They say that adaptation is the hardest task for any screenwriter. (Or maybe it was just Charlie Kaufman who said it over and over again in "Adaptation.") I never really understood this. Isn't it easier to write a 100-page screenplay when they're spotting you 300 pages? After watching "The Hunger Games," though, I'm starting to understand why adaptation is so hard. Don't get me wrong, I liked it. But without Katniss's inner monologue--her running commentary that told us what she was thinking and feeling--the movie just felt flat.
I've done a fair amount of adapting. I adapted the Isaac Asimov short story "Profession" into a feature film script early in my career and that was a pleasure. The key to making it work was adding more characters, a love interest, and a second act that weren't present in the short story.
Then, of course, "Puss in Boots" was an adaptation. I was the first writer on the project, and DreamWorks had me scour the fairy tale to see what we could mine. But like the Asimov story, the adaptation process was a matter of addition: adding plot, backstory, and funny lines for Antonio Banderas.
Even on a project I'm currently working on, an adaptation of the best-selling children's book "The Anybodies," the process involves a lot of fleshing things out, adding sequences and characters, and bringing small moments to life for the big screen. So if these projects weren't impossible to adapt, what's all the big fuss about?
Enter "The Hunger Games." Having read and enjoyed the books, I went to see the movie opening weekend. I liked it. I was entertained. But ultimately I was underwhelmed. The movie simply failed to capture the emotion of the book. I understand that cuts needed to be made to bring the movie down to even two and a half hours. So no Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) eating her favorite stew in the capital, I get that. But that's not what I missed. What's missing is Katniss' inner life.
Suddenly, I realized why this was a hard adaptation. First of all, "The Hunger Games" book is much longer than anything I've ever adapted, so it was a movie of subtraction, not addition. But more importantly, it's written in the first person. It's all internal monologue. Katniss reflecting on the reaping. On food. On being hungry. (No one in the movie ever looks hungry!) In trying to depict those thoughts and feelings onscreen (without voice-over), we're left with a lot of meaningful stares. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) sees the image of Katniss kissing Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and looks down. Katniss sees Peeta at the reaping and looks away. There's a lot of looking. (I actually imagined myself in director Gary Ross's shoes telling Liam Hemsworth, "Trust me, we're going to give you a lot to do in the next movies. But for now, I just need you to look over there.")
It's a cardinal rule of filmmaking that you reveal character through action, and while "The Hunger Games" has a lot of action, somehow it's still missing its character. There are no easy solutions and I'm not going to suggest I know better than one of my heroes, Gary Ross. But can anyone really say that "The Hunger Games" is on equal footing with the emotion and character development we saw in the "Harry Potter" series?
I recently published a young adult novel, "Last Stop This Town." It's a "Superbad" meets "Nick and Nora's Infinite Playlist" kind of coming-of-age comedy -- so a lot of racy humor but with a lot of heart. And as I was writing it, I kept thinking, "How am I going to show this onscreen?" There's a passage where the two guys realize their friendship is going to change after they leave for college, and the narrative reads, "This moment felt so real. But it also felt like it was slipping away. A distance was forming between them and even now he could see it starting. A drifting apart. They were growing up, Noah guessed, and it felt like [expletive]."
I'm not sure how I'd show this in a film. Maybe some meaningful stares. But ultimately, I had to let go of that concern and just write the book with the reader's interest in mind. Maybe I made the adaptation more difficult by bringing out the characters' inner lives, but that's not the concern of the author. That's the screenwriter's problem.
And just to bring this full circle, my novel is set in my old high school, William H. Hall High, in West Hartford, Connecticut, which happens to have another screenwriting alum: Charlie Kaufman.