back in 2001, Joss Whedon, of the first two Avengers films, was in the middle of production on Buffy the Vampire Slayer (arguably Ground Zero for serialized fiction centering around strong young women). In the middle of that show’s fifth season, he wrote and directed an episode entirely centering around a major character’s death. This episode was presented with virtually none of the common tropes that audiences associated with major deaths up to that point: no non-diagetic music, the presence of lengthy periods of silence, atypical camerawork. When Whedon was interviewed about that episode and what his rationale behind the presentation was, he said (paraphrased), “I wanted to show the boredom.”
There is an unfussy, straightforward nature to Lawrence’s work as a director in general that’s appealing; he is not known for utilizing slow motion, flashy camerawork, or other extravagant directorial flourishes. At the same time, he is very clearly a careful architect of his images; he prefers medium-focus and symmetrically balanced compositions, and he knows how long to hold a shot to allow the images the proper impact. He does not always present an artistic image, but he always presents discipline in the craft.
This has a noticeable impact on the latter three Hunger Games films; in their formal and observant way, they punch harder than the first film could hope to. This goes more so for this last film, which translates the strengths of the novel while somehow avoiding almost all of its weaknesses. It is not what I’d call a fun experience, and I wish that the trenchant political and social satire of the premise had a sharper presence in the film; then again, I wish the same of the source material. I find more to appreciate in the cinematic incarnation of this story, which is pervasively grim to the degree that its subject matter implies and insinuates that it should be, and far more emotionally accessible than its written counterpart.
Book vs. movie winner: Movie, by a considerable margin.