illustration by Emily Carlson

There’s a long, righteous history of turning books into movies. For good reason, obviously; they come ready-made both with a story and an audience, and a successful novel will probably produce a movie that at least isn’t a failure.

But adaptation is a problem, too, and not just because fans of the novel may be outraged at differences. Literature and film communicate differently; their voices speak in such different modes. The voice of a book is almost always literally articulate, while good movies—great movies—often “speak” through gesture and pose, angle and filter.

But there’s a lot to be said, especially when dealing with books defined by a strong and specific narration, for allowing the film version to talk in the same voice as the book. And if an adaptation can’t do that, it really should at least effectively reimagine that narrative mode, finding a new but analogous voice to tell the story. An inability to do so may not ruin the result, but it is dangerous at best: a movie that can’t effectively adopt or reinvent its source novel’s voice risks failing both as an adaptation and as a work of art in its own right.

This is a big claim, I know, and probably wrong—or at least not all the way right—but it gets at something worth considering about how cinematic storytelling and written storytelling interact, how they negotiate their comparative strengths and weaknesses. Plus, it’s going to let me compare The Hunger Games to Clueless.

So let’s talk about voice.

One of the ways in which the novel as an art form has an advantage over film is that the novelist, almost by default, creates a narrator who mediates the experience of the novel for the reader. This narrator might be in the first person—the voice of a character involved in the action and necessarily limited in consequence, as in, unforgettably, The Great Gatsby or David Copperfield. It might be a third-person narrator, sweeping over events and seeing past deceit as in the novels of Thomas Hardy or George Eliot. And this tool, its capacity to expose the interior life of the characters and juxtapose that interiority against the novel’s events, provides written fiction with a vitality and richness of expression that cannot be exhausted. D.H. Lawrence wrote that “the novel, properly handled, can reveal the most secret places of life: for it is in the passional secret places of life, above all, that the tide of sensitive awareness needs to ebb and flow, cleansing and freshening.” And this “sensitive awareness,” what Charles Jackson called “entering into the feelings of another,” is in many ways about the voice telling you the story that you read. Ian McEwan’s taxonomic Henry Perowne; the bleak and thunderous voice proclaiming Blood Meridian’s events like a dead god speaking from the desert; Lawrence Durrell’s confused and overwhelmed Darley; the maze of meaning hidden in the subtle shifts in point of view in Absalom, Absalom!. The voice of a novel is often its structural center and most memorable emotional instrument.

The camera doesn’t have a voice in the same way. It selects and emphasizes, of course; it commands the audience’s attention as comprehensively as the narrative voice of the novel. But the camera—on its own—doesn’t speak out loud. This limitation is one of the great challenges of cinema storytelling and one of its great exaltations. We worship our great directors and great performers precisely because they are capable of communicating a character’s inner life—providing the audience access into an individual’s experience of events—despite lacking the novel-writer’s more directly expressive tools. Garbo and Bergman and Streep have this magic quality, this holy gift they give to the world, of bringing you into the characters they inhabit, demanding that you wear their pain and glory like a brief new skin.

Interpreting the subtler voice of the film—its indirection and its silences —is one of the challenges and delights of being a movie lover, too. Think of Midnight Cowboy. That movie’s great accomplishment—and Voigt’s—is depicting his innocence, his triumphant arrival in New York, his slow degradation, etc., with so little intelligible dialogue. We are given practically no opportunities to engage with the inner life of the character—only brief and clouded impressions. How dreadful, think of it, if that unforgettable opening scene of Joe Buck walking down the streets of Manhattan were overlaid by his genial Texan voice. “Man, what a city!” we’d hear him say as he walked among the alien crowds. You would have walked out of the theater at that. First-person voiceover narration can work, of course; it can even be irreplaceable, perfect. But it can also fall horribly flat.

So when Suzanne Collins herself started to adapt Hunger Games, she had a real problem. Katniss’ charm and power—the reason she’s so compelling—lies in the incredible force of her internal monologue. In the novels, we see events filtered through her pain and her cunning. She acts with boldness and daring and great skill, of course, but it’s her justifications for those actions that make her irresistible: she’s so fucking smart, and we know that not because we see her shooting arrows accurately, but because of how magnificently calculating she reveals herself to be as she seduces Peeta and earns the adoration of the Capitol and her readership at the same time. Of course, her voice also reveals her own naiveté and lack of self-knowledge, juxtaposes her cold motives with her deep well of sensitivity and honest feeling. This is why Katniss is so hard to forget: you see the Games through her eyes, follow each coil in her planning as she plans it. With the reader’s privileged distance, you understand her better than she does herself.

The movie, unfortunately, lacks all these virtues. You see Katniss the same way you see every other character; despite Jennifer Lawrence’s inspired performance, you have no more access to her than you have to anyone else. This is a problem. The viewer doesn’t understand why she does what she does in the Games at all; her motives are muddled and opaque, leaving open multiple interpretations which serve more to distract than to invigorate. Why does she save Peeta’s life? Why does she offer their double suicide up for the Capitol to reject? This kind of motive-flatness would be troubling in any film, but it is particularly anguishing when the character comes ready-made with a rich internal life, the mazed depths of her selfhood laid out in brilliant detail. And it was just thrown away.

Was there a better answer? It’s hard to say. Could a voice-over really have worked in a movie so kinetic? Maybe not. But adaptations do not require duplication. Too ferocious a commitment to the text can hurt as much as too profligate a spirit of invention. Watchmenwas terrible because it used the source material as if it were a set of storyboards—until, of course, it emphatically did not, which was not that much better. So rather than simply reproducing Katniss’ voice, the film might have tried to reimagine it, cast it in a different mode.

