Book vs. Film: First person narratives

29 Apr

I have a serious beef with first person present tense. It doesn’t allow for much in the way of character growth without clunky epiphanies (“I realize now how much of an ass I’ve been…”) or the more genuine, but equally dull, ambivalence and uncertainty (“I don’t know how I feel about…”). The reader doesn’t have perspective on the events because the character doesn’t have perspective, can’t have because everything is happening RIGHT NOW. It’s like trying to read a story through a peephole.( Not to mention that there is a strange paradox of storytelling in the first person present. “I run down the hall…” makes me want to say “No you’re not, you’re telling me a story.” But that may be metaphysically nit-picking, so I’ll let that go. For now.)

This is the heart of the reason why I think the Hunger Games movie is better than the book. (Ducks to avoid thrown objects) No, seriously, hear me out…

Sure, there were some unfortunate omissions, like all film adaptions: Madge, the creepy implications of the mutts in the final scenes, some missing background stories, etc. However, the film makes some really smart moves in terms of world and character building. The dialogue is carefully done: it does the heavy lifting of showing the rules in this alternate reality without the awkwardness of characters explaining things to each other that they would already know. (This always bugs the shit out of me, especially in science-heavy police procedurals.)

The additions made up for what was left out. I gladly give up underdeveloped Madge for the scenes of rebellion in District 11 and the conversations between the Game maker and President Snow. The real interest of this story is the girl who never meant to be a symbol for the rebellion, but found herself one because she makes smart, but selfless, choices. And that, after all, is what makes a really awesome heroine. In the books, we don’t really get this angle until Catching Fire because Katniss doesn’t know the impact of her actions until after the fact. Much of the first book focuses on the love triangle through Katniss’s confused, ambivalent thoughts. (Snore) The reader is trapped in the running perspective of a girl who doesn’t know how she feels. There is no opportunity for reflection or introspection, which is the heart of first person. In the film, we get all that uncertainty in a few well delivered looks on Jennifer Lawrence’s face. (Can we take a moment for how awesome Jennifer Lawrence is?)

There is one first person present tense book that rocked that tense and made a much better narrative than its corresponding film: We Need to Talk about Kevin.

This may be a stretch, since Shiver’s book isn’t in the simple first person present that Collins uses, but rather an epistolary novel. The journal like letters relate the protagonist’s (Eva/Tilda) life as it is now in the first/present POV, but with multiple flashbacks and references to the past. The first person narrative earns that POV because it is nearly all reflection and introspection. This is a seriously beautiful book. The narrator frankly and intelligently recounts her memories of being a mother to her horrifying son, though even with all her frankness, reveals more about herself than she meant to—thus is the true beauty of first person. The film, however, is absent this intelligent voice, and though it’s told with the same disjointed time-jumps, it’s difficult to connect to the mother as she is now, because she doesn’t have much of a voice, because she has no one to talk to. We see her, alone, trying to deal with her shattered life, but we don’t get any of what she’s learned about herself and the world. We don’t see how crazy intelligent she is. We don’t see that in the end, she still loves her son and how horribly unfair that is. We don’t see how like her son she is. The film is voyeurism, looking in at the mundane parts of a marred life without access to any of the subjects, but the book is an open door, a full access pass to this woman’s heart and mind. If you can do that in a movie, I haven’t seen it yet.

Both of these books fall into the category of I wish I had written this! But if I had written Hunger Games, I would have written it in past tense. Think of how that would open it up! Of how many more opportunities for depth and variety there would be. We Need to Talk about Kevin, though, makes all the right choices in voice and POV. Before the Hunger Games movie came out, a friend articulated a fear I shared. It would have been ruined if Katniss’s thoughts (But do I really like Peeta? The boy with the bread?) had been fed to us in voice-over. Maybe We Need to Talk about Kevin could have benefited from some voice over, a taste of Eva’s voice—but probably not. Just read the book.

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