Apr 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

Spoiler alert: this breakdown contains crucial information about the plot of the movie.

In spite of The Hunger Games’ massive success at the box office, many viewers have complained that the movie is not as detailed as the original novel. I always find this comment ridiculous. While novels and films share hundreds of techniques that make for a good story, they also have at least one major difference: novels are a narrative medium while film is a dramatic one. When people dismiss the movie for not being as “good” as the book, they fail to see the key story elements, found in book and film, that make this a worldwide story phenomena.

The Hunger Games is the latest example of a huge blockbuster hit constructed by combining the myth genre with video game story elements. In my Genre classes, I have long pointed out that Myth is the basis for more blockbuster hits than any other genre by far. Book author and screenplay co-author Suzanne Collins understood this powerful technique right from the premise. In one of the most important of all Greek myths, Theseus and the Minotaur, every year King Aegeus must send seven young men and seven young women to be eaten by the Minotaur in ritual payment for a crime.

Like J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter stories, Collins has woven myth elements throughout her story. Main character Katniss is based on one of the major Greek goddesses, Diana, the huntress. When she and her fellow tributes show up in the arena, they are driving chariots. Like Romans watching gladiators kill gladiators and animals slaughtering Christians for sport, the rich dandies of the Capitol watch on live television as children butcher children. When Katniss shoots an apple with her arrow she repeats the act of legendary freedom fighter William Tell.

All of these mythical and ancient historical references give the story an appeal that can transcend age, gender and cultural boundaries. But that’s not enough for a hit. While myth is the foundation of more blockbusters than any other genre, it is almost always combined with one or two other genres to unify and update the myth form. In the case of The Hunger Games, Collins has combined myth with science fiction. This mashup of ancient past with distant future gives the audience the sense that this story isn’t specific to a particular time and place; it is universal. It is the essence of human beings.

Collins also uses science fiction to take the capitalist foundation of America society to its logical extreme, where competition for show and money has taken on life and death stakes. Like Rollerball and Westworld, the players in this competition are pawns to the big corporate money, and if you lose you die.

One of the biggest mistakes that science fiction writers make is that they create a futuristic world that is so bizarre, so unlike anything we know today, that the audience is alienated from the story almost before it begins. They may continue to watch but they will have a clinical attitude to the story throughout. And this is the kiss of death, in fact the single biggest reason that many science fiction films fail.

Collins has avoided that problem by creating a recognizable future world. Again her technique has been to connect past to future. The rural mining town of Katniss’ District 12 reminds me of 1930’s America, with the film’s shooting style reminiscent of Margaret Bourke-White’s photos of the drought victims of the Dust Bowl. This familiarity gives the audience an emotional connection to the story world. Although there are many elements that tell them this is a futuristic abstraction, the multiple references to America’s past, and in some cases present, tell them this is a story about today.

Besides the myth genre, the other key to the huge success of The Hunger Games is its deft use of video game elements. Video games are a relatively new story medium, and their massive influence on novels and film is just starting to become clear. I’m not talking about transmedia here, where a specific video game is turned into a novel and/or a film. These are almost always failures because the creators/producers try to boil all the permutations of a video game into a single story that can be written or filmed.

The trick to combining video games with novels and movies is not to transfer a particular video game story but to apply the story elements that video games do especially well and that appeal to a large audience. For simplicity sake, let’s focus on two elements, story world and keeping score.

Because video games allow a player to take a number of different paths through the same world, there is an extreme emphasis placed on a story world with lots of details and surprises. The difficulty of translating this story element into a novel or film is that these media have a single story path, so you can’t allow too much exploration by the reader/viewer without losing narrative drive.

But, driven by the phenomenal success of the Harry Potter stories, allowing the audience to explore a detailed story world is probably the single biggest change in commercial storytelling in the last ten years. The exquisite detail of the Potter world was mind-boggling. And a big reason Rowling was able to create that kind of detail in novel, and then film, is that she had seven books to do so.

Collins has three books to detail her world and uses the full array of techniques. First she creates the overall arena, which is a totalitarian society within which this moral horror can believably occur. She then sets up fundamental contrasts within the arena, with the rich, powerful amoral Capitol set against the poor, starving rural District 12. Within this macro-arena of high contrasts, she then creates a second smaller arena, the field of battle. This arena must have a clearly defined wall surrounding it to create the pressure cooker effect, whereby you build the conflict under such extreme pressure that it finally blows sky high.

Keeping score is the most obvious story element that distinguishes video games from other forms of media. Video games are essentially the combination of sport and story, or quantified drama. The biggest drawback to this element is that it destroys ambiguity; you either win or you lose. This is the main reason many critics have not yet given video games the accolade of unique story medium (they’re wrong, by the way). But keeping score also has great value. Since in most video games you are the main character, keeping score tells you exactly what you, as both main character and viewer, have accomplished in the story.

In The Hunger Games, of course, the element of keeping score is so fundamental it is right in the premise. This is a tournament to the death, “Survivor” with life and death stakes. In Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, another book and film heavily influenced by video games, we get a life and death fight between the two titans of evolution, man and dinosaur. But The Hunger Games is even more horrific, because this is a fight among children, and 23 out of 24 must die. Each contestant has different psychology, skills and training. And as in any game, luck will have a big role to play as well.

The game is also fixed. The contestants from Districts 1 and 2 are the only ones trained for this event. Naturally they usually win. But ironically, Katniss’ greatest weakness, her home in the starving 12th District, is also her greatest strength. She practices survival every day of her life, and she is a master of the bow and arrow.

Collins does something very interesting to turn the great weakness of keeping score into a story strength. What the player/main character accomplishes at the end of a video game has a very all-or-nothing quality. But in great storytelling what the character accomplishes, known as character change, is deeper and more subtle. Character change is not based on how many bad guys the hero has defeated, or on the sensual charge the player experiences in the process. Character change comes from how a character challenges his/her psychological and moral self.

In The Hunger Games Collins turns the tournament-to-the-death element of keeping score into the lever by which Katniss can have both a psychological and moral change. The tournament creates a Prisoner’s Dilemma on a massive scale, representing all of society. Prisoner’s Dilemma is one of the great insights in all of philosophy and game theory. In the classic setup, two prisoners are placed in separate interrogation rooms and given a choice of confessing to the crime or staying silent. But the authorities rig the choice so that each prisoner, without knowledge of what his partner is doing, must confess, because to trust his partner and stay silent risks death if the partner is the only one to confess.

Because only one player can survive the Hunger Games, the mini-society in which they live is one of total paranoia and distrust. Katniss’s distrust is heightened even more when she discovers that Peeta, her fellow tribute from District 12, has joined the alliance formed by the trained killers of Districts 1 and 2. Yet, over the course of the battle, she is not only able to trust him, but perhaps even love him. And when faced with the ultimate Prisoner’s Dilemma – whether to kill this person she loves – she makes the moral decision that risks her own death but also takes her to higher humanity.

Some critics have pointed out that The Hunger Games is a breakthrough for Young Adult fiction, especially for girls. Maybe so. But the big lesson of The Hunger Games has nothing to do with the age or gender of the reader-viewer. Simply put, if you want to give yourself the best chance of writing a blockbuster book or film – a longshot at any time – write a myth-based story with video game techniques.