The Hunger Games (2012)
Suzanne Collins’ smash novel The Hunger Games isn’t your normal young adult reading material. Dystopian future, corrupt government, oppressive forces, twisted media culture, and then there’s the whole inhumane concept of children murdering each other for sport. The book trilogy has been consumed by millions of readers, young and old, and inspired rabid devotion reminiscent of other successful publishing franchises like Twilight and Harry Potter. Yes, Battle Royale fans, the premise is not original, but Collins’ book could just as well cite inspiration from The Most Dangerous Game, Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, or even an Outer Limits episode known as “Fun and Games.” Producers are hoping those legions of fans will turn up in droves and start a new lucrative film franchise. Reliably squishy filmmaker Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) was tapped to shepherd the book to the big screen. The Hunger Games movie doesn’t commit any major blunders to screw up a good story, which is good enough for many.
Set in a distant future, the ashes of North America have given way to the country of Panem. It is lead by a Capitol government and ringed by 12 mostly poor districts. Every year the Capitol commemorates the failed revolution of the districts by holding the nation’s favorite televised sport, the Hunger Games. Each district holds a reaping, which randomly draws one boy and one girl aged 12-18 years. These lucky chosen children, known as tributes, are then whisked to the Capitol where they will be placed into an arena and fight to the death. 24 tributes go in and there can be only one winner. In the outlying District 12, day-to-day life is a struggle, and Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is burdened with providing for her family. She hunts illegally to provide food for her family and to trade for goods that they need. She’s excellent with a bow and arrow. Her hunting partner, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), suggests that they could run away. “We’d never make it more than five miles,” Katniss reasons. The two of them have too many responsibilities to ignore. Then Reaping Day comes, and Katniss’ 12-year-old younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is chosen as the female tribute. Katniss volunteers to take her place, saving her sister, but throwing herself into a sport where the odds will not be in her favor. Joining Katniss as the male tribute is Peeta Melark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son who has some history with Katniss.
The tributes are paired with mentors, the oblivious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and former District 12 Hunger Games winner Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) whose helpfulness is tempered by the fact that he’s drunk often. He advises his newest tributes that they must make the audience like them to earn sponsors, people willing to pay big money to supply the tributes necessary supplies in the middle of the game. The Capitol is full of lush excess, the people donned in cartoonish and colorful garb. Katniss is dolled up and paraded around. She showcases her skills to the Game makers, who will give each tribute a rating that bettors will use. She’s interviewed by TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) to make an impression. While with Caesar, Peeta reveals that there is a girl he’s had a crush on back home for the longest time – Katniss. The star-crossed lover angle hooks the audience and immediately transforms the dynamic of the games. Katniss is upset, but Haymitch rationalizes that Peeta’s confession has made them more marketable.
Then the dreaded day arrives and the 24 tributes are gathered up, injected with tracking devices, and launched into the outdoor arena to fight to the death. Katniss’ biggest threats will be the tributes from District 1, Glimmer (Leven Rambin) and Marvel (Jack Quaid), and District 2, Clove (Isabelle Fuhman) and Cato (Alexander Lutig). These tributes have trained their whole lives in the deadly arts so that they could volunteer to enter the games, hence why they are dubbed the Career tributes. And they usually win. Once the games begin, Katniss must survive the Careers, whatever surprises the Game makers have, the elements, and win over the affections of the TV audience. Let the games begin.
Firstly, fans can breathe a sigh of relief because The Hunger Games movie is a mostly successful venture brought to visual life. The legions of Collins’ fans celebrating the movie of their beloved book will mostly be satisfied. Collins’ story is still a good story no matter the medium. It establishes its alternative world and the stakes quickly and then it’s off to the killing fields. This is dark and disturbing stuff, far darker than even the darkest days of Harry Potter, and fans will be relived that the movie does not go soft. It’s not the exploitation-vehicle that Battle Royale was. This is trying to tell a story and not revel in the geysers of teenage bloodshed. This is a movie that satirizes reality TV and media culture as much class warfare. Katniss is primed and prepped to manufacture an impressionable image to TV audiences. It’s all about calculation, image control, and the manipulations of the media and audience to produce a star. Here’s a world where the 1% literally celebrate and toast the deaths of the 99%. Here’s a world that takes it cues from the Romans concerning spectator sports. I do wish the movie had channeled more of the book’s accusatory tone against the Capitol citizens, the silent majority complicit in villainy. And of course it was Collins’ point that we, too, the audience could be accountable in our own YA bloodlust.
