By Martha Brockenbrogh
Special to MSN TV
There have been some abominable movie adaptations of great children's books over the years.
Among the worst: the 1982 "The Secret of NIMH," adapted from a book about the inhuman things people can do in the name of science. In the book, the rats and mice were compassionate, caring, and entirely rational creatures. In the movie, the rats worship magical crystals with their long spooky fingers, and they dress like they're on their way to a "Wrath of Khan" party.
Oh, and "Eragon," a book about a dragon-riding vanquisher of evil. Despite a cast stuffed with Kate Winslet and Jeremy Irons, the dialogue was cheesier than Wisconsin and in parts closely resembled an ad for the Abercrombie and Fitch "Fire Island" collection.
And then there was "The Golden Compass." Though I would watch Daniel Craig in anything (especially a Speedo), the ending of that movie veered sufficiently far from the spirit of the book that most fans of the Philip Pullman work felt entirely separated from their demons, a disastrous outcome.
So it's no wonder that fans of Suzanne Collins' book "The Hunger Games" are feeling nervous about what the movie version will do to their favorite book. No one wants to see this one gutted in the arena.
If you're among the list of sillies who haven't yet read it, here's the thumbnail version: It tells the story of a 16-year-old girl in a post-apocalyptic America where teens from twelve remaining districts are pitted against each other in a televised battle to the death. Also, there is kissing. If that's not something for everyone, I don't know what would qualify.
And I'm not the only one.
"Everyone I've shared it with loves it," says Elizabeth Law, vice president and publisher at Egmont USA, a company that puts out books for children and teens. (Scholastic published "The Hunger Games" and "Harry Potter.")
I sought out Law's opinion on what could possibly go wrong with the adaptation. Not only is she a top editor, she's also a theater and movie buff and passionate "Hunger Games" fan. Her popular Facebook page contains regular posts about the book and movie with hundreds of reader comments.
So what's her take? The first book in Collins' trilogy "a masterpiece." And ironically, that might be one of the biggest hurdles the book faces to making a successful leap onto the screen. When a book that exceptional is adapted, there can be pressure for the director and screenwriter to stick closely to the text, she says.
"As a movie lover, I actually believe that the best movies often come either from weaker source material or material where they're not forced to slavishly follow the book," she says. "Hitchcock liked to pick lesser stories and lesser books and make a movie out of it."
There are exceptions, though. "Gone with the Wind" doesn't blow from the source material and it's great.
A second risk with adaptations comes down to the director's taste. Lapses in this made people giggle when they were watching the slow-mo brother-on-brother frolicking scene in "Eragon," and they likewise provoked unintended guffaws in a scene near the end of "New Moon" where a vampiric Bella is wearing a flowing peasant blouse and shot in a cheesy 1960s style. Ouch.
"Even the director said he hates how it plays," Law says.
Law doesn't have that fear for Gary Ross, who is directing "Hunger Games" from a script written by Collins herself (along with Billy Ray, who adapted "Shattered Glass").
"I think Suzanne Collins really understands movies," Law says. "She was a
screenwriter and has spoken about having this massive rapport with Ross, the
director. It sounds very exciting to me. Like they actually understand the book
and how to make it a movie."
At this point, the big casting decisions have been made, and fans seem pleased. In the latest bit of news, Woody Harrelson is lined up as the drunken mentor, Haymitch. Does anyone have a hard time imagining Woody puking on stage?
Katniss, the heroine, will be played by the Oscar-nominated Jennifer Lawrence, who was a brilliant caretaker of children in "Winter's Bone." That's one of many key Katniss qualities, so she's a solid pick. And you have my permission to pretend she's not also in that beaver movie with Mel Gibson.
Elizabeth Banks, hilarious on "30 Rock" as Jack's comically conservative wife, is a perfect Effie Trinket, a soulless harpie who escorts Katniss and her fellow district tribute through the corrupt capitol.
And Josh Hutcherson, a veteran from "Bridge to Terabithia" and "The Kids Are All Right" is just the right Peeta, one of Katniss's two love interests. (Peeta grew up in a bakery and is a whiz with frosting, in addition to being able to hurl heavy bags of flour).
The upshot? The casting has been "completely inspired," Law says.
It's been good enough that the wait between now and March of 2012 seems endless. No doubt, though, we'll find plenty of production scraps to chew on between now and then.
For more casting news, click here.
Meanwhile, is Divergent the next "Hunger Games"?
Whenever a book hits the big times, people wonder what the next one will be. They did it with "Harry Potter" and "Twilight," and they're doing the same with "The Hunger Games." It's understandable. People want to know what to read next.
And invariably, someone holds up a similar book as the most likely contender.
That book these days is "Divergent," by a young Chicagoan named Veronica Roth. Like "The Hunger Games," it's a dystopian novel--a fancy way for saying set in a world where things have gone to hell. It recently debuted at number nine on The New York Times' best seller's list.
And it's excellent. In the world of "Divergent," teens divide themselves among five factions based on the characteristic they most embody: abnegation, amity, candor, dauntless, and erudite. Sometimes, a person fails to fit in with any faction, and basically becomes homeless.
In rarer cases, a person could go in more than one direction--with even more harrowing results. That of course is what happens to the heroine, Beatrice, who has to choose between her family and a more thrilling path.
Fortunately for the reader, Beatrice--who goes by "Tris"--chooses the thrills.
The book is a fast-paced, unexpected ride that shows how complicated choice can be, and how dangerous a world Tris inhabits. And in happy news, Summit Entertainment almost immediately optioned the story for a movie, so fans can look forward to a new way of enjoying the story.
Many people, including the venerable Elizabeth Law, love the book. It's well written and almost impossible to believe how young and talented the author is.
But here's the thing. "Twilight" was the next "Harry Potter," and "The Hunger Games" was the next "Twilight."
In other words, the true blockbuster, as opposed to the merely wildly successful book, creates a whole new category. Wizard schoolboys. Vampire/werewolf/human love triangles. Teenage gladiators. The copycats flood in.
"Divergent," by no means a copycat tale, still doesn't create a new category. That said, it's a terrific read and fans of "The Hunger Games" will eat it up, as they have "Delirium" by Lauren Oliver and "Matched" by Allie Condie--all books I recommend people read as they wait for "The Hunger Games" to hit the big screen.