One of the most recent genres to explode in the last decade has been teen dystopian fiction, and while popular it is rare for popular fiction to make it into the literary canon, some books (possibly in an attempt to ease the teaching of English in high school classrooms) such as The Giver, Looking for Alaska, and The Hunger Games have made it into the modern literary fiction canon. It is even more rare for a canon book to be successfully made into a movie, and of the aforementioned books only The Hunger Games has done so. The narrative in paper form has been banned in various classrooms, while at the same time the film version was banned in various countries. As Oscar Wilde once said, “Life imitates Art far more than Art imitates Life.” Indeed, the making of The Hunger Games (2012) imitated the media storm within The Hunger Games book, down to the banning of certain narratives such as itself. Although the original purpose of The Hunger Games is to critique popular culture, this purpose shifted when it became a piece of popular culture itself in its movie form. This shift in media from paper to visual in tandem with a widening of its audience demonstrates a unique irony that can be seen in the subtle differences between the two narratives and in the media surrounding the movie.
The popularization of the narrative for the sake of making a successful movie effectively illustrated this irony, even though Suzanne Collins, the author of the paper narrative, was an executive producer on the set of the movie. While this fact likely assisted the movie in how true it stayed to the book, this irony is evident in many of the subtleties of the movie, and to some degree assisted by its similarities. The cinematic adaptation was different not only due to the difference in semiotic tools that a movie has access to but also because of the broadening of the target audience that is necessitated by the investment nature of movie making; because the original narrative was a critique on American culture at large, this cinematic narrative is lent a unique irony.
This irony is first illustrated in the parallels between the media surrounding the actors playing Katniss and Peeta, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson, and the media surrounding Katniss and Peeta’s Games in the novel. This is most evident when the marketing of Katniss and Peeta mimics that of their actors, where Katniss and Peeta’s appeals for popularity in Panem, specifically their intensive makeup and interview schedule, “correspond to similar endeavors within the marketplace of the American film industry” (Keller 25). Even the stakes are similar, because while the actors are not literally killing each other, “the price of failure is very high, if only measured in professional casualties” (Keller 25). On a much smaller level, this hyper-awareness of self-portrayal can be seen in everything from job interviews to dates, which makes a compelling thematic element to the Hunger Games narrative. The marketing campaign, the books, and the movie all comment on the survival stakes of popularity to varying degrees, which not only marks the movie as an allegory unto itself but also appeals to adults and especially teens who are by necessity aware of how they portray themselves.
The parallels demonstrate this irony far more effectively when the purpose of the book and movie is demonstrated to be different, such as when the advertising for the movie and some of the structure of the movie are changed from evidence of a social critique to evidence of a widening audience. This can be seen in both the trailer for the movie and in the posters for the second movie. In the book, when Katniss is demonstrating her skills for the Gamemakers (the stage techs and organizers of the Hunger Games) to earn a high rating that can glean her more sponsors, she is ignored since she is from District 12 and the Gamemakers have “sat through 23 other demonstrations” (Collins 100). Katniss’s reaction to the injustice of being ignored when her life is at stake contributes to the argument of the book that entertainment has become indifferent to the trauma violence it often portrays. In contrast, the movie trailer has Seneca Crane, the head Gamemaker, immediately turn his head towards Katniss after her performance (Lionsgate 2012) which diminishes the argument made by the book through Katniss being ignored. This change in the language of the narrative contributes to this irony because it is diminishing its power as a social critique to popularize the very trauma and violence that the novel critiques, which is again ironically the Games within the movie itself.
This irony is demonstrated and possibly even utilized by some of the advertising, such as in the aforementioned trailer and in posters for the second movie that unironically advertise the seventy fifth Hunger Games, or the “Quarter Quell.” Posters such as the one portraying Katniss in her attire for the Games themselves (thehungergames, Promotional photo of Katniss Everdeen for the Catching Fire movie) are posters advertising not the movie but the Games in exactly the way the Capitol would advertise them, drawing a parallel between the producers of the movie and the Capitol that only furthers this irony.
Another difference between the book and movie that demonstrates the shifting of the audience and some of the potency of the purpose of the original narrative is how Katniss got her Mockingjay pin. In the movie, she comes across the gold pin in the Hob, her underground trade market, and gets it for free (Lionsgate 12). This stands in stark contrast to the way she obtains the pin in the book. The first time Katniss sees the pin in the novel, it is on her friend Madge’s dress. Because she the mayor’s daughter and is therefore connected to the Capitol, she “has never been at risk of needing a tessera” (Collins 12). A tessera is “a meager year’s supply of grain and oil for one person” (Collins 12). Katniss’s pin was effectively set up by Collins as a symbol for this oppression of the districts through how the tesserae system is set up and in what situation the pin was introduced. The pin represents a microcosm for what Katniss is fighting for, to be able to take care of her family and especially Prim and what she is fighting against, the oppression of the Capitol and how it treats its children as a commodity for entertainment. Again, because this nuance was lost in the transition between book and movie, some of the potency of the original purpose of the novel is lost.
