2012 Bison Books paperback edition

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Hunger Games & the non-fiction writer

     Can learning how a movie script gets squeezed out of a book help the non-fiction writer?
     When the Media Arts Lab at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, offered a course in Film Adaptation this spring, I signed up. The teacher, Joy Goodwin, recently adapted William Faulkner's Intruder in the Dust (to be produced at HBO). She is really good at bending this literal, linear biographer's mind to think different (Too much exposition? Break it up!).
     For the first class Joy handed out copies of the first chapter of THE HUNGER GAMES. Those of us who had either read the book or seen the movie were to try to forget everything we knew and look at the chapter fresh. We analyzed and second-guessed the chapter's elements and Joy wrote them down on the dry erase blackboard. The characters (Katniss, Prim, the mother, Buttercup the cat, Gale, dead father, Effie Trinket, the mayor). The setting (the electric fence, the meadow, the bakery, the Hob, District 12). The tone (o-m-i-n-o-u-s). 
     OK, Joy said, from this list decide which elements are important. Which ones have to be in the movie.
     Now, write a quick scene, she said, right now, dramatizing one of those elements. I had Katniss wake up screaming from the recurring nightmare of her father's death in the mine explosion. We discussed how many other, better ways that memory + the fact of her father's death could be conveyed, got out of the way as backstory. And so on, around the table, each of us reading our scene, workshop format. Each scene totally different. Just like a Hollywood pitch meeting, said Joy. She was being kind. 
     Purpose of the exercise? To see that an entire first act of a movie version is in that first chapter. 
     Homework for next week: Take another element of that HUNGER GAMES chapter and write a 2-3 page scene. Fold in as much expository background (the history of Panem, the rules, the tesserae) as economically as possible. 
     Can't wait. So far, this non-fiction writer is indeed starting to think different. Mostly about what you don't need to include in a narrative...
     A quote from movie screenwriter and director Richard Brooks (ELMER GANTRY, THE PROFESSIONALS, IN COLD BLOOD, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF) popped into my brain: "The book is the orange, the movie is the juice."