Thursday, June 07, 2018

The Hunger Games - story breakdown

by Alexandra Sokoloff

So today we’ll get into a breakdown of THE HUNGER GAMES (the movie) – SEQUENCE I, the SETUP, and work through the story elements up to that all-important PLAN.

If you’re not familiar with the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure of film writing, you’ll want to review this post, or better yet, buy the book: STEALING HOLLYWOOD, which has many, many examples of this structure and its story elements, and includes ten full story breakdowns.




The movie starts with a placard that briefly spells out the history of the Hunger Games, that in punishment for their rebellion against the Capital, every year the twelve districts of the country of Panem must draw a male and a female child tribute from each district to compete to the death in the Hunger Games. Only one tribute will survive.

Opening scrolls or placards give us the sense that this is an Important Story, maybe even epic. (Think of these opening scrolls from classic movies: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away” and “For nearly forty years this story has given faithful service to the Young at Heart, and Time has been powerless to put its kindly philosophy out of fashion.”) This placard also gives a sense that the story is history rather than fiction. And it’s the first of many tricks we’ll see the filmmakers use to set up the RULES OF THE STORY WORLD – it's really important to be clear about these in dystopian, SFF or paranormal stories.

One other note: the name of this fictional country, Panem, is a historical reference to the Roman Empire strategy of panem et circenses, ie. “bread and circuses”. Cynical politicians knew they could keep their populace from questioning the Emperor and the Empire’s corruption by distributing free food and staging violent spectacles like gladiator fights and chariot races. Sound familiar?

Then we have the OPENING IMAGE: on a TV screen, two flamboyantly dressed men chat on a talk show, a surreally magnified stage, discussing the upcoming Hunger Games, and again detailing the RULES OF THE WORLD. This is our introduction to two key characters: The Master of Ceremonies/Game host and the Gamemaker, both secondary opponents, and a running THEME of the story: reality TV used as a distraction from the authoritarian cruelty of the country.
In a small, dilapidated house, a young girl (Prim) awakes screaming from a dream. Her older sister Katniss races in to comfort her. This is a premonition, a classic suspense technique. Prim has dreamed that she was chosen as the tribute. Katniss soothes her by singing to her. (PLANT – this song will come back at a key moment to heighten the emotion of and Katniss’s rage over the death of her ally Rue). 

Katniss goes out hunting, and as she moves through the village (ORDINARY WORLD) we see images of poverty and hunger (influenced by classic Depression photos by Dorothea Lange). Katniss shows she’s a rule-breaker by going through a fence into a forbidden district, the forest. The image of Katniss in her huntress attire and bow and arrow in this forest setting is an echo of the Artemis archetype, the ancient Greek wilderness goddess of the hunt who defends women and children. (Linking a character to an archetype is one of the classic methods of creating a larger-than-life character. Also, in superhero/ine stories, the characters’ WEAPONS are a key character device and TALISMAN).

In the forest we see Katniss’s SPECIAL SKILLS: running, archery, tracking – she can and will kill for survival. It also shows how comfortable she is in the forest. Her gorgeous friend Gale appears and spoils her shot at a deer (INTRODUCTION OF LOVE INTEREST). As they talk and we see their deep affection and companionship,

this intimate moment is broken by a harsh sound and Katniss and Gale have to hide from a huge dirigible above. The dirigible above sets up a recurring theme of constantly being watched from above, and adds to the dystopian sense of an oppressive society. The dirigible brings a SECONDARY VILLAIN to the town: Effie Trinket, who represents the Capitol (sic). The Capitol is a non-human ANTAGONIST – typical in dystopian stories, where society is the true villain.

Gale expresses a THEME of the story: “If we didn’t watch, they wouldn’t have a game.” (And also made me wish the whole rest of the movie was about him, alas...). This idea also is a SET UP for the solution in the FINAL BATTLE). He proposes that they could take off together, just leave and live in the woods (again emphasizing their survival SKILLS. Katniss says that Prim couldn’t survive, and if they were caught, “They’d cut out our tongues” – FEAR AND STAKES.) This scene also builds dread over the possibility that Gale will die: he has 42 tokens in the Reaping lottery, presumably because he has volunteered for more tokens in exchange for food for his family.

Back in the village, Katniss stops at a market to sell a squirrel. A woman at the market gives Katniss a mockingjay pin which becomes a TALISMAN: first, the kind woman gives the pin to Katniss (and by implication, to all the child sacrifices) like a witch or fairy godmother, then Katniss gives it to Prim to keep her safe, then it becomes metaphorically infused with Katniss’s love when she offers herself as a sacrifice for her sister, then Prim gives it back to her to keep her safe, and then later Katniss’s mentor/fairy godmother Cinna sews it into Katniss’s jacket, also infusing it with love. And later it will become the symbol of the revolution that Katniss leads.

