The Hunger Games

Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen, a 16 year old inhabitant of a dystopian future North America, who volunteers to take part in the titular “Hunger Games”: a yearly punishment meted out by a central authority to formerly rebellious “districts”, whereby each offers up one boy and girl, aged 12-18, to fight each to the death in a televised spectacle. Katniss offers herself up to save her younger sister, and gets ready to take part in a western Battle Royale

Lots of spoilers incoming.

The Hunger Games has a problem that pretty much ruins the film for me. The general premise of the universe is simply too hard to swallow. This kind of narrative, where society has altered to the point that the population now eggs on teenagers slaughtering each other with knives and their bare hands, needs way more backstory and exposition then The Hunger Games offers up.

Since the premise is so extreme, and is being played in a deadly serious manner, you have to make the audience buy it. You have to get the audience onside to the line of thinking that the games are something that have come at the end of a logical train of events, that it is something that could come to pass, given the right factors.

This film fails to do that, for me. It is extremely shallow on all sorts of critical details important to the universe. In fact, I would go so far as to say that The Huger Games stinks of a story that began with the idea of the actual games, then had the rest of the plot built slapdash around it.

The movie is simply so light on information, that the plot holes and questions crowd out everything else. Why is all this ok? Why was the idea of the games picked to punish the rebellious districts? Why are the districts still going along with? How did humanity evolve to this point of openly encouraging bloodlust among some and acting civilised otherwise? Why is there no air travel? What’s with all the colourful clothes, dyed hair, and elaborate beards? Are those dogs robots, holograms or bio tech? What does the rest of the world think of what’s going on? What’s the scout salute doing in the movie and what is its significance? And what the hell is a “mockingjay” anyway (considering what Wiki told me about that last point, I’m very surprised it didn’t make it in, it seems rather important)?

Now, I know that the answer to most of these questions can be found in the books. I’ve raised this complaint and others in the last week elsewhere and gotten a ream of exposition all based on information contained within the books.

That’s not good enough. It is the constant curse of adaptation: In squeezing a novel down to a palatable two hours and change, you lose things. You have to. But in picking and choosing what to cut, you invariably leave out something that you shouldn’t. It is no good to tell me after watching the movie what the answers to all these questions were. That simply makes the movie look worse, and that is what I am judging here. Encouraging me to read the book afterwards in order to answer all these questions is no good either: enjoyable cinema shouldn’t come with a reading list.

So that is The Hunger Games big flaw for me: there is simply not enough background, too much left out in the description of the universe, for me to realistically suspend my disbelief. That affects everything that the movie has to offer, and it’s a shame, because The Hunger Games actually has a lot going for it, as a movie.

The acting is really, really good, from Lawrence, whose nuanced performance as the heroine overcomes the common adaptation negative – the inability to portray internal dialogue visually – in flying form. She is very, very good as the girl who is flung, numb, into this scenario, going through a range of denial, anger, viciousness, fear, and outright terror as she goes along. In that, she’s joined by Josh Hutcherson, as her District buddy and quasi-love interest Peeta, who does himself proud in the form of the no-hoper who harbours a secret affection for Katniss. Peeta actually gets to emote in ways that Katniss doesn’t, namely in terms of romantic elements, and he carries the film in that sense.

Woody Harrelson rounds off the more notable cast members, as a former games winner Haymitch, now an bitter alcoholic with a heart of gold. I don’t see much of Harrelson this days, but he’s nearly always worth catching: here he adds a necessary element of comic relief and savvy, working behind the scenes to keep Katniss and Peeta alive.

For the most part, kudos must also go to the excellent support staff, the only complaint being a lack of time for some of them. Stanley Tucci shines as the media host responsible for telling the world about the “tributes”, and being the face of the pleasure obsessed, uncaring capitol. Donald Sutherland is our merciless dictator, in a decent role that will presumably gain greater expansion in sequels. Elizabeth Banks, as one of the games organisers, is good as the pretentious Effie, even if her part is largely superfluous after the first 15 minutes.

And special mention, and God knows I didn’t think I’d be saying this, goes to Lenny Cravitz of all people, as the stylist Cinna, who seems to be the one nice guy from the Capital. Maybe it’s just because the character matches my own disgust with the spectacle being given on screen: he seems to dislike the games intensely, and is the only Capital inhabitant who shows genuine sympathy for Katniss in her moments of distress, most notable as she prepares to enter the games proper. Kravitz excels in that role, maybe because he is so unique in the surroundings. I only wish he had been given more time.

They all benefit from a mostly excellent script and edit job, the film flowing well enough from act to act, though I suppose the actual “games” section may go on a tiny but too long. Katniss doesn’t actually get many lines to say, but Lawrence delivers them all well, and she works better as a more silent character anyway. A sequence with Rue, the youngest tribute, goes on a bit too long in my opinion, slowing the correct pace of the film to an unacceptable degree. Apart from that, there are plenty of well spaced action beats and pivotal moments to keep everything fresh right up to the credits.

Raised eyebrows do come for some of the romance scenes, which from subsequent looking-into of the books plot have an added dimension that wasn’t readily available on screen. Essentially, Katniss pretends to love Peeta during the games in order to attract greater interest and support from the audience: Peeta is not aware of this deception. In the books he finds out afterwards, in the film it is never made clear if this is the case.

This may explain why some of the romance scenes seems so stinted and lifeless, if Lawrence is playing a girl pretending to be in love with a guy in a horrible situation. If that’s what she’s trying to do she nails the awkward posing of a girl who is awkward about such social interaction pretty well. If not, then those scenes are a rare lapse in the acting quality on display.