On the other hand, the example of the pin does not contribute to the irony of popularizing a critique of modern culture. Because a movie must be packed into one to three hours while a book can be read over the course of days, subtleties are going to inherently be lost because the structure of the narrative has completely changed. Getting the pin from the Hob for free contributes to Katniss’s character as someone well known and respected in the underground of District 12, which is helpful in the opening scenes of a movie, especially for an audience member who has not previously read the book. While the scene with the pin differs in the original and iterative text, this is an example in which the narrative is affected by the media that is portraying it rather than a difference that undermines the purpose of the original text, even if its omission does slightly diminish a central theme.
In contrast to an omission in the iterative text diminishing a central argument of the primary text, there is a scene in The Hunger Games (2012) in which the scene serves to further a central argument of the primary text. During her train ride to the Capitol, Katniss watches coverage of previous years’ games. For a few moments, the camera is positioned over Jennifer Lawrence’s right shoulder, and for another few moments the camera only has the tv screen Katniss is watching in the shot (Ross 2012). Katniss, as she is being shipped off to another iteration of the very Games the commentators are discussing, watches her life and death arena be discussed as if it were a football game, dramatizing “the moment when a tribute becomes a victor” (Ross 2012) and discussing how the terrain made the games interesting. At the end of the brief scene, Katniss quickly turns the TV off in a combination of fear and disgust. While this wasn’t in the book, scenes from other Games are brought up in Katniss’s own commentary on the novel, and these scenes are almost always talked about with contempt towards the Capitol citizens such as the commentators shown in the movie. This same disgust at the indifference towards the lives of the tributes is shown in Katniss’s reaction to watching the scene, and through the camera angle subtly and effectively frames the audience as another citizen of the Capitol eager to watch the Games. This demonstrates the irony of the movie itself. The audience of The Hunger Games (2012) is the masses, who are doing exactly what the Capitol citizens are doing: thinking that “they are involved in the games and are emotionally invested” all the while they are in “a position of voyeuristic safety” (McEvoy-Levy 26). The audience is eagerly attending a movie about the brutal and gruesome killing of children when the narrative itself is intended to evoke consideration about the ethics of doing so. This is the heart of the irony of the Hunger Games narrative throughout the movie.
This irony, while lost on many, is not lost on all, and the movie narrative has not failed in its implementation of the demonstration of this irony. Even though it has lost some of the subtleties, especially in its marketing, concurrent purposes in the book and movie can be seen, possibly because the author of The Hunger Games was on the set of its subsequent movie. Overall, while the shift from paper to film for The Hunger Games narrative did lose some of its subtleties that were important in demonstrating its core themes, the impetus behind these changes was a shift in purpose that came with the transformation of a book into a movie. Because The Hunger Games was a critique of popular culture however, this transformation came with the irony of a critique of popular culture becoming a piece of popular culture itself.
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008.
The Hunger Games. Directed by Gary Ross. Lionsgate Films, 2012.
Keller, James. “Meta-Cinema and Meta-Marketing: Gary Ross’s ‘The Hunger Games’, an Allegory of Its Own Making.” Studies in Popular Culture, vol. 35, no. 2, 2013, pp. 23–42. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23416334.
McEvoy-Levy, Siobhan. “The Hunger Games: Theorizing Opportunities for Peace Education.” Peace & Conflict, Feb. 2017, pp. 23-30. EBSCOhost, doi:10.1037/pac0000203.
thehungergames. Promotional photo of Katniss Everdeen for Catching Fire movie. Instagram. Posted 23 July 2013. Accessed 11 February 2017. www.instagram.com/p/cHluomitoQ/
“The Hunger Games (2012 Movie) – Official Theatrical Trailer – Jennifer Lawrence & Liam Hemsworth.” YouTube, uploaded by Lionsgate Movies, 14 November 2011, https://youtu.be/mfmrPu43DF8
 Throughout this essay, the book will be referred to as The Hunger Games while the movie will be referred to as The Hunger Games (2012) and the Hunger Games as an event in the story would be referred to as either The Hunger Games or just the Games, respectively