Disclaimer: This is less a review as it is a totally biased compilation of my raw thoughts after seeing the film twice. I would recommend not reading this unless you’ve at least read the books or seen the film. I’m not going to explain plot points like a real review would. I’m assuming you know the story.
Here be spoilers!
I’m not ashamed to admit I’ve been more than a little obsessed with The Hunger Games since I devoured the book a little more than a month ago (yeah, I was living under a rock). I quickly gobbled up its sequels, “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay” between then and now, but the wait for the movie was still torturous. I’m so glad I didn’t even know about the trilogy until a couple of months ago. I would have died.
I quelled my obsession slightly by watching every trailer released, and scavenging YouTube for cast interviews. I was more than a little worried I’d be disappointed. I love books in general, but for me the motion picture is the most perfect art form there is. I wanted to like this movie. I felt that based on what I’d seen in the trailers and a few scene snippets that the movie had the potential to outshine the books. In many respects it did. In others it didn’t. All-in-all, my expectations were more than realized. I absolutely love this film.
Adaptations are always a tricky business, and the more beloved a book is, the more impossible it becomes to succeed. Back in the day, when I knew less about the strengths of motion pictures, I hated seeing movies based off of beloved books. But as I have learned more over the years, and have even written a novel and a screenplay myself, I now try to go into a film based on a book I’ve read expecting to see favorite moments and characters eliminated, or condensed. I remember that by their natures, books and movies have different strengths. Books take the reader into the characters’ minds in an intimate way through narrative and exposition, especially when told in the first person like The Hunger Games is told from heroine Katniss Everdeen’s perspective. Movies show a story through action. They combine other art forms like photography, effects, costume and set design, and music. The difficulty is in trying to nudge the viewer’s assumptions about a character’s motivations in one direction or another without flat out saying what they are. And it wasn’t until I wrote a screenplay myself that I truly appreciated how important a creative and imaginative actor is to a great film. The Hunger Games scores big on that front. Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, and newcomer Liam Hemsworth, were all fantastic. Have I mentioned Jennifer Lawrence? Wow. But I digress.
So with those things in mind, I feel Director Gary Ross’s treatment of The Hunger Games was wonderful, though not perfect. Additions made were almost like bonus moments we didn’t have access to in the books, and most of his cuts made perfect sense to me. I think of this film as a companion to the books. Perhaps to some viewers that is a knock. And I do typically agree that a movie needs to completely stand on its own. After watching the film a second time and reading some reviews of others who had not read the book, I feel it stands up more than the book virgins believe it does. But I could be wrong.
The first thing I ever want from a film, before I analyze its pacing, direction, acting, writing, etc, is for it to move me. I want it to stir some emotion in me, and ideally inspire me. If a film does that, it’s halfway there.
Two moments in particular that moved me: The Reaping and Rue’s demise.
At The Reaping, I really felt what this experience would have been like, not only for Katniss and Peeta, but for all of the citizens of District 12. You see the worry on the faces of the 12-18 year old kids whose names are in the lottery, and of their families. This is a community horror, that despite the Capitol’s propaganda machine, every citizen despises and fears. Then you get a sense of the absurdity and perversity of the spectacle through the character of Effie Trinket, the Capitol’s clueless and self-absorbed Reaping coordinator for District 12. Whether she has merely trained herself to cope with her job of taking children to their deaths, or whether she just really believes, she has bought into the propaganda the citizens are forced to endure before the worst thing to ever happen to two of them and their families happens. When Prim is chosen, her sister Katniss, superbly played by Jennifer Lawrence, takes you through a succession of emotions as she processes what has just happened. She is confused and momentarily in shock, and doesn’t quite believe that her sister has been chosen despite only having her name in the bowl one time in her first year of eligibility. Once the fog clears, Katniss’ quick, panicked, unthinking action propels her to take her sister’s place, and then you immediately see her go through the realization of what her choice means for her. Her life is basically over. A few hours ago, she viewed the Reaping a temporary pain she had to endure before continuing the rest of her day and not-so-terrible life by District 12 standards. Instead, now she’ll be taken from her home forever, and probably die violently in a few weeks
When the boy from District 12, Peeta, is chosen, we see his obvious horror as well, but what caught my attention were the faces of the boys around him. They exhale relief that they are safe for another year, but yet they are horrified that one of their own has to face this. There is no celebration, no happiness in this situation at all. It is a heartrending moment that continues through Katniss saying goodbye to her family and to her best friend Gale. When she pleads with him to not let her family starve, in my mind that’s the moment Jennifer Lawrence seals an Oscar nomination. To quote Effie, “I love that.”