This is a story that grabs you and rarely lets go, centered on a heroine that is refreshingly a strong female role model for girls. Bella Swan has nothing on Katniss Everdeen. Here is a heroine that is proactive, resourceful, resolute, compassionate, and she doesn’t need a man to complete her. Sorry Ms. Swan, but Katniss has a lot more important things on her mind than getting a boyfriend. She’s got to provide for her impoverished family and shoulder plenty of responsibility, and that’s before she’s plucked into a death sport. In short, Bella Swan sucks. Katniss Everdeen rules 4-ever.
Since the book was written in first person, we were inside Katniss’ head the whole time. There are disadvantages of leaving that POV, namely that Katniss’ survival skills and cunning can be brushed over. She’s not just fighting the other tributes, she’s trying to think how best to play certain moments, how to appeal to the viewers at home. During the games, the movie jumps back and forth between the action and what I’d like to call Mission Control from Hell, the game makers HQ. This is a smart move that provides a greater antagonistic sense with the book’s unseen game makers. The exposition, mostly handled by Tucci as color commentary throughout the games, is presented in a way that doesn’t feel clunky. I also enjoyed the two sit-downs we get with President Snow (Donald Sutherland), the autocratic ruler of the Capitol, who sees early on the danger of Katniss. He explains that the games are meant to give hope to the poor citizens. “Hope is the only thing more powerful than fear. A little hope is good. A lot of hope is not,” he explains while pruning flowers. It’s nice to have a villain who understands the calculations needed for a proper oppression. It’s also nice to see Sutherland sink his teeth into a role that will only get more enjoyably evil as the films progress. I felt that the tracker jacker sequence, the interviews with Caesar, and the time in the caves were the best-adapted sequences.
Lawrence (X-Men: First Class) is a star, pure and simple. She was the perfect choice to play Katniss Everdeen. The Oscar-nominated young actress brings great steely determination and grit to the Girl on Fire. Katniss isn’t supposed to be a teenage warrior (that would be the Careers), even though she is thrust into that role. She doesn’t celebrate killing. This is not fun for her. Lawrence can play an array of emotions silently, deftly, like her hoarse, wild panic at Prim being chosen, her shell-shocked disorientation at going into the games, her quiet fury at her irresponsible mother and others like the game makers, her budding warmth for Peeta while he rubs a salve over her facial cut. Pages of description can be consolidated in just one pensive, conflicted expression on Lawrence’s lovely face. Lawrence is the heart of the movie and a tremendous presence to ground our sympathy and emotions.
Katniss is a dangerous competitor but she’s also vulnerable. She’s emotionally guarded and thrust into a situation where she has to “pretend” to be in love. Now the romance angle, and the self-awareness on Katniss’ part to give a good show, was a far bigger storyline in the book. In the book, she begins by playing a part and by the end doesn’t know if her feelings are false or genuine. It’s strange that in the movie their this-is-love kiss, meant to make the audience swoon on Katniss’ part, is followed up with nothing but hugs. Maybe the filmmakers thought a romantic angle was in poor taste given the kill-or-be-killed scenario, except that the romance angle is what keeps Katniss and Peeta alive. Want to know the best way to irk a Hunger Games fan? Start comparing the complicated romantic triangle of Peeta and Gale to dismissive terms like Team Jacob and Team Edward.
