Guest Post: ‘Catching Fire’ Screen Play? We’ve Got It!

by John on June 8, 2012

No, we haven’t found the movie script in a Burbank dumpster. We have, however, the next best thing, I’d say something even better — a serious reader’s screenplay-outline based on both a close reading of the books and a three act drama structure as used by Hollywood. Here is the exciting letter from Hana McCarthy that lays out what the Catching Fire film will look like if produced by someone who gets what the story is about, namely, Katniss’ interior and exterior transformations, the spiritual and the political!

Hi John,

I have lately been having fun learning about the structure of movie scripts and I decided to share my new-found learning by imagining how I might structure a Catching Fire screenplay.  I quickly discovered it was no easy task.   For better or worse I’m forwarding some of the fruits of my mad midsummer night’s labors with you and, if you like the idea, with fellow Hogwarts Professor readers. The discussion has already started on an older thread and I hope you agree this deserves a new home.

Translating Literary Drama into a Visual Medium

The fundamental dilemma with Catching Fire screenplay is how to condense 27 chapters and 391 pages into about two hours of film.  At the same time the screenplay has to create a clear vision of the twin dramatic arcs (inner and outer) that define the hero’s journey and values while never, ever boring the eternally restive film audience.

In the case of the Hunger Games trilogy; I would argue that Katniss’ essential inner journey is her spiritual struggle to determine what is Real, while the outer journey tells the story of how Katniss becomes the spark and symbol – and ultimately the conscience — of a Revolution.  The core values that John and his fellow Hogwarts Professors have illuminated as the heart of the Hunger Games trilogy’s popularity must be preserved if the film is to achieve greatness.

The good news is that despite our fears there are people in the film industry (and even involved in this film adaptation) who get this in a deep way. (Do please watch Michael Arndt’s powerful and very relevant video on values and film.)

But as David Mamet once famously told his team of TV scriptwriters: “The audience will not tune in to watch information [or mushed-over pseudo-values I and Michael Arndt might add]….The audience will only tune in and stay tuned to watch drama. Question: What is drama?  Drama, again, is the quest of the hero to overcome those things which prevent him from achieving a specific, acute goal.”

The other key problem with book adaptations is that film is an almost entirely a visual medium; Mamet again: “The camera can do the explaining for you. Let it. What are the characters doing – literally – what are they handling, what are they reading, what are they watching on TV, what are they seeing?  If you deprive yourself of the crutch of narration, exposition, indeed of speech, you will be forged to work in a new medium – telling the story in pictures.”  David Mamet link

Structure Keeps the Action Going

The classic and often very effective way to keep the action focused on the acute goal is with a dramatic structure that puts the character in a tree, sets the tree on fire and gets the character out of the tree and into a new tree — or perhaps a frying pan  (link to John’s article!).  This structural technique works (when it works) because it reveals the hero’s journey while getting the audience to care what happens next. The structure, which goes back to ancient Greece, is often diagrammed as a three point “Freytag pyramid.”  The Freytag pyramid can be used to outline the action in an entire film or to structure a scene or sequence within a film.

Back in the old days, explains Paul Gorman in his terrific post on Dramatic Structure, movie theaters had only one projector and the audience would have to wait while the projectionist changed reels.  Feature films used about eight reels so they had eight narrative sequences, each about 8-15 minutes long, with the final moments (or resolution) of each reel creating a hook that would keep audiences engaged while they waited for the next reel.

Gorman argues that this still one of the most useful ways to structure a screenplay:   “The narrative sequence approach divides a film into three acts: a first act comprised of two sequences, a second act comprised of four sequences, and a third act of two sequences (though there can be considerable variance in this formula from film to film). Each sequence can be viewed as a mini-movie: asking and resolving a dramatic question (that is, resolving the question in a way that leads organically to the new dramatic question in the next sequence).”

Structuring the Catching Fire Screenplay

Here I’m going to use the sequence approach, with repeating ‘mini-movie’ Freytag pyramids providing the structure for each sequence.  This is just one way to do a Catching Fire screenplay adaptation, but it’s a good, well-tested starting point.  As you’ll see, in several sequences I have taken serious liberties (GASP!!!) with book details by condensing or reversing the order of key events, and in a couple of places, by inventing scenes out of thin air.  In all cases the purpose is to faithfully tell (and ultimately resolve) the tale of Katniss’ inner and outer journeys while constantly keeping the audience on the edge of — or at least in — its seat.