The journey to the Capitol, the spectacle of the pre-Games ceremonies, interviews, and training is all very well done. Ross nicely changes stylistically a bit from his very raw and rough photography in the District to a more polished look in the Capitol. It’s subtle, but it’s powerful. The scene between Katniss and Peeta the night before they go to the games is wonderful, but I would have liked to see a little more of this kind of exploration of their predicament.
The second emotional highpoint for me was when Rue dies in the middle of the Games. The emotional toll the Games has on Katniss is highlighted in this scene. It is not just about this little girl’s death, which is terrible in and of itself, especially considering the disparity between a 12 year old girl and an 18 year old man forced to fight to the death. It’s about everything coming to a head for Katniss. She’s obviously projecting her sister Prim onto this girl since they are the same age. But she’s also just made her first real, intimate kill (her other kills were Tracker Jacker by Proxy) by shooting the boy who speared Rue. What she had only done before to animals she hunted, she has just done to a human. She’s alone, she just lost her only ally, and chances are she is going to die sometime soon. Her response to cover Rue in flowers is her way of defying the Capitol, and trying to do as Peeta suggested the night before they went into the arena by not being a “piece in their games.” She’s not trying to start a revolution, yet she knows she’s being provocative. She’s trying to stay true to herself. That scene was almost everything I wanted to see as a fan of the novel, with the exception of no bread drop of thanks from District 11. I think that was a mistake to cut out, and could have elevated the power of the moment to an even higher level. Perhaps Ross didn’t want people to assume Katniss cared more about receiving a gift than she did about Rue’s death, but I still wanted to see it. It is an important moment for the entire trilogy. It’s the spark of the revolution. The bread is important because it clearly links Katniss’ salute to District 11. In the book, when the bread drops, she knows District 11 gave it to her, a completely unheard of thing to do for a tribute from another district, and Katniss repays them and Rue with the salute of ultimate respect. I think that may have been lost in the film, but I could be wrong. It wasn’t enough of a detractor to take away from the power of the moment. I still cried
Some reviews I’ve read have complained of the shaky camera, but as one who’s not always a lover of that style myself, I think it was used perfectly for the film. The grainy quality was there when we needed to understand what living in the Districts was like, but in the reality TV inspired ridiculousness of the Capitol it’s softened or replaced by polish and larger than life color and sparkle. I give my three fingered salute to Ross and his team for turning what could have been a big budget spectacle from start to finish and still pull in a gazillion dollars, into an intimate movie with an indie quality (when it needed it). The film did not hide from the violence either, but it didn’t make it gratuitous for the sake of doing so. I knew who was going to die, and I was still cringing.
Because the film – unlike the books – is not told merely from Katniss’ first person perspective, we get some treats we didn’t in the book. And because Suzanne Collins herself was part of the writing process for the script, I am satisfied knowing they had her blessing. The behind-the-scenes scenes of the Games Control/Production Center is a wonderful addition. In the books we get glimmers of this from what Katniss knows of past games and assumptions she makes, but the movie brings us into the place where all the magic of the arena is created, and where the lives of 24 children are manipulated. The Truman Show-like power over this world is taken to the darkest level as Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane decides who lives and dies, and what horror the Tributes will face in their demise, with the same joy he’d have if he were producing a weekly sitcom. The Gamemaker’s are proud of what they’re giving to the masses. It’s so twisted, yet perfectly weaved into the film.