Which is, of course, exactly what they did in that modern miracle—that icon of great adaptations—CluelessEmma, like all of Austen’s novels, is beloved for its thick characters and the intoxicating, cakelike romance of the plot. But it’s a great work of art because the characters’ ingenuousness—their victimhood before the machinery of a complex society and the intervention of meddling relations and the action of fate—plays out with Austen’s auctorial voice singing in gorgeous, complex harmony. The narrator’s brilliant insight underscores, points out, throws into relief each turn of fate and bad decision, each foolish or well-meaning act. It does so with great love and tolerance, the kind of unhesitating embrace for human faults that distinguishes the novels of Joseph Fielding or Diana Wynne Jones. And this is what we remember most about these perfect novels, even more than the wit or cruelty of the characters or the shimmering delight of each romance’s conclusion: the way they’re told to us.

So given the eminently novelistic reasons for Austen’s genius, she seems a terrifying challenge to adapt. Even third-person narration—just appropriating Austen’s own technique—might not have had the same evocative effect as the novel’s unique voice, given that the film audience would be too free to assess the characters’ reactions for themselves. This insane attempt to turn Austen into a contemporary teen high school comedy was already audacious enough. How much more daunting it must have been to provide that kind of distance for the viewer, the charm and delight of the narrative voice that makes Austen a genius.

So, brilliantly, Amy Heckerling made the completely deranged decision to change the narrator from that distant, marvelous third-person to a saccharine, narcissistic, overwhelming first.

And it works! The movie’s unimaginable otherwise! Now, instead of the mocking reserve of Austen’s narrator, we’re instantly brought into deepest intimacy with Cher’s admittedly shallow and preposterous internal life. This alternative voice inverts Austen’s style with marvelous efficiency. The same kind of mockery and snark implicit in Austen’s biting distance in all her books—“It is a truth universally acknowledged…”—is here generated by the viewer’s own natural response to Cher’s outrageous point of view. (I’m sure some people sawClueless and came away worshipping Cher, holding her up as a model to emulate … but then again, I go see every Paranormal Activity movie on opening weekend, so who am I to judge.) Cher picks up Dionne and, sitting curbside, dwarfed by the immensity of Dionne’s family mansion, says, “She’s my friend because we both know what it’s like for people to be jealous of us.” This is absurd, of course. Watching, you recoil, you sneer, you feel simultaneous loathing for Cher’s self-satisfied privilege and a deep empathetic understanding for her oblivious view of the world. The scorn provoked by the voice-over accomplishes the same thing as the derision implicit in Austen’s narration.

This is one of the really heavy burdens of taking books to the screen, this difficulty of voice. It requires an intimate understanding of what the novel’s voice accomplishes, what mode it operates in, how that mode matters to the novel as a whole. And it requires something even harder: the imaginative recreation of that function inside the movie, relying on a very different set of tools to accomplish the same effect. Clueless accepted this challenge and succeeded magnificently and in the least probable way, using the trite technique of the first-person voiceover to make the audience love and despise Cher with the same kind of emotional response elicited by the source novel itself.

The Hunger Games, of course, does not do so. The film adaptation ignores the central, critical trait of the novel: the distinctive power of Katniss’ voice. But this isn’t just an artistic choice in the book, some element that can be excised in the interest of narrative economy. It’s not like cutting Tom Bombadil fromFellowship of the Ring. Katniss’ voice is the novel in some important and meaningful ways. The plot flows through and reacts against the unifying context of Katniss’ insights and self-deceptions, her innocence and her sophistication. It’s not the absence of that specific, ultra-close intimacy that held the movie back from potentially grand success, necessarily. It is, however, the absence of any analogue that makes the movie so flat and ineffective.

There were alternatives! Collins had crafted Katniss in the first place, she had to know how important perspective was to the story as a whole. The film could have used more or better exposition, or created a character through whom the plot’s complications could be clarified for the audience. It could have deployed more (and definitely better) color commentary from the talking heads. It could have made Katniss herself more articulate and explanatory. Stories are like water—they flow into the mold they’re given—and there are many ways to tell them, even if discovering the right alternative requires effort and invention. Lear becomesRanThe Princess Bride becomes … well, a very different Princess Bride.

And we know the task of converting between narrative modes is accomplishable. Because we have seen the ballsy, audacious, ridiculous, perfect substituteClueless deployed in place of even so powerful and essential a narrative voice as Jane Austen. A story’s voice is its heart and its clothing. The Hunger Games ignored that principle to its ultimate sad diminishment.

Ultimately, though, I can’t say I hated The Hunger Games. On the contrary I had a riotously good time in the theater and I’ll see it again someday with great joy. Why? Maybe just because we can always use more heroines, and Katniss is nothing if not heroic. Terrifying in combat, endlessly inventive, and cunning to a fault: a warrior with her mind even more than with the bow.

And isn’t that true of Cher as well? Cher fights the same kinds of battles as Katniss: where Katniss scavenges food, Cher wins good grades; where Katniss plays Peeta and the Capitol viewership against each other in the hopes of surviving, Cher lures Mr. Hall and Ms. Geist into a relationship to serve her own cold ends. Neither really understands the circumstances they face, and their misinterpretations of the motives of others provide as much grist for the mill of the plot as their own schemes. These two women are kin in their own strange way. They’re both determined to beat the world into a shape they can tolerate—and we can hear their voices ringing loud and clear in our ears long after they’ve disappeared back into the film and the pages where they live. I’m glad they both made it to the screen.