Movie Review: The Hunger Games

Effie and Katniss

Adapting any book into a successful film or television series is always a dicey proposition… adapting a beloved book series becomes a near impossibility for any director.  You immediately risk alienating the built in fan base if you don’t appease their every wish and desire… and risk pushing away casual moviegoers by creating something too niche or inaccessible.  The Hunger Games, the immensely popular trilogy of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, manages to wade into these dangerous waters where so many others have failed and come out smelling like genetically engineered roses.

If you know anything about how I feel about adaptations in general, you will know that there is no other phrase that will annoy me more than, “the book is always better than the movie”.  I consider the comparison unfair.  Books can do things that movies can’t… movies can do things books can’t.  Lisa Schwarzbaum of Entertainment Weekly sums up my feeling on this extremely well in her review of The Hunger Games, “The movie shows how, but the book shows why.”  A very succinct and clear view that I completely agree with… and as an unmitigated fan of The Hunger Games series myself, I was able to walk out of the theater relieved and happy as could be.

The film opens with a brief explanation of what exactly The Hunger Games are… as punishment for a rebellion 74 years previous, the government of Panem, the dystopic future North America, mandates that every year, two tributes, ages 12 to 18 from each of twelve districts; one boy, one girl, are selected by lottery to enter into The Hunger Games, a televised reality program where the selected 24 “contestants” must slaughter one another until only one victor is left standing.  The victor gains wealth and fame… the losers die.

The story is told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a sixteen year old girl from District 12, who volunteers to enter into the Games in order to save her younger sister.  These early scenes do a remarkable job of showing the poverty and desperation of those living in squalor under a totalitarian regime and lays out almost everything you need to know about this young woman in a matter of minutes… fatherless, taking care of her younger sister and mother, hunting game with her best friend/potential paramour Gale (Liam Hemsworth) for both food and trade, and wicked good with a bow.

Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) made some key decisions early on regarding film techniques employed… hand held, shaky at times with a cinema verité feel, shifting depth of focus, and rapid, quick close up edits… all of which conspire to soften the blow of the more violent scenes, yet help to bump up the sense of realism.  The color choices and cinematography are stunning throughout (turns out Ross used Clint Eastwood’s frequent cinematographer… doesn’t surprise me).  From the drab colorless District 12 to the grotesqueries of The Capitol’s dubious fashions in gaudy and bright colors, Ross conveys a very distinct difference between the daily lives of those living under the thumb of the peacekeepers and those living in such opulence and luxury that they would find enjoyment in watching young people murder each other for their entertainment.

Chief among the representatives of “The Capitol” is Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), District 12’s handler and PR rep for the Games, for lack of a better term.  Bedecked in outlandish clothing, large matching wig (pink or lavender), and repulsive thick makeup that renders Ms. Banks’ normally gorgeous face into something akin to a mask of pure horror.  Whether it is the tone deaf joy she derives in selecting the tributes during the Reaping (the lottery) or the shallow nature she shows later in what are painfully petty priorities (“they don’t get dessert… but you do!”), Effie becomes the embodiment of everything wrong with a culture that would revel in “bread and circuses”.  Fortunately, these very traits lead to some of the better points of comic relief in the film.

From District 12, we move step by step towards The Capitol, and eventually, the Games themselves.  Her fellow tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son with the secret crush on Katniss, begins playing the game immediately… using his charming smile and easy going demeanor… he becomes everything Katniss is not.  Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), former winner of the Games from District 12… actually, the only living winner from District 12, their drunken bitter mentor… and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss’ sympathetic stylist, charged with preparing the rough and tumble young lady into a reality TV star… because, ultimately, that is what this is… a TV show.  Each of these characters lead Katniss and Peeta towards becoming better contestants… better players in this most deadly of games.

By the time we reach the Arena, the domed gladiatorial pit equipped with cameras hidden in trees and all sorts of horrifying traps that are able to be set off at the whim of the Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley… with special mention to his outlandish, yet ever so stylish, beard), we understand our protagonists… we are rooting for the heroine… and we have met our foes.

From the first frame, one thing that stood out above all else is how incredibly well acted this story is.  Jennifer Lawrence, at first considered too old for the role (Katniss is meant to be 16, Lawrence is 21), perfectly embodies a young woman forced to take care of her family and having to do what is right, whether that means illegally hunting to feed her sister and mother or falsely leading on a young man in order to bump up sympathy for her “character” during the Games in order to curry favor with sponsors.  She is accessible and expressive during those quiet moments of the film.  There is one moment in particular (actually, many more than one moment) that stands out for me… right before she enters the Arena, you can see her shaking with fear… with anticipation… there seems to be so much going on behind those eyes.  Josh Hutcherson, also greeted with disapproval at his casting, manages to be exceptionally sympathetic in his role as the underdog with a heart of gold.  Even the great Stanley Tucci makes an appearance as the hallucinogenic Regis Philbin of The Capitol, Ceasar Flickerman… MC to The Hunger Games, blue hair and all smiles… fantastic.