The supporting cast performs ably, some better than others. Hutcherson (The Kids Are All Right) is given the most material to work with. He’s a nice kid, strong, but worried about his humanity, and the filmmakers never portray him as anything close to a badass or a helpless baby. Hutcherson shines in the moments where he comes clean with his emotions, like admitting that he has no chance of winning (his mom thinks so too). Peeta’s much easier at charm than bravado, and Hutcherson is a charming guy. I think Banks (Zack and Miri Make a Porno) actually gives the best performance, short of our lead heroine, as the maniacally bent Effie Trinket. Half the performance is the garish outfits, wigs, and makeup, but Banks nails the affluent insensitivity and ignorance of her character. Her forced enthusiasm is good for a few laughs. Harrelson (Zombieland) gives hints about the demons behind his character, a man who has to watch a pair of children under his tutelage die every year as his “prize” for winning. He’s a colorful character in a movie filled with colorful characters, but his sauced sarcasm can sting. Tucci (Easy A) hams it up with great pleasure as the smarmy, inauthentic, over-the-top TV host, Caesar Flickerman. They dolled up actor Toby Jones (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) in a bouffant wig and sit him beside Caesar for commentary, but, and I literally counted, he has three lines where he speaks onscreen. Still, I love his oily voice as the games’ announcer.
The movie distills just about everything from the book, plot-wise, so the fans will be sure to see just about every plot event that they’ve developed a mental checklist for. However, this narrative approach, an attempt to satiate the fans that bristle when the movies of their favorite books deviate too much from the source material, blunts the impact of the material. I was astounded at how overwhelmingly rushed and hurried the movie is, spending little time on those variety of plot events, rarely allowing the movie enough room to breathe. With this brisk and brusque pacing, it stops the movie’s vitality. The context and history of important items and people feel clipped, becoming just set decoration. Ross has not done an adequate job of making his movie universe feel richly realized. The significance of the mockingjay, a symbol of perseverance under the oppression of the Capitol, is left unexplained. It just becomes a dinky pin that makes Katniss think about home. The ghoulish mutts have been turned into just a bunch of vicious dogs that eerily resemble the dog demons from Ghostbusters (actually, I’m relieved the mutts were toned down). The contrasts between the impoverished outer districts and the lavish Capitol denizens are nicely showcased thanks to luxurious and weird art direction and costume design; these people took fashion advice from Marie Antoinette and maybe their political outlooks as well (“Let them eat cake… or death”). There are also some passing moments of dark satire as far as the Capitol’s overall stance with the games, and their blasé attitude about the value of human life, though the movie could have and should have pushed harder with its class warfare.
The Hunger Games reminded me of the first two Harry Potter films where the producers crammed in all the plot points they felt fans wanted to see rather than just, you know, adapting it into a good movie. If they wanted to keep everything from the book, plot wise, then they should have followed their convictions and produced a three-hour movie. Imagine The Godfather being cut down to two hours and twenty minutes. Imagine rushing through all that drama. Now I’m not in any way comparing The Hunger Games to The Godfather in terms of quality, but movies need sufficient time to establish their worlds and develop characters. They need time to breathe. The fact that a 142-minute long movie doesn’t have time to breathe is plain inexcusable.
The characterization, beyond Katniss and Peeta, is extremely limited, and so when he deaths do occur the impact is minimal; only one tribute’s death is given time for mourning, and even this character’s death is limited due to superficial characterization and about two minutes of screen time. I’m not saying that every one of these 24 tributes needs a detailed back-story, but they’ve got to have some personality to them and the movie has to devote some time to develop that; good writing can tell a lot with little. Otherwise they just become somewhat recognizable faces and not characters. Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss’ stylist for the pre-game publicity in the Capitol, is reduced to being a bland companion. Let me single out the villains, our group of Career tributes. The movies have a long tradition of villains who aren’t given much characterization but are given personality. I need my bad guys to be given an opportunity to make an impression, and no, weapon distinction is not enough. With The Hunger Games, the bad guys just become a series of sneering faces, and these kids (Ludig, Rambin, Quaid, Fuhman) have got some good sneer faces. True, the movie’s entire twisted premise lays enough overwrought tragedy to the entire setup, turning children into killers, and President Snow is the ultimate villain, but the movie should be agonizing, terrifying, devastating, upsetting, and not merely inferential and rushed. I want to feel the deaths. Instead, the movie can’t even be bothered to briefly show the faces of the dead kids during the game’s daily death montage. There are all sorts of kids who were hired to be tributes from districts and I question if they ever got a second onscreen.
