Now I finally know what all of those Harry Potter and Twilight fans feel like. I finally understand how good it feels when a book series you love is brought to the screen and they don’t totally f**k it up.
Yes, I admit it. My name is Curtis and I am a fan of The Hunger Games, a trilogy for young adult readers. (Sounds like I’m at a 12-step meeting.) But with a biting commentary on society’s voyeuristic obsession with reality television, a criticism of government and corporate oppression, and some brutal child on child violence that’s a shadow of our culture’s school shootings and gang killings, this is a story adults should pay attention to.
In this fan’s opinion, The Hunger Games movie is a winner. Everything I remember loving about the book has been included, and what was cut were things I didn’t miss.
So, what didn’t work?
- By far, my biggest criticism has to do with the director’s excessive use of shaky cam. At times, I thought I was watching Cloverfield 2. I worry that for some viewers it may render the movie unwatchable.
- The climax/ending. The climax wasn’t bad, but it did feel somewhat rushed. I’ll get more into this point later.
- Some sub-par CGI. During the opening ceremonies, for example, I thought I was watching a Star Wars prequel movie.
- That’s it!
What worked really well:
- Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Like she did in Winter’s Bone, Jennifer Lawrence serves as this story’s emotional center. She grounds the movie with a character that feels true, all the more important here because of the fantastical sci-fi elements of the story. The two roles are surprisingly similar, even down to her family relationships—the absent father, the ineffectual mother, and the younger sibling(s) she’ll risk her life for. She brings some real acting chops to this series, and it’s a good thing given who they surrounded her with…
- The supporting cast, especially Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, and Donald Sutherland. I had some reservations about Woody Harrelson being cast as Haymitch. In my mind, someone like John Hurt or even Robert Downey, Jr. would have been a better choice, but Woody Harrelson hit it out of the park. And Stanley Tucci was brilliant. It would have been so easy for an actor to go over the top with the Caesar Flickerman character, but Tucci brings a skillful subtlety to the role. There’s one moment where his character makes a joke on live television and then congratulates himself under his breath, “That’s funny,” delivered so subtly that the casual viewer would have missed it. For the acting alone, I would watch this movie a second time.
- The mise en scene (minus the shaky cam that I’ve already mentioned). Stories set in the future are challenged by the dual need to feel different enough that we believe it’s the future, yet familiar enough that we can relate to the characters and events. The world of The Hunger Games was ugly when it needed to be and beautiful when it needed to be, often a combination of both. Katniss’s District 12 was gray and bleak, the Capitol was colorful and gaudy, and the forest was green and lush with life, an aesthetic irony when the bodies start falling in the arena.
- The story. In fairness, there really wasn’t much for the filmmakers to do here except not screw up the wonderful story created by Suzanne Collins.
- The visceral emotion of the story. This is where the movie could have gone horribly wrong. But the filmmakers resisted any temptation for melodrama. I can imagine the director pitching this as Winter’s Bone in the future. The scoring was pretty sparse too, especially by Hollywood standards. The events themselves are emotional enough that they don’t need much adornment, and they were played out very effectively. My eyes were tearing up within the first five minutes during the reaping scene, the scene that sets the whole story in motion. When they nailed that, I knew the story was in good hands.
Having only read the book once and having seen the movie just once, what I’m about to say may be a bit premature, but I think The Hunger Games makes a better movie than a book. By not having the luxury of getting into Katniss’s head and hearing her thoughts, the movie positions her as an “Everyman,” representative of anyone in the audience. We don’t have to hear her teenage whining that filled so much of the book. Yes, that was her character, but it limits how relatable the character is. It’s not a surprise that the theater was filled with teenage girls; they were the book’s target demographic. But I think the movie widens the audience because of the natural show-don’t-tell limitations of film.
What’s impossible for me to comment on (and has yet to be seen) is how well the movie works for people who haven’t read the book. There’s a lot to this story, a lot of information and plot thrown at the viewer at a healthy pace. Even at 142 minutes, the movie felt like it flew by. I wonder how well the movie as a whole can offset any distance the quick pacing may put between itself and the uninitiated viewer.
If you don’t want to risk spoilers, stop reading now. Otherwise…
What I also thought worked better in the movie than the book was the violence in the arena. For some reason, I could feel the hand of the “young adult” censor at work in the book much more than in the movie. It’s obvious going in that Katniss is not going to kill anyone in cold blood. Bodies would drop around her, and she would kill only in self-defense or only when another character “deserved it.” But her choices felt more authentic as I watched the movie. I have no interest in doing a kill by kill comparison between the movie and the book to see if things were changed, but my guess is that the difference was primarily one of pacing. In the book you get a real feel for just how much time she spent in the arena, so there’s a much greater build up to each kill, a lot more time to see it coming, to see the hand of the author at work. In the movie, time is condensed by necessity through skillful editing. It feels like the game is happening to her, that she’s reacting to the oppression and the violence inherent in the system (as Monty Python would say).
What I did feel worked better in the book was the climax, the moment when Katniss and Peeta are confronted with the ultimate reality of the Games—only one of them can leave the arena alive. Again, I don’t recall exactly what was different, except that it felt more satisfying in the book, more earned. In the movie it felt rushed, probably the least authentic moment. I found myself craving some line of dialogue, a call back to their conversation on the rooftop. All it would have taken was Katniss reminding Peeta (and the audience) of his declaration, “If I’m gonna die, I want to still be me.” She couldn’t say this explicitly, of course, but just something like, “Remember what you said to me on the roof?” Instead we get a generic “Trust me.”
But these criticisms are few among many more comments I could make about how much I enjoyed this adaptation. I would love to hear what you thought of The Hunger Games? Comment below to share your opinion. Did you read the book, and did you like the movie?