Another odd aspect of The Hunger Games is Cato and his band of “careers”, the apparent bad guys of the games themselves. What we are told about this group of Aryan looking teenagers is that they have all received special training and privilege up to this point as a result of being from one of the better districts. They’re a bit prickish.

Then the games start and suddenly they’ve turned into a bunch of gleeful sadists, laughing manically like a pack of hyenas as they cut people down, taking pleasure in other peoples suffering, dishing out betrayal and violence in a psychopathicly casual manner.

Um, why? The movie never gives anything close to a reasonable explanation for this cruelty, or a reasonable motivation for it to be so. Why are they so full of hate? Why are they acting disturbingly like Angelus from Buffy?

It’s not believable, tying back into the movies main flaw. These kids are given a bog standard “elite assholes” portrayal, then suddenly, apropos of nothing, they turn into the Waffen SS.

It just gets worse at the end as Cato, the group’s leader, gives this confusing and tear filled monologue about how things haven’t gone as he expected or something. I’m not sure, it was hard to hear him through the bloody nose (fight scene) but he seemed to be baring his soul. You don’t get to show him as an insane psychopath for most of the film, give him ten seconds of inner realisation, kill him off, and expect the audience to go along with that. His death right after, obvious in the coming, makes it worse: it’s a cheap attempt to staple on some extra dimensions to a solidly 2D character with what very little time he has left.

The Hunger Games depicts a colourful world, and congratulations should go to the hair, make-up and scenery department, But it does all get a bit too much as time goes on. At a certain point, the glittering array of outrageous colours, weirdly dyed hair and funky architecture just starts to distract from the move: I can’t have been the only one caught staring at Wes Bentley’s ornately trimmed designer stubble during his scenes. A case of more and more style being made preferable to a better substance.

The shaky cam also makes an appearance in The Hunger Games, during most fight scenes, especially the final clash with Cato. The shaky cam might be good at immersing some of the audience in a fight, but I dislike it intensely. I would, in the case of movie fights, prefer clarity over such kinds of immersion. It is simply too hard to see what is happening: several moments in that final scene had me confused over who was who when Peeta and Cato, both tall, blond haired guys, grappled, with the camera twisting and turning constantly.

Perhaps the most pressing criticism though is directed at the chosen approach to the subject matter. The Hunger Games garners a “12” rating, to my surprise at the start of the movie, but the shaky cam does the business of avoiding much gore, the rest left to the viewers imagination. That’s fine.

But Katniss never has to really face up to the horror of the situation herself in the way that you may expect going into the movie: Katniss never actually kills an innocent. She kills two people directly. One is a person who has just murdered a 12 year old and is directly threatening her, the other is a mercy shot to finish off Cato. She indirectly causes one of the careers to be stung to death by wasps, but again these people were openly taunting her about her impending death a scene earlier.

I suppose it is a frustrating thing that we are presented with this concept and then given a main character who doesn’t have to go through the expected test, and all of the attached emotional turmoil and horror, of actively trying to hunt down other people. I suppose you could say that this is the point, that Katniss is supposed to refuse to “play the game” as an act of rebellion. But it still leaves for a shallow looking production, unwilling to actually face into or depict a true moral ambiguity. I suspect this is a book problem that has simply migrated to the big screen.

So, a mixed bag. I might appear overly critical, but it is important to note that I still enjoyed The Hunger Games. But it has very obvious flaws and struggles with the adaptation from page to big screen. I’m not sure how/if the expected sequels will fix the problem, but The Hunger Games has enough going for it that I can have good expectations.

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4 Responses to The Hunger Games

  1. Jim says:

    Hmmm. Good points. The film is good, but not as good as it could be. Lawrence absolutely nailed it, knocked her role right out of the park. Everything outside of the arena was pretty much pitch perfect, inside was a little shakier (wut I did there, he sees it).

    It may help to point out that the setting is really and properly post-apocalypse. There are no more than a couple of million humans left, and that’s a very generous interpretation. A more hardline reading sez less than a million.

    About the central conceit being improperly explained, you’re damned right. Weakest part of the film, and the books, to be honest. No way in hell are you ever going to have a population demanding to have the deaths of people whom they deemed responsible for attacks on their nation broadcast on television for their amusement….

    Sarcasm aside, yeah, the books are about as hamfisted as a bacon boxing glove, but they’re a fable, a cynical and nasty one.
    “Celebrity culture is fucked up! No, you don’t actually know those people you idolise, but you’re hurting them anyway! Real people do not fit on the screen, and cannot be defined with easy catch phrases!”

    “Reality TV is not, in fact, real. Stop it. Stop it right now.”

    “If violence on TV is what amuses you, particularly REAL violence which is actually happening, then you are fucked up.”

    For actual, direct, real examples of this, look at the magazine headlines and articles about the cast of the film. How many can you find which specualte and blather about whether or not the actors themselves are involved? Either its beautifully metatextual, or the magazine writers are utterly ignorant of irony.

    SPOILERS MIND, FEEL FREE TO DELETE THIS POST IF YOU DON’T WANT THEM

    The later books have such friendly messages as:
    “The revolution WILL be televised. It will all be lies and propaganda, of course, and those lies will be swallowed whole by fuckwits and civilians.”

    “Meet the new boss, EXACTLY the same as the old boss.”

    “Violence fucks you up, but sometimes it’s the only thing you can do. Enjoy your trauma. No, you don’t get your old life back.”

    If they attempt to faithfully adapt Mockingjay as a film, then audiences will have conniptions. The last book is a rather unpleasant attack on the idea of heroic violence, heroic narrative and traditional cinematic ways of achieving closure.

    Fuck me, this is a long post.

  2. Pingback: NFB’s Top 25 Films Of 2012 And Awards | Never Felt Better

  3. Pingback: Review – The Hunger Games: Catching Fire | Never Felt Better

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