I also feel that Ross is, at times, completely wrong for this material. The man behind Pleasantville and Seabiscuit is not the first name you’d think of to tackle a dystopian sci-fi survival thriller built upon the premise of dead children. I almost wish they had hired Paul Verhoeven (Robocop, Starship Troopers), an artist well versed in sci-fi spectacle and subversion. Ross’ misguided visual approach, borrowing a page from the Bourne franchise, can make it hard to enjoy the film. During the opening segment in District 12, as well as the games themselves, Ross will attempt to up the visceral ante with his bobbing handheld camera. Now I’m not one of the people who loudly decry the use of “shaky cam” during action sequences, but before the second minute was over, I turned to my friend and said, “I already hate the shaky cam.” There’s a difference between handheld camerawork, which has some jostle to it, and a deliberately inauthentic docu-drama approach that makes exaggerated and distracting camera bobbling. There are long segments of this movie that is nothing but shaky close-ups cut together. There’s a climactic battle atop a metal structure that is completely incomprehensible to follow. It’s all just a blur of flashes save for two wide shots to thankfully attempt to orient the viewer. When an audience can’t follow the action, it not only kills tension but it also kills investment. The docu-drama visual approach is completely wrong for this movie. When was the last time you saw a dystopian sci-fi movie that had a docu-drama aesthetic? Try never.
Likewise, to achieve the all-important PG-13 rating, Ross sanitizes the blood sport, utilizing lots of implied violence. The jangly aesthetic works for the duration of the race to the Cornucopia to start the games, as tributes turn a fight over supplies into a bloodbath, communicating the chaotic frenzy. I’m not clamoring for explicit carnage to get its message across, but just seeing children as far-off lifeless heaps is a disservice to the power of the story. Also, I don’t feel like Ross properly takes full advantage of the visual medium. Instead of being told, twice, about mines that will explode if any tribute steps off their platform before the conclusion of the countdown, let’s see it. Since half of these kids are about to become faceless corpses anyway, why can’t one of them lose their balance, fall out of the ring, and blow up? And then we cut to a nearby tribute dusted with pieces of dirt and blood, trying to keep their cool and failing. It would have kicked up the tension and shown the immediate danger that awaits. I don’t want the one-minute countdown to cut around the globe, seeing the different districts watching TV. I want that entire minute spent in the arena, hearing every second counted down, seeing every face of the tributes sick with anxiety and unease, gritting themselves for combat. I want to feel the same sense of doom that they do, not cut around the globe and then have the audio drop out. That’s a sorry way to start the games, even with a PG-13 mandate.
There are heavy expectations for The Hunger Games on all fronts, from studio execs to the millions of eager fans. I consider myself one of their legion. I voraciously read through the trilogy, getting hooked early, and have even helped teach the book as part of an American Literature curriculum. It’s a thrill to watch reluctant readers get excited about the book. The Hunger Games succeeds mostly as the pilot to an exciting film franchise. But having seen the Hunger Games movie twice in 14 hours, and being a huge fan of the book, here are my chief criticisms: the movie is far too rushed, speeding over so many plot points and characters, never getting time to breathe; nascent characterization for supporting characters; the context of so many things is missing; shaky cam overuse to the point of incomprehensible action sequences; dodgy CGI; not taking full advantage of visual medium; intensity a bit muted; and finally, a forgettable score. But, hey, good movie. It just frustrates me because it could have been a great movie, a searing, powerful, provocative, thrilling movie. Good movie will be good enough, especially when it makes more money opening weekend than the citizens of District 12 will ever see in their lifetimes. When you got a fan base as large as this series, the odds will usually be in your favor.
Nate’s Grade: B
Posted on March 24, 2012, in 2012 Movies and tagged book, dark, dystopian, elizabeth banks, jennifer lawrence, josh hutcherson, sci-fi, strong heroine, woody harrelson. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.