The Hunger Games (Review)

The film version of the popular book series is better than it could have been, delivering  a powerful film with strong talents across the board.

Score: * * * *

Rated: PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images–all involving teens.

The popular young adult novel pie grows larger with The Hunger Games series, Suzanne Collins’ vision of a dark dystopia where children must fight to the death for sport. I can’t remember exactly how many copies the series has sold, but it’s a lot, and Collins recently became the best-selling Kindle author of all time. Of course, no popular book series can go long without a film adaptation. This time, studio Lionsgate is handling the adaptation, and it’s their most ambitious and expensive project yet. Luckily, the studio has assembled the right combination of actors, director, and crew to craft a very solid adaptation of the series.

The story follows the futuristic region of Panem, rising from the ashes of a fallen North America and consisting of twelve poor, underdeveloped districts with a rich Capitol at the center. At one point, the districts rose up in rebellion against the Capitol and lost. As retaliation, the Capitol holds a yearly competition called the Hunger Games, in which a boy and a girl from each district are chosen to participate in a battle to the death in the wilderness. The event is televised across the region and serves as entertainment for the Capitol. In District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) silently defies the Capitol by hunting for food in the wilderness with her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). When the time comes for the tributes to be selected for the Games, Katniss is appalled when her timid younger sister Primrose is chosen and takes her place by volunteering as a tribute. A boy whom Katniss only ever met once in passing, Peeta Mellark, is also chosen, and they are whisked away to the Capitol to train in the Games.

Katniss is given the assistance of former District 12 champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), who will train her and Peeta before the Games. Surviving the elements is a bit part of the Games, and since the contestants must enter the arena empty-handed, they must rely on what they can find in the arena, and what is delivered to them by Sponsors, which are won by making a positive impression in the weeks before the Games. It is in her costume designer Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) that Katniss makes her only true friend in the lush Capitol, and his care for Katniss gives her the strength to push forward toward the Games.

Part of what secured Gary Ross his position as director, and the main thing that makes the story work, is the character focus. These are not action films in the purest sense of the word. Yes, there is action and violence, but the character moments are what define the saga. Much time is spent on conveying the fear of some of the tributes at being chosen. The relationship between Peeta and Katniss is well-written, and even better acted. Josh Hutcherson gives Peeta a nice emotional depth that instantly sold me, and Jennifer Lawrence as the fiercely independent Katniss knocked it out of the park. The rest of the performances are also great–Stanley Tucci shines as the greasy, grinning TV host Caesar Flickerman, Woody Harrelson’s role as Games champion Haymitch Abernathy is pretty much perfect, and Donald Sutherland plays President Snow as though the part was created specifically for him.

Ross has chosen an interesting style for his film: the earlier bits that take place in and around the districts are filmed in a sort of naturalistic, documentary-esque style. The districts themselves evoke an eerie concentration camp feel. When the setting moves to the wealthy Capitol, the camera pulls back a bit and gets a little more smooth in its movements. Finally, for the actual fight scenes themselves, Ross employs the standard action movie shaky camera that gives the fights and extremely desperate, erratic feel. It works, even though the camera sometimes gets too shaky and the scenes too confusing.  Of course, Ross had to keep the movie at a PG-13 rating, no small feat considering the subject matter. The shaky camera ensures that there is rarely more than a flash of a blade and a spurt of blood amongst a tangle of blurred bodies.

It does certainly feel like a film made for fans of the book, or, at the very least, someone who is rather familiar with the basic plot. Several things in the film occur with no explanation, and someone who has not read the book will have to make assumptions as to their meaning. The sequence of plot threads are not incoherent, but they occur somewhat episodically. Having read the books, I was able to connect the dots in my head. It’s certainly not a hack job but some bits may have to be explained to a newcomer.

And what of the love story? The Hunger Games has been referred to as the “anti-Twilight” for its refusal to dabble in petty flings and melodramatic brooding over boys. There is something of a love story here–Peeta confesses his love for Katniss over live television, creating a love triangle with them and Gale and providing a hook to their roles in the Games. In the book, things rarely got more complicated than Katniss avoiding genuine feelings on the account that eventually she may have to kill Peeta. In the film, the romance angle is laid on a little more thickly, but save for a kiss that seemed a bit forced, the rest of it feels fairly real. Best of all, the entire romance angle is completely secondary to the Games and the oppression of the Capitol. This is a dystopian drama first, and a love story second.

There is one thing I particularly liked about the film in relation to the book. The novel is written in a first person perspective, and therefore relies heavily on internal monologue to drive the story and explain things to the reader. Gary Ross cleverly finds ways to circumvent the lack of internal monologue in the film by having secondary characters, such as the commentators for the Games, describe things that Katniss would have done through her inner voice in the book. It worked quite well.

As with any adaptation, there are things that didn’t work out as well as I would have hoped. In the grander scheme of things, these were fairly inconsequential and minor things, but their inclusion would have further benefited the characters with little additional effort. Some of these, I am sure, have to do with that PG-13 rating, but some pieces of the adaptation did not grab me like they did in the book. And of course, the movie does not quite succeed at mimicking the raw psychological tension of the the novel’s breathless second half (that led me to race through it in under a day). Again, minor things, considering how well-adapted everything else was.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t exciting: the final showdown of the Games was very tense, and many of the confrontations are appropriately thrilling when they arrive. But it’s not about the action: the triumph of this film is to make a dark, upsetting dystopian tale that doesn’t try to play fair or sugar coat its themes to be more appealing to a younger audience. Ross’s vision of the cruelty of the rich Capitol and the brutality of the games hits home effectively. He sells the character moments magnificently as well–the way he handles the death of one specific character (fans will know who I’m talking about) was perfect. Most people who have not read the book will not notice the small detractions I did. Either way, it’s a very well-done movie with an exceptionally well-realized world and a dark, emotional core.

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Posted on April 9, 2012, in Reviews. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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