The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 arrived this past weekend, and now it’s official: This outstanding series of dystopian young-adult novels have gotten an equally outstanding movie series. These films aren’t just financial successes like the Twilight series; they’re genuinely good, exciting and emotionally thrilling movies that stand on their own—but still, they’ll never be able to live up to Suzanne Collins’ original books.
To understand why, you need to understand what sets Hunger Games apart from its many, many contemporaries—namely, its protagonist, Katniss Everdeen. What makes Katniss different from the young heroes of post-apocalyptic YA fiction like The Maze Runner series, the Divergent series, and all the others? She’s not destined to save her world, she’s just very unlucky. While other young adult characters often have secret origins that mark them for greatness, Katniss has the role of savior of Panem thrust upon her against her will. She’s forced through circumstances beyond her control to become the mascot of the revolution. And Katniss isn’t a leader, she’s a figurehead, a character that the people of Panem can rally behind. It’s rare that a YA adaptation subverts the “heroic journey” archetype in this manner and to this degree—especially in such a dark, chilling manner. But this is a major part of why The Hunger Games has captured its millions of fans, and it’s something the movies have portrayed excellently.
However, here’s the first place where Collins’ novels have the advantage: Only the books can convey the complexity of Katniss’ inner monologue, her constant feelings of powerlessness at being swept up in the fight against the capitol, and her fear.
Certainly Jennifer Lawrence does an amazing job conveying Katniss’ emotions: Her anguish, her fear, her aforementioned powerlessness. But the books have the advantage of diving deeper into Katniss’ mind than the movies possibly can, as only books can do, and in doing so make The Hunger Games’ single most unique and engrossing aspect that much richer. Although most actors of Lawrence’s ability would have no problem equaling the emotional range of most normal YA heroes—if not exceeding them—there’s no way she can convey as many layers of duplicity and confusion as Collins manages to, in writing. In the novels, Katniss’ inner complexity is, frankly, amazing and engrossing—and as talented an actress as Lawrence is, there’s simply no way she can convey the incredible depths of Katniss’s thoughts and feelings.
This is especially key during the series’ many action scenes, whether they take place in the Games themselves or in battle. Obviously, the focus of these scenes in the movies is the action, as Katniss fights for her life and to save the lives of others. It’s difficult for any actor to convey a wealth of feelings when she’s running through a forest at top speed, but the books obviously don’t have that limitation; Katniss’ fear, helplessness, and even anger is more important to the scene than the action. In the books, by seeing these horrific moments through Katniss’ eyes, we see her terror and her vulnerability, instead of merely watching giant CG-animated wasp monsters. Obviously, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with The Hunger Games movies turning these action-packed scenes into action sequences—people wanted to see them enacted in live-action, which is the reason the movies exist—but because Katniss is so rich a character, she loses some of her weight when the movie is focused on the action instead of her.
By the same token, The Hunger Games movies are equally lacking in portraying Katniss’ complicated romantic feelings for Peeta and Gale, which is another major way the protagonist of the series is unique among her YA peers. Again, Lawrence does an excellent job preventing Katniss from ever seeming like a mere starry-eyed maiden, but the “love triangle” between the three characters is played as much more of a traditional romance in the films than in the books, where it’s a lot more complicated.
That doesn’t prevent the movies from pairing off Katniss and Peeta at times—not as if they are soul mates, of course—but as if their affection is mutual, simple and true. Readers of the books know that’s not the case. Katniss makes her antipathy for her supposed romantic leads clear in a way the movie simply can’t. Her feelings for Peeta grow organically, not because Peeta is such a hunk, but because by the end Peeta is the only person in the world who can truly understand Katniss and what she’s gone through, because he went through most of it as well. It’s a relationship based more on mutual understanding and shared trauma than traditional love.
If Katniss were to explain her lack of obsessive love for Peeta out loud on-screen, she would seem cruel or even shallow. Wisely, the films choose to leave these feelings unspoken, but by their absence, Katniss and Peeta’s love story becomes less volatile and more conventional. The best Lawrence and the movies can do to convey this is to keep Katniss emotionally closed off, to keep her reserved even in her most romantic and emotional moments with Peeta. Again, it’s not bad, but it still diminishes one of the characters, along with the books’ most fascinating decisions. And you lose another major part of what makes The Hunger Games trilogy so special.
Katniss Everdeen is a fantastic character, and one that I’m thrilled to have been brought to life on screen, and so well. But for me, the best, most fully realized and fascinating version of Katniss stars in a book trilogy, not a movie quadrilogy. May the odds be ever in her favor.
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