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'The Hunger Games': From the bookshelf to the big screen

By Stephanie Goldberg, CNN
updated 1:33 PM EDT, Wed March 21, 2012
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in
Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss Everdeen in "The Hunger Games," Gary Ross' film version of the popular Suzanne Collins novel.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "The Hunger Games" is on track to rake in more than $80 million opening weekend, reports say
  • Director: "I'm a fan first. ... I didn't have any desire to rework (the story) in any major way"
  • Casting the right actors is imperative when adapting a novel for the screen, critic says

(CNN) -- Adapting a beloved novel for the big screen often guarantees a solid showing at the box office. "The Hunger Games" looks to be no exception.

Based on Suzanne Collins' young adult novel, the movie is on track to rake in more than $80 million its opening weekend, reports say.

But existing story lines, settings and dynamic characters are often accompanied by moviegoers' idealistic expectations, leaving screenwriters to ponder: How do you honor the novel and please readers without compromising the film?

Luckily for fans, "Hunger Games" screenwriter and director Gary Ross said he found a way.

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"I still want to go to that movie the same way everybody else does. I want to see aspects of the novel preserved," Ross told CNN. "I'm a fan first. ... I loved the book so much. I didn't have any desire to rework (it) in any major way."

However, Ross said certain aspects of "The Hunger Games" just don't translate cinematically.

Those who have read the books, told from 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen's perspective, already know why.

"The Hunger Games" takes place in a post-apocalyptic world, in the fictional nation of Panem. Every year, one boy and one girl "tribute" are randomly selected from the nation's 12 districts to compete in the Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death.

Wealthy Capitol citizens called Gamemakers manipulate the Hunger Games. Though they only briefly appear in the novel, their presence is felt by Katniss, a District 12 tribute, throughout the Games.

"I can't shoot inside Katniss' head," Ross said. "In the book, she speculates about what the Gamemakers are doing. Well, we created a whole (visual) world that the (Gamemakers) are in."

There may be departures in the adaptation process, Ross added, but in the grand scheme of things, the movie is faithful to the novel.

Dayo Okeniyi, who plays Thresh, a tribute from District 11, also stressed the importance of honoring Collins' novel at a recent movie premiere.

"If we deviate much, there are fans out there who will stalk me and kill me," Okeniyi joked. "(The fans) don't ask for much. At the same time they watch everything ... 'Oh, she's supposed to be looking at the right, not the left' -- little details."

While sticking to the novel might keep fans of the book series happy, telling the story scene by scene would yield a long, drawn-out cinematic experience, said Thelma Adams, a contributing editor at Yahoo! Movies.

"You've got to be willing to cut," she said. "Find out which characters are central and which aren't. Which relationships are central and which aren't."

Adams said "Hunger Games" screenwriters Ross, Collins and Billy Ray were smart to streamline a few characters, while pushing others into larger roles, such as head Gamemaker Seneca Crane.

Casting the right actors is imperative when adapting a novel for the big screen, she said, adding that Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson are "pitch perfect" for their roles as Katniss, Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark, respectively.

"You can't say that about every (role)," she said. "You can't say that 'Twilight's' Peter Facinelli -- he's the only one who could have played (Carlisle Cullen.) He's not."

Let's not forget how angry "Twilight" fans were when brunette Nikki Reed was first cast as Rosalie Cullen.

It's no secret fans want popular characters to look a certain way, specifically how they envisioned them while they were reading the book.

"Reading is a really intimate, internal experience, where you play your own movie in your head," screenwriter Will Fetters said.

Fetters, who adapted Nicholas Sparks' "The Lucky One," which hits theaters in April, said, it helps when a book already reads like it was constructed for film. "The Hunger Games" is one of those books.

Despite the intense, made-for-the-big-screen action sequences in "Games," Ross said there was plenty to be concerned about when adapting it for the screen.

"A lot of the action stuff, you know that's hard work, and you know you're going to get it," Ross said. "But it's really the delicate stuff. ... It's those intangible things you really have to capture: Katniss' character, her relationship with Rue, her relationship with her sister. ... It's that kind of stuff that's very difficult."

Collins, who had a hand in the screenwriting process, took to her Facebook page to share her thoughts on the adaptation of her novel: "I feel like the book and the film are individual yet complementary pieces that enhance one another."

Which is how it should be, Fetters said.

"When going to an adaptation, you're going understanding that it's not going to be the exact images you saw," he added. "We're all working under constraints to interpret what we saw in our heads and hope that it's the same thing readers saw."

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