At home while Prim and Katniss’s mother dresses Prim for the Reaping, we get hints of Katniss’s backstory: her mother’s breakdown when her father died in a mine explosion after which Katniss became the head of the family. (Layering in Katniss’s leadership and maternal skills: she will become the mother of the revolution). The filmmakers use this backstory as a subplot line, giving us parts of it throughout the story). Katniss gives Prim the mockingjay pin and promises her nothing bad will happen. In storytelling, a PROMISE is a commitment that must be honored.

10:11 Mothers all over the town prepare their children for The Reaping, dressing them in pale clothing – there is a haunting sense of preparing sacrificial lambs to the slaughter which actually made me weep, and I’m not a crier.

A whistle blows, like a scream, summoning the village to the Reaping.

The color scheme and the arrangements of the crowds throughout this scene are very reminiscent of photos from Nazi Germany: the ghettos, the concentration camps, the sense of evil and dread.

Gathering for the Reaping is the SEQUENCE ONE CLIMAX, and it’s a stellar example of how to build to an effective climax. It’s a huge crowd scene in a SETPIECE arena, made epic by the visual tie in to a horrific historical event. The suspense of Prim’s premonition; our fear for Prim, Katniss and Gale; and the ritual preparations of the children for sacrifice create dread, and the huge STAKES have been clearly spelled out: being chosen in this lottery means almost certain death. Prim has a panic attack on the way in to the arena, increasing the dread. It’s a nice technological touch that the children’s identities are checked by pricking their fingers (also a fairytale image of doom – see Sleeping Beauty) to draw blood for DNA testing).

In the arena Effie struts around on stage, a magenta nightmare of banality, as the history of the Hunger Games is repeated and embellished in a film projected on huge TV screens (DETAILING THE RULES OF THE WORLD, and the THEMATIC VISUAL of combining/contrasting a backward, village society with futuristic technology). The uprising of the districts (12 districts against the 13th, the Capitol) is an obvious reference to the revolution of the original thirteen colonies of America, again, grounding this created world in real-life history. Also 12 is a powerful fairy tale number, giving the story an extra boost of archetypal resonance (don’t underestimate the storytelling power of numerology – see the Harry Potter books and movies for fantastic examples!).
-->The film is narrated by President Snow, a main villain/antagonist, who is the human embodiment of the dystopian society that is the true OPPONENT.

Effie draws names from a huge glass bowl, choosing Prim for the female tribute. Katniss is horrorstruck, then impulsively volunteers to go in her place. [16:01} As she stands on the stage in a daze, Effie asks for a round of applause. Instead, the children of the village lift their arms in a forbidden rebel salute - SETUP of Katniss as the leader of the revolution against the Capital, and also importantly setting up the sense that the desire and will to rebel is there in the people of the District. Katniss will be the match to light that fire.

Almost as an afterthought, Peeta is chosen from the boys as the male tribute. We get a brief FLASHBACK from Katniss’s point of view of Peeta throwing bread to pigs while Katniss shivers in the rain, an ambiguous beginning to a SUBPLOT thread of flashbacks of their backstory. We don’t know if Peeta is her enemy or her friend, but it doesn’t look friendly at this point.

In the very important tag to the sequence, Katniss is allowed just a few minutes under guard to say goodbye to her family and Gale. Katniss berates her mother: “You can’t check out this time. Not like you did when Dad died,” and says that Gale will feed them (LOVE PLOT). Prim tells her desperately, “Just try to win.” This is a clear, simple statement of the PLAN that drives the entire action of the story: Katniss must win the Hunger Games. Katniss promises Prim she’ll try. (Making this a PROMISE scene underscores the PLAN.) Gale starts to detail that PLAN and what will become the two main components of it just moments later, when he hugs Katniss goodbye and tells her, “Get a bow. Make one if you have to” and “They want a good show.” Katniss reminds him of the odds: 24 kids competing and only one comes out alive. Gale says, “It’s gonna be you.” 

This tag on the scene gives us a clear statement of what the audience should HOPE: that Katniss will win the Games.

ASSIGNMENT, if you're so inclined!
Take a minute to answer these questions about The Hunger Games, and then try asking yourself the same questions about your own story!

Who's the hero/ine?
What does s/he want?
Who is standing in her way?
What is her plan to get it?

What is her weakness?
What are her special skills?



All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  e format, just $3.99 and $2.99; print 13.99.

                                           STEALING HOLLYWOOD

This new workbook updates all the text in the first Screenwriting Tricks for Authors ebook with all the many tricks I’ve learned over my last few years of writing and teaching—and doubles the material of the first book, as well as adding six more full story breakdowns.


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Writing Love is a shorter version of the workbook, using examples from love stories, romantic suspense, and romantic comedy - available in e formats for just $2.99.

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