The Hunger Games
Genere: Sci-Fi, action
Director Gary Ross
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth
BEWARE! SPOILERS! Just had to get that out of the way real quick.
For my next review for Dystopia Month, I have chosen the film that made me decide to create a month full of dystopia reviews in the first place. I read the novel, The Hunger Games back in February and yes it was because of the hype around the upcoming movie. It intrigued me because dystopia-based fiction has always been one of my favorite topics and I was quite interested to see how this was portrayed in a young adult novel. I enjoyed the book well enough even though it was a bit cliched and derivative. While it had a pedestrian prose it never talked down to its younger audience or took their sensibilities for granted and I respected that a lot. I knew a film adaptation of the novel would be difficult – mostly because it was quite obvious playing down the brutal violence in the story would be necessary to get a rating low enough to snag in the target audience. Also, the book is all told from Katniss’ point-of-view, all the character development in the book is done through her inner monologue and those never translate faithfully to the screen. I’m not going to address how faithful of an adaption of the novel this movie is – that would not be fair to the filmmaker. I recently saw a forum thread about The Hunger Games were people were honestly pissed off that ‘they’ changed the color of Prim’s pet cat. Really? People are going to get that petty about matching the visual look of the novel’s prose? I barely recalled their being a mention of a pet cat in the book so I definitely don’t recall what color it was. Added to that, I don’t even remember seeing the cat in the movie. There are a lot more things in this movie to get upset about than what color the damn cat was.
So we’ve got this future where North America is now just one massive country called Panem that is separated into 12 districts. There was a 13th district, once upon a time, but there was this revolution and the Capitol obliterated the place. Now to continue to subjugate it’s people, Panem holds an annual Hunger Games. Each district gives over a teenage boy and girl as tributes to participate in the event. These 24 teens battle to the death and the only one left standing at the end is the winner. This method of subjugating a populace has been around since the mythological King Minos ruled Crete and made a sport of sacrificing Athenian tributes to the Minotaur in the labyrinth. Oh, there have been a LOT of comparisons between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale (as well as many other dystopian sports games) but King Minos did it first.
In District 12 the female tribute chosen is twielve-year-old Primrose Everdeen. Her older sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), bravely and selflessly volunteers to take her sister’s place. The male tribute is a boy named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). I mentioned briefly that they don’t really look like teenagers – very few of these characters actually do. Jennifer Lawrence is the most talented of the bunch though. Go back and watch Winter’s Bone sometime – she does a terrific job in that movie. It’s quite evident why she was so ideal for the role of Katniss here – because the character she portrayed in Winter’s Bone is basically the same person – a self-sufficient teenager capable of providing for her family through hunting or whatever other means are necessary. Of course Winter’s Bone did a great job with costuming and make-up in the sense that the poor peope there actually look poor. All throughout The Hunger Games I was never convinced that Katniss and her family were ever starving. They all look to be a fine picture of health. Look at this picture below, for instance: Katniss is supposed to be a poor girl hunting for food to feed her family but she looks to be a well-fed girl in designer clothes. Gary Ross’s decision to focus on making all the actors pretty was a terrible one because it just makes their dire plight absolutely unconvincing.
The first third of the movie deals with selecting the participants in the game and getting them ready to compete. The backstory is covered well enough through a documentary at the start of the film. A fine job is done of skipping trite expositionary dialogue in favor of just rushing through as quick as possible to get the titular Hunger Games underway. Outside of Jennifer Lawrence however, everyone in this movie looks like they’re falling asleep. Hell, I was falling asleep just watching them. These are some talented actors to and they are clearly just phoning in a performance. Woody Harrelson is convincing enough as the constantly drinking Haymitch, but I’m pretty sure that’s because he was hungover all those times – he really carries through with that “I don’t give a fuck about any of this” the character needs. Stanley Tucci’s scenes just look like he’s ad-libbing at a dry read through for the script.
hen the Hunger Games start and it is horrifyingly PG13. In order to avoid any kind of over the top violence or bloodshed that would bring on that R-rating, the camera goes shaky like a found footage film. On top of the camera work that can cause motion sickness there is too much quick editing that Gary Ross starts looking like a student of the Michael Bay school of filmmaking. What’s worse is that the director’s vision for this movie fights to come through and is just being beat back by the PG13 rating. Let’s take, for instance, the cornucopia scene that kicks off the Hunger Games. It’s presented without sound and attempts are made at slow motion or extended takes to try and draw out the moment. However, because to the violence we’re left with a shaky picture and quick cuts which rather spoils the whole visual moment that Gary Ross was aiming for. Instead of drawing out the tension of the scene we’re left with a bunch of quite shots to tell us “stuff happened.” And slow motion does NOT work with quick editing – it’s so damn uncomfortable and awkward.