A key first task is to identify within the book’s text the most dramatic and indispensable plot elements.  It is also essential to keep the broad structure of the text intact; so that, for example The Quarter Quell must remain the midpoint or ‘first culmination’ of the screenplay because it is a major plot reversal – the unthinkable has happened and our hero is going back into the Arena.  This is the moment when Katniss stops reacting and starts acting – conquering her fears and deciding to sacrifice herself to save Peeta.

Let me describe what that looks like and then share some pictures of this structure to bring it to life.

Act1, Sequence A: District 12
Katniss is back at home but all is not well.  She’s being watched by Snow, she has nightmares, she hates Victor’s Village and her relationships with Gale and Peeta are conflicted.  This sequence might end with Gale’s kiss.

Act2, Sequence B: Victory Tour
This sequence poses the dramatic question that will shape the rest of the picture.  Katniss is called to her mission as the Mockingjay.  It might start with a confrontation with Snow who challenges Katniss to convince the audience that her love for Peeta is real.  On the tour (which would probably work best on film if the order of the district visits is reversed), Katniss sees the growing signs of revolution and in District 11 she and Peeta make their famous speeches.

Act 2, Sequence C: Lockdown in D12.
Katniss and Peeta are bundled onto the train ‘Like criminals’ as Effie says, and they return to a District 12 in lockdown, crawling with peacekeepers.  This is probably the point where Katniss meets the District 8 refugees (the easiest way to show the Katniss is already viewed as the Mockingjay).  The sequence should probably end with Gale’s flogging to show the cruelty of the Capitol and the fact that Katniss’ loved ones are now being targeted.

Act 2, Sequence D: The Quarter Quell
This is the story center, the midpoint.  Katniss stops reacting and starts acting, demonstrating the power of sacrificial love when she pulls herself out of her panic and chooses to save Peeta.

Act 2, Sequence E: The Reaping
This sequence introduces many characters and subplots.  It starts with the reaping in D12, includes Haymitch’s insights into the other victors, reaches a climax as we watch Mags volunteering in District 4.  The sequence might end in the Capitol with a weeping prep team (showing that these games are not going over quite as Snow had planned).

Act 2, Sequence F: Meet the Victors
Of course this sequence starts with Finnick and the sugar cubes.  It then moves to the training center: Haymitch tells Katniss & Peeta to choose allies and Katniss learns about force fields.  Katniss and Peeta get to know the other tributes and wonder ‘how can we kill these people.  The sequence ends at the interviews with the tributes linking arms.

Act 3, Sequence G: The Arena
Haymitch tells Katniss, ‘Remember who the enemy is’.  Katniss learns to trust Finnick.  Peeta dies and is revived, and it becomes clear that Katniss really does love Peeta.  The kiss on the beach probably ends this sequence.

Act 3, Sequence H: It’s a Clock
Starts with Mag’s sacrifice, adds Nuts, Volts and Joanna to the team, reaches a climax as Katniss understands the Clock pattern and ends as Katniss fires her arrow at the chink in the force field and loses Peeta.

Epilogue: Plutarch and Haymitch unmasked.

You can see how compressed the whole thing has to be (it’s a miracle that any film adaptations actually work).   CF as a film must tell two central stories: the outer journey in which Katniss becomes the Mockingjay, the leader of the rebellion, and the inner journey in which she comes to understand the power of sacrificial love.  If it succeeds in this I’ll be applauding.

Diagrams

Below please find my picture-sequences of how this looks: the first gives a big picture of the Catching Fire screenplay’s eight sequences; the second shows how each sequence can be broken down into an inciting incident, a climax and a resolution whose consequences spiral outwards and lead us into a new crisis in the next sequence.

For us, the fun starts when (hopefully!) everyone in the blogosphere and especially at HogwartsProfessor starts to argue over what the most dramatic and indispensable elements are.  The greatness of structure is that is keeps everyone on track and well fenced in — as befits wild YA blogging creatures (or their sometimes equally wild parents and teachers).

If you like the idea we can follow up with a series covering each sequence and including more detailed discussions of what to include and exclude from each sequence.

Can’t wait to hear what you think!

Hana

I love the idea and look forward to reading your follow-up series on each sequence! This demonstrates that a serious reader’s understanding of the trilogy can be brought to the screen if the Gamesmakers aren’t empowered once again to hijack the story. For that and for your wonderful work and insights here, Hana, “Thank You Very Much!”

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