THE HUNGER GAMES – movie review

Published March 24, 2012

Having finished reading The Hunger Games only hours before seeing the film version, I’m not sure I am qualified to accurately assess this film.  Yes, this was quite the immersive experience, but having just screened a beautiful version of the story in my noggin, how could any film hope to live up to the theater of my mind?  Especially since this cult-hit novel, the first of a trilogy, is written in the first-person narrative of its heroine Katniss Everdeen, and MUCH of the plot and character motivations are explained through this brave girl’s inner monologue.  Since books and films are apples and oranges (and they are), how am I to make sense of either with this fruit salad in my head?  Well, here goes anyway …

The Hunger Games (as if you didn’t already know) takes place in a dystopian future of unspecified date, in a country, Panem, that used to be the United States, made up of the Capital and 12 fenced-in Districts.  Every year, two “tributes,” one boy and one girl, ages 12-18, are chosen from these Districts to compete in a television show called The Hunger Games.  This “reality show” – created by the government to remind the people of its ultimate power, and to discourage any “uprisings” – is actually a brutal fight to the death with only one contestant named victor.

Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl from District 12, is horrified when she sees that her little sister has been chosen for The Hunger Games, and instead offers herself as Tribute.  This annual lottery (referred to here as a “Reaping,” lest any Shirley Jackson fans cry foul) is also televised, and Katniss’ unheard of self-sacrifice is seen by countless masses.  Her influence on those masses begins even then.  The other contestant chosen from District 12 is a boy named Peeta, who has (of course) had a crush on Katniss since they were children.  That they will soon be thrust into an arena where they will become mortal enemies makes for no small amount of suspense.

I will not spoil any more.  I loved the book (as of this writing I am halfway through Book II), and I really liked the movie.  But – and here we go again – I’m not sure I can be completely unbiased writing this review.  As I said, Suzanne Collins’ novel is written in the first person narrative of Katniss, and this immediacy (made all the more so by its present tenseness), makes for an incredibly vivid mind movie.  More importantly, much of the actual “Games” in the book fly by with no dialogue whatsoever.  This would, seemingly, make an adaptation even easier, as “pure cinema” can do its work.  Yet this is not the case.  It is Katniss’ silent reasonings which lend a great amount of intelligence to these otherwise visceral proceedings.  That uneasy balance of acumen and agility is one of the novel’s major strengths.  It moves at a clip, but always keeps you thinking, not to mention emotionally invested in the characters.  How often do novels pull off that triple threat?  If the movie, directed by Gary Ross (screenwriter of Big, and writer/director of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit), has any major fault, it is losing that inner monologue.  But aside from having Katniss do a voice over (which would not have worked), I’m not sure anything else could have been done.  Books are generally a 10-20 hour experience.  Movies, a 2-3 hour one.  Something’s got to go.  In the case of The Hunger Games, it’s just a shame that what has to go is our main character’s inner dialogue as it was absolutely a huge part of the novel’s charm, and the method by which ALL of the plot was delivered.  I knew while reading that any film would have to lose this, and that the loss would be hard to overcome, but …

Okay, one glaring example of why this loss hurts the film:

BEGIN SPOILER

When Katniss is in the cave with Peeta, and kisses him, the novel makes it absolutely clear that she is only “putting on a show” for the cameras, giving the audience what they want so she can earn their sponsorship and their gifts, like food and medicine.  In the film, Katniss doesn’t even look around for cameras, she just plants one on Peeta, which seems quite out of character.  Sure, after a pot of broth is soon delivered via parachute with a note from Haymitch which says, “You call that a kiss?”, we are meant to assume that Katniss knows she is always being watched, but … a little glance around the cave for the hidden cameras would have cleared up a lot.