Once the games are underway we have a few more moments like this – shaky cams and quick edits to avoid showing us anything at all. Character development suffers from this because if we don’t really see what’s motivating the characters it’s kind hard to get motivated for them. Many of the things that are described in the novel through Katniss’ inner-monologue are now just presented as sports commentary from Stanley Tucci which makes for some trite scenes and horribly stupid dialogue. There is a scene where Katniss is preparing to cut down a wasp’s nest so it falls onto a fellow player. While she’s doing this, Tucci is telling the audience: “Hey look – she’s cutting down a wasp’s nest!” and then proceeds to explain that these wasps are tracker jackers and are genetically mutated wasps that have a more potent venom and blah blah blah. This scene is terrible. First off, we see that Katniss is doing this so we don’t need Stanley Tucci narrating what’s on the screen at that moment. Second, the fact that these are special wasps is irrelevant to the scene. It’s a fact that’s relevant in the novel, where we have backstory about genetically altered creatures and a good deal of suspense is made about how unique these wasps are. That doesn’t translate into the movie as well. Film is a VISUAL medium. If you’re gonna show a girl cutting down a wasps nest then just show a girl cutting down a wasps nest without all the other stuff – it’s really not that difficult. It makes a good visual moment with its own emotion and suspense and is just ruined with narration. This isn’t the only moment like this either – there is a TON of these.
Now to combine two of these wrongs – the bad costume/makeup with the narration. Peeta Mallark is injured and Katniss has to nurse him back to health. This is a great part of the novel as it builds their characters with the added tension of the blood poisoning that’s ripping through Peeta. He’s weak and dying while Katniss is doing whatever it takes for him to survive because the only way she can survive the games are if he does. In the movie we don’t really see this. Peeta’s cut up a bit but he doesn’t look sick, he doesn’t look like a kid who is dying. We’re instead told by Stanley Tucci and the others that this is the case – we’re told through narration that he’s dying. This is an amateurish level of filmmaking that just pisses me off. It sugar coats the characters and the situation in order to maintain that PG13 rating and then covers it up by talking down to the audience as if they were all retarded.
I have pretty much skipped the whole “love story” between Katniss and Peeta. It’s established before the games that Peeta has had a lifelong crush on Katniss. She plays this up throughout the story in order for them to survive. After all, the sponsors who constantly drop deus-ex-machina parachutes of food and medical supplies love a great star-crossed lovers tale and the more Katniss pretends to fall in love with Peeta the more help they get. Simple enough. Its well done in the novel and was one thing I liked. It’s also the same reason I couldn’t finish the other novels in the series because I didn’t like the way Suzanne Collins took this tale and started building a love triangle around it. In the movie it just exists without much emotion around it and makes the whole ending rather weak.
While I’m on the topic, let’s talk about this ending. The ones managing this game force the romance story by creating an exception that if the two tributes from one district win then they will win. Katniss and Peeta make it to the end as the sole survivors of the Hunger Games. The gamemakers override their previous rule but Katniss and Peeta, faced with having to kill each other, attempt to commit suicide instead – forcing the gamemakers to declare them both the winners. Since they made the Capitol look bad during what is supposed to be a game to subjugate its people, Katniss and Peeta need to forever convince the 12 districts that they are desperately crazy in love and therefore not responsible for their actions. Of course this only makes sense if you don’t think about it. I mean, this is a dystopian future after all, where a repressive government controls the people with a firm grip. Do you think a strict government like this which is so passionate about ensuring that these subversive ideas don’t make it to their citizens is going to do a LIVE broadcast of anything? Oh hell no – it’s too damn risky, too easy for someone to do what Katniss and Peeta do which is make the government look bad. Wouldn’t it just be easier to have these games prerecorded and then edit out all the stuff that risks subverting the mind of the populace? Hell, it’s what the media does now – you think they’d have perfected the science of trampling over free speech by the time this movie is suppose to take place. In fact this movie’s choppy editing, shaky camera work and inability to truly develop its characters are a clear example of the media forcing an artists hands because a shot with too much blood would probably subvert the mind of an impressionable viewer.
So that’s The Hunger Games. It was entertaining enough but damn maddening that it didn’t just go for the R-rating – heartbreaking even. The film had potential to tell a great, character based story with plenty of visual excitement but decided to glaze it all over in favor of getting a PG13 rating. Instead of connecting to its audience with themes of independence it connects with squueing teenagers by giving them something pretty to look at. Instead of being insightful, as the novel was at times, this movie is just like shaking keys in fromt of a crying baby – only that baby is a teenager. I would have loved if the filmmakers here had the courtesy to respect the story it wanted to tell and respected their audience by NOT talking down to theme and stuffing anything provocative in a corner. People often wonder why pop culture is so banal these days, why teenagers seem so stupid – its because the media treats them that way, creates movies that speak down to them and treat teenagers today like their mentally disabled. You can be sure that constantly being treated that way by the media that dominates their life, they’re gonna start acting that way.
So… good book. Could have been a great movie – if they’d made a story instead of a product for audience consumption.