The Hunger Games
based on the novel by Suzanne Collins
I initially wasn’t going to go see The Hunger Games its opening weekend; besides my mild response to the first novel in the trilogy and despite my wild response to the trailer, I would be in Louisiana for a family wedding the entire weekend, giving me no time to go see it. Unless, as my friends Andrea and Rachel pointed out, I went at midnight. Unwilling to face the entire McBride clan on three hours of sleep, I declined—but then on Thursday evening, I began getting antsy. So I bought myself a ticket at the last moment (surprisingly!), dressed myself up as a dapper Capitol citizen (I am still proud of how I managed to fashion a neck tie from my own hair), and trotted off at midnight, ready to brave the sleep deprivation to be one of the first to see The Hunger Games.
The Hunger Games takes place in a dystopian future, where America has transformed into the oppressive Panem, where a rich and cosmopolitan Capitol surrounded by twelve increasingly poorer districts. Each year, to remind their citizens of their place, the government selects one boy and one girl from each district to compete in the bloodthirsty Hunger Games–the last person standing wins. When Katniss Everdeen of District Twelve volunteers to compete in the Games in the place of her little sister, her life turns upside down. Formerly a hunter scraping to get by and support her family, Katniss finds herself immersed in the bloody glamor of the Capitol and the Games. It will take every ounce of her cunning and hunting instincts to stay alive… and to win.
I’ll come right out and say it—this is a film adaptation that surpasses the book it’s based on. As Cleolinda Jones points out in her casual and brilliant “numbered thoughts”, “a story about a visual medium in a visual medium is just naturally going to be more effective. I mean, is there a book about books and the reading of them that has been more artistically successful as a movie adaptation?” By removing Katniss’ internal dialogue (which makes her a more ambiguous and dynamic character) and pulling back to examine the entire system, it’s more politically focused. The love triangle, which I found so incredibly awkward and forced in the novel, becomes a distant third to the dystopia itself and Katniss’ relationship with her family, and the ambiguity that comes with the removal of Katniss’ internal monologue makes it engaging and, occasionally, thrilling—are Katniss and Peeta attracted to each other, trying to game the system, or on different points on a spectrum between the two? All of it—the story, the love triangle, the dystopia—is just so much more affecting here. I’m still hesitant about whether or not I want to continue the books (more on that in a bit), but I will be seeing the other movies (which, considering the box office for this past weekend, are definitely happening). This is the rare case where the movie is better than the book.
Which isn’t to say that it’s a perfect movie, although it’s quite—well, spectacular would be a incredibly poor choice of words, wouldn’t it? The production design is out of this world, from the dreary, Depression-esque District 12 (right on down to the coal miners) to the blindingly acidic decadence of the Capitol. I really loved the fact that the costume and make-up for Capitol citizens actually lean towards the grotesque, when fanart produced by the target audience normalizes it. The score is quiet, country, and disturbed; Rue’s infamous lullaby is creepy even before everything goes to hell. Uniqueness is something that’s hard to achieve at all, let alone in young adult speculative fiction, but it happens here—I don’t think I’d mistake any part of this for anything else. There are some problems, however. Firstly, the cinematography leans heavily on a shaky camera for a lot of Katniss scenes, especially the violent opening of the Games themselves. I understand the logic—a shaky camera is more realistic, therefore a fantastic contrast to more slick camera work in the Capitol and lending a sense of voyeurism to make the viewer feel complicit with the Capitol—but it can get nauseating. I should point out that the violence is handled brilliantly; while it’s “only” rated PG-13, the violence is still shocking without feeling exploitative. Secondly, the ending just sort of fizzles out. It feels like the film ends five minutes after the Games do, which is just disappointing. It did make me realize why I never continued with the books—The Hunger Games feels self-contained. At the end of the film, Katniss even says she just wants to forget about it and put it behind her, so there’s no character hook for the next novel, especially when we can’t really see the trouble Katniss is stirring up in the Districts. It’s a bit better here, but not by much.
As for the cast, Jennifer Lawrence owns Katniss. She’s prickly, devoted to her family, and hellbent on survival. She gives Katniss a rich emotional life without saying a single word. Her rapport and chemistry with Willow Shields, who plays a delicate, startled Prim, and Amandla Stenberg, who plays a quiet, trusting Rue, are absolutely brilliant. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is seemingly earnest and adaptable, while Liam Hemsworth’s briefly seen Gale is dependable and good-natured. (Two things—one, holy crow, the Hemsworth men are ridiculously attractive, and two, my audience cracked up pretty much every time we cut from the Games to Gale watching at home.) The Capitol adults are fascinating, especially Seneca Crane. The film spends some time on the actual production of the Games, as overseen by Seneca, and to see him take pride in well-crafted murder games is a special kind of horror. I should also mention Lenny Kravitz as a low-key Cinna, who, just as in the book, remains the one man who connects the deepest with Katniss, and Donald Sutherland as a calm President Snow. As we barely see in the novel, I can’t compare. And last, but certainly not least, is Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman. To quote Cleolinda Jones (…yeah, my review is essentially a “ditto” of hers), “[he] manages just the right combination of complicit, outrageous, compassionate, fake and sincere.” It’s truly an incredible amount of talent and hard work on display here, which, to be totally honest, I never expected out of an adaptation of this novel. Well done, everyone, well done.
Bottom line: The Hunger Games is the rare film adaptation that surpasses the novel it’s based on. Despite a bit too much reliance on shaky cam and a stunted ending, the astounding production design and brilliant cast turn this into a fantastic film. Definitely seek this out.
I saw this film in theaters.