by Evan Hernandez
Sitting in the theater after the closing shot of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a fellow audience member yelled the exact words I had yelled in aggravation upon reaching the last page of the novel: “Are you fucking kidding me?”
When talking to my sister about the movie Ender’s Game she had a weak eulogy for the film: “I mean … I liked it.”
Neither my sister nor, presumably, the unknown audience member watching Catching Fire with me, had read the source book. If you have read Catching Fire, you know the ending consists of an abrupt twist. If you have read Ender’s Game, you are almost assured to have a passionate opinion about the story. These two reactions represent to me exactly why Catching Fire succeeded as an adaptation and Ender’s Game failed.
It stuns me to say that the acting was better in Catching Fire. Ben Kingsley and Harrison Ford are certainly a fair match for Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson, which leads me to believe they were suffering from neglectful direction. Look at the résumés: Catching Fire director Francis Lawrence gave us I Am Legend, while Ender’s Game director Gavin Hood gave us X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I Am Legend has its flaws, but the overall structure of the film was tight, consistent and well-considered. Lawrence’s film was so terrible that the studio abandoned the entire X-Men Origins line.
There is a wide gulf between the two films in the quality of the production design, and Catching Fire has all the best of it. Actually, Ender’s CGI star ship battles were gorgeous, thrilling, believable – and part of the problem.
(NOTE TO THE UNINITIATED: SPOILERS LIE AHEAD)
In the book, Ender sees the ships in his battles as dots of moving light. What he is watching looks like an intricate, impossibly difficult game, but there is no way to mistake what shows up on his monitor for some intergalactic battle he can control. In other words, the game should look fake, but actually be real.
This comparison could have been enhanced if the base on the asteroid and the battle school felt real, lived in and grimy. In the book, there is a looming sense of discomfort about the entire orbital training facility. Even small, agile Ender, describes a sense of being cramped and claustrophobic in his new home. In the film, we are treated to a colorful, even cheerful space. The bathroom where Ender (Asa Butterfield) faces down Bonzo looks like it would fit an NFL team. Even the uniforms didn’t look lived in, or utilitarian. No pockets, no creases – just Star Trek crispness.
The makers of Catching Fire (screenplay is by Simon Beaufoy and Michael Arndt) paid attention to the language and tone of the book when designing the film. The game – and the entire world within the Capital – looks fake. The production design of the Districts remains earthy, the colors dull, and we easily believe that these are places of poverty and misery. Then you enter the Capital, and everything is bright, overly saturated with color. That carries on right into the arena. The demise of the tributes is planned and designed and stylish and thereby made disgusting, like sweet tarts covering a steak.
In the end though, failure and success for films such as these all comes down to the story adaptation .
Catching Fire is a much simpler book. There are three story sections in the novel: Victory Tour, Quarter Quell preparations, and the Game. This is perfect since all mainstream movies are made in three acts. Ender’s Game is divided into five, a structure that worked well for Shakespeare but causes problems for Hollywood blockbusters. You don’t have time in a two-hour movie to build to that many emotional crescendos. Each section requires a moment of decision for Ender; each introduces characters and concepts. This unwieldy structure made the movie feel monotonous and rushed.
Gavin Hood (also the screenwriter) rushes Ender through battle school in a matter of weeks; so when it turns out he was fighting the real war, we can’t be all that surprised. If, as in the book, he is selected and groomed over the course of six or seven years, it is much easier to believe that his final training process would be several days of simulator training. In my own purely hypothetical adaptation, I think you have no choice but to start Ender off as he was in the book, a six-year-old preparing to enter the training school, then montage him through the first three acts to preserve the twist ending.
Speaking of endings – the final emotional impact of both films really does give us the best clue of what is right and wrong with the movies and also the books. Catching Fire is a weak novel compared to Ender’s Game. Both center on young characters that are lied to. Ender’s Game gives us a twist by revealing his game to be a life or death struggle; Catching Fire does the reverse by revealing that Katniss’ life or death struggle was all just a ruse to hide more important matters going on behind the scenes. But something the novel did very well was to keep me emotionally hooked on the characters. The movie managed to keep me there as well, even though I knew what was coming and how annoyed I was going to be when it arrived.
Page-to-screen adaptation will always remain a puzzle, and these two projects reveal two essential elements of that puzzle: keeping the entire storyline intact is not always the right move, and paying careful attention to the language and tone of the book is of the utmost importance. Catching Fire took its tonal cues from the novel in a fuller and more meaningful way and the result was a stronger emotional impact, even if that impact was one of furious, WTF! aggravation.
Evan Hernandez is a writer and producer based in New York City. His play, A Great Light is embarking on its first tour this holiday season and his debut novel, Breaking the Skies, is set to be published in 2014. For more information, find him on Twitter, @totallyberserk.
Evan will appear in The Curiograph again this December, when he and Paul Deines discuss Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ on the 25th anniversary of its release.