As the kid behind me at last night’s showing would say: “MOVIE REVIEW!”
That’s right — it’s my long-awaited review of The Hunger Games, the brand-new series for teens that isn’t Twilight. Before I unleash my usual avalanche of snark, I will say that I liked it well enough. Here’s where I add the caveat: there are times when being very true to the book makes the movie feel more like an expensive illustrated companion guide than its own separate medium. I wouldn’t say that The Hunger Games is as guilty of this as Harry Potter, but it definitely would have benefited from a little more creativity on the part of the screenwriters.
This isn’t to say that the movie was completely faithful. A couple of scenes were changed or removed, the television show’s hosts served as the Greek chorus for any parent who’s been dragged along without reading the books first, but in terms of the pacing and the majority of the story, it was pretty dead-on. The finale where the other 21 tributes come back as dogs never made sense in the book and would have been impossible to portray onscreen, so I am glad that they scrapped it. But Katniss receiving her Mockingjay pin by rooting around in the tray of some old woman at a flea market may have saved a little time, but also diminished the pin’s importance as a symbol of the dichotomy between rich and poor that leads to the rebellion.
The movie achieved what it set out to do, but in doing so it highlighted both the best and worst of the books themselves. The detachment of the Capitol-dwellers at watching teenagers fight each other to death for entertainment worked, especially since the movie did incorporate their reactions to the show, which was definitely needed for a sense of emotional gravity. What I really appreciated were the scenes inside the control room of the Games themselves. Watching a group of adults calmly shape and manipulate the arena to give their audience a better show and guarantee quicker or more elaborate the deaths of a couple dozen teenagers highlighted the monstrosity of the spectacle much better than the book did.
But the pacing is still a huge issue. We don’t enter the arena until halfway through both the book and the movie. As a result, The Games feel more like an afterthought — especially because this arena is just a forest. And even the “Career Tributes” — kids from the first two or three districts who train all their lives in the hopes of being chosen for the Games — are hard to hate because, after all, they are just kids.
So apart from the Capitol itself, there isn’t really a villain that poses an immediate threat. You aren’t pleased when anyone dies, and it’s really hard to root for our heroes to kill as many people as possible to ensure their survival. To be fair, it’s implied that Peeta kills one person by mistake and Katniss kills two people — one out of self-defense and the other out of mercy — which still strikes me as a big mistake on the part of the storytellers.
These books — and these movies — would have been much more interesting if the lead characters had been forced to explore the darker sides of themselves, sides that certainly would have been forced out in a fight-to-the-death scenario. But no, our young lovers walk out of the arena with clean hands and noble hearts. It feels like as much of a cop-out on screen as it did on the page.
To that same end, I still have an enormous problem with Rue the Sacrificial Lamb because if she hadn’t been killed, and Katniss really had protected her until the very end, she still would have had to die. Or been killed by the dogs. Or been killed in some much more savage way. Katniss’s funeral for Rue is touching, and it did cause me to tear up — especially when you see Rue’s district salute Katniss’s respect for their Tribute — but her death’s impact is soured by the knowledge that it had to happen, and that we aren’t nearly as sorry for the other 21 people died equally tragic and pointless deaths.
Speaking of murder, the action scenes were a major problem. Only Cloverfield has reached the heights of nausea that The Hunger Games achieved through its abuse of shaky-cam. For the love of God, most of the cameras are in the trees and you can’t give us a clean view of what’s happening? Even when Katniss is hunting in the woods at the start of the movie, the camera is jostled around so much that it is next to impossible to focus on anything. It doesn’t make anything seem more real, it just makes the movie much harder to watch. Knock shaky-cam off, Hollywood.
In terms of the actors, they all nailed it. I can’t think of anyone who was a disappointment or didn’t at least meet the minimum requirements for their characters. Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic, and is hopefully poised to be a huge star for the next decade, at least. Josh Hutcherson was precisely the way I imagined Peeta, while Liam Hemsworth’s put-upon Gale was serviceable. Happily I’m not in high school anymore, but a few of the younger girls in the theater made appreciative noises when the lesser Hemsworth showed up, so I guess he’s a thing now, but brother Chris is definitely poised to be the bigger star. Plus it’s hard to take someone seriously when their last big role was helping Miley Cyrus find herself and save baby orphaned turtles in a Nicholas Sparks movie.
Donald Sutherland was great because of course he was, and Stanley Tucci did a remarkable job with Caesar, taking a one-note Exposition Machine and turning him into a far more complex figure. Tucci’s Caesar came off as a man who was fully aware of the horror of the Games, much more than his cooing audience members, but who also knows his career depends on giving that audience what they want. Like any good talk show host, he shows the Tributes off as much as possible, both for entertainment value and to give them the best possible shot at sponsorship, despite knowing that 23 of the people he’s just spoken with are going to be dead in a week.
Lenny Kravitz, meanwhile, makes the singer-to-actor transition quite easily, nailing both elements of his minor but vital character. He serves as equal parts friend, father figure and PR Agent, while hinting at his own contempt for the Capitol.
The movie does set the stage for its sequels with a far less heavy hand than the book did — ending on a gloomy high note with Katniss and Peeta awkwardly celebrating their victory in District 12, rather than with President Snow threatening Katniss in private. It seems more realistic that Snow wouldn’t dirty his hands in the lower districts or make Katniss feel like she poses a big threat, especially when she has unknowingly sparked a revolution that Snow needs to try desperately to contain.
The movies will be successful no matter what, but it nice to see them handled with a certain degree of seriousness and dedication. If I do have one hope for the sequels it will be that they do deviate a little more from the source material to put on a better show.
But for this first movie, in sum, it was The Hunger Games — for better or for worse.