I haven’t even mentioned the other tributes… Cato, Rue, Glimmer, Marvel, Foxface… all fantastic.  I’m generally used to average to poor acting in second tier roles when it comes to action films… this film proves to be the exception.  Rue (Amandla Stenberg) is as adorable as you can image… and Cato (Alexander Ludwig), as terrifying and sadistic a tribute you could have.   Honestly, such a remarkable cast… not a dud in the bunch.

OK… I’ve avoided making any comparisons between the book and the movie… but I suppose I should.  My take away is that they remained as faithful to the book as possible, making a number of changes for the purposes of focusing the story to only the most relevant points (such as eliminating Madge all together and not getting into the Avox story), yet still managed to keep the majority the story in tact.  The only issue most people seem to have, and I can understand this, is that Katniss’ internal dialogue that propels every page of the book is gone.  In its place, we have a stupendous actress who must get us to understand what she is feeling without the use of cheesy voiceover or narration.  The filmmakers could have easily gone down a scary road filled with exposition and stilted dialogue… instead, they chose to trust in the intelligence of the audience to figure things out on their own… it certainly doesn’t hurt when most of the viewers know exactly what is going on in the heroine’s head (a quick humorous aside… I read one review of the movie that referred to Katniss as the movie’s heroin… and that was in the title of the post… and repeated later… tee hee hee).

I also could not help but laugh about how seeing such a great adaptation brought to mind some of the horrible adaptations of the past… chief among them, The Golden Compass.  Much like The Hunger Games, the story is told in a fantasy/sci-fi world with a young heroine… instead of trusting in the audience as The Hunger Games does, we are treated to such terrible reads involving such dialogue as “I am so and so and this is what I do”.  We don’t even hear Katniss’ name until the Reaping itself… what was the name of the old woman at that grungy market?  For fans of the book, we know it’s Greasy Sae at the Hob… for the purposes of the movie, who gives a rat’s ass… those are some of the decisions a director must make.  They aren’t easy decisions, and yes, they take away from the complete understanding that those of us who love the books have… but in terms of telling a story in a reasonable 2 1/2 hours, some aspects must be cut… otherwise you run the risk of sterility.  Watchmen is the perfect example… becoming too slavish to the source material means you aren’t creating… you are tracing, duplicating, making a lesser facsimile.  (for the record, I enjoyed Watchmen)  I’m pleased that Gary Ross chose to make a film, not a carbon copy.

There were a few creative changes to the end of the story that surprised me a bit, such as adding a couple of elements from the second book… plus a number of changes necessary to prevent an R rating (no spoilers).  Again… I understand… but I wouldn’t have minded a few extra minutes to squeeze in an extra detail or two.

Another thought I had while watching the movie is just how difficult the next two books will be in adapting to the screen.  The tone shifts quite a bit and may be a bit more difficult to translate.  For as wonderful of an adaptation that this is, a few main themes didn’t translate as well as I would have hoped.  The emphasis that Katniss brings to playing up for the audience is missing as well as the commentary on who it is that would watch the Games is downplayed as well.  These themes are very much a large part of the subsequent storyline… I suppose time will tell.

So… overall, I loved this movie.  I went to see it at a midnight screening on opening night and had a great crowd to enjoy it with.  They laughed at the appropriate times… they went oooOOOOooo and aaawwwWWWww appropriately… and applauded when the credits roll.  It was a great experience… one that I decided to repeat the next day with my oldest daughter.  She has recently started the book, because she isn’t quite as confident in her reading as I would like her to be, I thought that seeing the film might help her to understand what it is she is reading.  (I know this goes against many people’s belief that it is better to imagine the story yourself, I don’t see the harm in helping a little bit… I’m trying to generate the love of reading that I have.). The crowd the next day, which was still opening day, was even better than the midnight crowd… less sleepy perhaps.  Greater cheers, greater oooOOOoo’s, greater applause at the end.

After seeing The Hunger Games twice now… and seeing two different audience’s reactions, I can safely say that this film is an absolute success… now it will be the wait for Catching Fire…

Hungry for more…
Cornelius J. Blahg



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