I also love seeing mentor Haymitch’s sweet-talking as he works to gain sponsors to help Katniss. He even convinces Seneca not to outright kill her for her defiance, but instead to give the viewers a romance to root for. We get to see just how truly superficial and rigged the Games are, not only for the Tributes in the arena, but later when Seneca is forced to pay the ultimate price for his choices, a scene only alluded to in the second novel.
I expected the love triangle to be understated based on reviews I’d read, and it was, but in a surprisingly good way. The note Haymitch sends to Katniss with the medicine (“You call that a kiss”) is a simple way to help the audience understand what we learn in the book by having access to Katniss’ thoughts. She’s caught between liking, distrusting, and play-acting with Peeta. She understands she needs to play a social game – something beyond her comfort zone — in order to live, and though she’s not sure what she believes about her own feelings for Peeta, or his feelings for her, she goes for it when she kisses him. While it’s clear to the audience Peeta’s motivations are genuine, its equally clear that Katniss is completely unsure of pretty much everything. That was perfect except I would have liked a tiny bit more cave time. I’m a girl after all.
- I would have liked a little bit more Cinna/Katniss airtime. Lenny Kravitz is a wonderful, understated yet cool, choice. He’s nothing like I pictured Cinna when I read the books, but that just shows my meager imagination. Now I can’t remember what I thought Cinna looked like.
- I understand the backstory of the mockingjay pin needed to change in order to eliminate a minor character (I never really liked the version in the books anyway), but I think they missed an opportunity to make it even better. Instead, they traded a lackluster version for another lackluster version. I do need to go back and watch for moments when the pin is visible to the arena’s cameras as it becomes the symbol of things to come in the next books. I’m hoping I’ll not be disappointed.
- Some fans are bothered by the ending. In the books, Katniss makes it clear to Peeta that she was pretending where their relationship was concerned, but the film’s version was better in my opinion. Katniss tells Peeta she just wants to forget; he tells her he doesn’t. That can mean many things. Forget the horror of the games, forget their affection for each other. It is open to interpretation in more ways than it was in the books, yet doesn’t leave an annoying taste in my mouth. I still wanted to see what happens next, but I didn’t feel toyed with like I did in the book.
- I imagined the “cornucopia” to be bigger for some reason. It seemed tiny in the film.
- I wish Katniss had said “thanks for the knife” when Clove threw one at her and it lodged in her backpack in the beginning of the games.
- The limb holding up the Tracker Jacker hive was a little thicker than was necessary. They could have shaved about a minute from the run-time.
- The spectacle of the Capitol exceeded my wildest dreams. Wonderful art direction, set design, costumes, make-up, etc. Bravo!
- Stanley Tucci as Master of Ceremonies Ceasar Flickerman was pitch-perfect. I loved the cheesy 60’s gameshow, The Dating Game-style evoked by the colors, set, lighting, and right down to the sound track.
- Speaking of sound track, I would have liked a bit more of a robust score. Not too much, but thought it could have been beefier. Where it was used, it was effective.
For a movie lasting nearly 2.5 hours, I can honestly say I wish it had been longer. I don’t think anything in the film was unnecessary (aside from taking too long to cut down the Tracker Jacker nest). Most of my complaints were that there were a few too many cuts, but in the grand scheme of things, these are minor wishes from a Hunger Game’s fanatic. I have no idea how I’ll survive the 1.5 years until “Catching Fire” comes out in theaters.
Maybe someday I’ll go into a more intellectual discussion of the film/book’s powerful themes, but for now, and in case you’re confused about my bottom line… The film is wonderful. Go and see it if you haven’t already. Though, you may want to give the book a try first.