END SPOILER

All that aside, The Hunger Games DOES work on film.  From the extreme poverty of the Districts, to the shimmering gaudiness of the Capital, everything old seems new again.  As for the cast: Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class) is pitch perfect as Katniss.  Even missing that aforementioned inner monologue, Lawrence does much with simple, silent, old fashioned emoting.  While being groomed and trained for these deadly Games, Katniss is lavished with food, clothes, and other riches by the producers.  Her horror and disgust at such opulence in the face of such disregard for human life are subtly written on her features, yet not so much as to give herself away.  There IS a show to put on, after all, and a game to be played – a game of wits as much as a game of brutality.  The penalty for not playing along will endanger not only Katniss, but all those from her District.  Yes, Jennifer Lawrence is a big part of why this film works.

Josh Hutcherson (Zathura, Bridge to Terabithia) plays Peeta, and does fine with what little he has been given to work with.  He is certainly given more character development than the other 22 contestants, whose backgrounds (save for Rue) are as disposable as their lives.  Make no mistake, people DO die in this movie.  Kids are brutally murdered in as explicit a manner as a PG-13 rating will allow.

Before I continue with the rest of the cast, I must stop here to point out the extreme irony (and perverse joy) that I find in the fact that a story THIS dark, a story this Orwellian, has resonated with today’s young people.  Kudos to author Suzanne Collins for not only seeing that it could be done, but for just doing it.  What the novel lacks in originality (MUCH more on that shortly), it makes up for with raw emotion, visceral action, intelligent plotting, and good old chutzpah.

Anyway, on with the supporting cast.

Elizabeth Banks is unrecognizable as Games escort Effie Trinkett, whose garish costumes and make-up perfectly mirror the horrific superficiality of the Capital.  Stanley Tucci is equally over-the-top as blue-haired, bright-toothed Games host Caesar Flickerman – imagine Dick Clark on acid.  Lenny Kravitz, the most normal of this bunch, plays it straight as Katniss’ stylist Cinna – his genuine concern for the girl speaks volumes about his true loyalties.  Donald Sutherland is deliciously creepy as the duplicitous President Snow – he is as smooth and charming as a snake.  Finally, and my personal favorite of the supporting cast, Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, mentor and trainer to Katniss and Peeta.  Haymitch, who also hails from District 12, was a Hunger Games victor 25 years earlier.  In the years since, has become a cynical recluse – a hermit who likes his drink as much as he does his solitude.  Though Haymitch initially seems to have nothing but contempt for this most recent batch of Tributes, his heart eventually shows through the guile.

I’m not sure how a story can seem original and derivative at the same time, but The Hunger Games, both novel and film, pulls off this trick nicely.  Many other similar stories come to mind: Stephen King’s The Running Man and The Long Walk (both written under his pseudonym Richard Bachman) each deal with dystopian societies – the former about a futuristic game show with a fight to the death, the latter about teenagers involved in a walking contest where the winner is the last one standing, and the losers (who can’t keep pace) are shot dead.  Logan’s Run, The Lord of the Flies, 1984, Blade Runner, Fahrenheit 451, Rollerball, V for Vendetta, The Lottery, THX 1138 (the government guards in the film version of The Hunger Games look like they stepped right out of George Lucas’ first film), The Truman Show, The Most Dangerous Game, and (back to Stephen King again) The Dark Tower.  All these classic stories and more come to mind whilst reading and watching The Hunger Games.  Well, I guess I could add reality TV fare like Survivor and American Idol into that mix.  Given such a mulligan stew of influence, that The Hunger Games, both book and film, can be so grandly entertaining is pretty remarkable.  That young people (perhaps not so familiar with these other sources) find it so captivating is … quite encouraging.  Perhaps they will seek out these other works and learn to appreciate them as well.

Make no mistake: this is dark material, made light by the humanity of our plucky heroine.  Katniss Everdeen is a much better role model for teenage girls than Twilight’s Bella Swan, simply because, even at age 16, she is her own person, she is not defined by the men in her life, is smart, crafty, a helluva good aim with that bow, and is willing to lay down her life for her family.  Walking contradiction though she is – warrior and pacifist, revolutionary and teenage girl – Katniss Everdeen (and the legions of young people who have embraced her) have given me a renewed hope for the future.  Funny what a little dystopia, and the uprising against such, can do to pick up one’s day.

MOVIE GRADE: B+