Quick heads up. Please also read Leonard Wilson’s thoughts over at his review, if you haven’t already. Also I apologize for the length of this review. It doesn’t really contain many spoilers but is a bit more in depth than I usually do. But hopefully you have, and giving its box office performance I’m betting on it, seen it already.
“The Hunger Games”, the adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s young adult novel, is a thrilling, smart, visually unique and most importantly emotional dystopian drama/thriller directed by Gary Ross.
The film stars Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. She lives in the distance future in which after the destruction of the North American continent due to some unknown event a new nation called Panem was created, consisting of several districts ruled by a Capital city. The districts ended up rebelling against the rule of the Capital, resulting is a war that saw the total destruction of the 13th District with the Capital ending up being victorious. In order to help keep the Districts in line and avoid another rebellion, outside of the barriers and “peacekeepers” placed within each, an annual “gladiatorial” game is held. During this time, which has become essentially a reality show, two teenagers from each district (one male, one female) are chosen by random to be sent to an arena, the design of which changes each year, to fight to the death. They act as sacrifices for punishment, but also create a level of hope for those wanting to see their District succeed because the last one standing is labeled the “Victor” and their District is rewarded.
The film begins on the “reaping”, the day in which the tributes are picked. Katniss lives in District 12, which specializes in coal mining. It is surrounded by a lush forest that she illegally hunts in with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Today her name has been entered multiple times as it has in previous years, but her main worry this year is that her young sister Prim is of age to be eligible. Katniss has a very strong relationship with her. Both live alone with their mother, who has been emotionally inept since Katniss’s father died years before in a mine accident. When it comes time to select the tributes Katniss tries to reassure Prim that she will not be chosen but of course she is. Katniss, not willing to let her young sister enter the games, volunteers to take her place. I must mention that the buildup to this, and many other scenes throughout the film, is done exceptionally well. Most people, even those that didn’t read the novel, know what happens during the reaping and yet with a dreary tone and at times haunting score my heart was still pounding and sunk when the names were called.
The male chosen is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son, who Katniss has only ever interacted with once before, though it was a moment that has an important meaning to her. After a brief goodbye with their families both are shipped off to the capital, under the guidance of Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), an eccentric and dolled up woman from the Capital, and their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a drunkard and past winner of the games from District 12.
The Capital is a shock to them because it is nothing like the rural world of District 12. Here there are huge builds and statues. The citizens wear colorful clothing and elaborate makeup. There is an abundance of food and usage of technology that helps them thrive over the Districts. It is ruled by President Snow, who is played by Donald Sutherland. He doesn’t get much screen time, though he appears more than he did in the first book, but he handles the character very well, ruthless but subtle.
Katniss’s time in the Capital before entering the arena is really for one thing only, that is to try making an impression to gain sponsorship from interested members of the capital who wish to support specific tributes. These impressions are made in two ways. The first are training courses in which all 24 tributes work out together in various stations (camouflage, archery, swords, plant identification, etc.). Due to her experience hunting Katniss is proficient with a bow, though she tries to down play it at first. This training area is the first time all of them really get to see what the others are made of, which is important so they know who the real threats are. In this case those threats are “career tributes”, which are tributes from more “well off” Districts where children are chosen to train specifically for the arena and then volunteer at age 18.
The other opportunity to make impressions involves a parade in front of a large crowd and later on interviews broadcasted throughout the Capital and Districts. During both it is important that Katniss look and act in a manner that will make people like her. The “looks” part isn’t much of a problem. She is a beautiful young woman and has the help of a stylist named Cinna, who Katniss quickly bonds with. This is because he is the only citizen of the Capital who seems to respect her and understand the situation she is in. He is played by Lenny Kravitz and I must say he does a great job. Cinna doesn’t get much screen time but when he does it truly feels like he empathizes with her, which is important. He truly wants to see her succeed and luckily he is damn good at his job. The outfit he designs for her and Peeta, black leather and flames, when they are displayed to the sponsors wows them all giving her the nickname “the girl on fire” which becomes very important later on in the series.
The real challenge comes when she is interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), a TV personality. Cinna tells her to be truthful, and so she does, expressing the love for her young sister. When it comes time for Peeta’s interview he easily wins the crowd over with his charm, but it is a lie that shocks them the most. He expresses his love for Katniss, who doesn’t take it lightly but Haymitch explains that he can easily sell “love birds” to the sponsors, so she reluctantly goes along with it.
It is this aspect of their relationship that really leads to any sort of love story. Many people who had not read the books went in thinking there would be some sort of cliché love triangle but that just isn’t the case. Katniss does have Gale back home, who seems to like her, but she views him only as a friend. The only reason she shows any feelings for Peeta is to sell the love angle, and although during the games she does begin to like him, you couldn’t call it love.
When the games start is when the action begins. All 24 tributes are placed inside a dome that’s designed to be a forest. Located in the middle of them all is a stack of weapons and bags full of supplies. When the timer goes off the blood begins to spill. Katniss doesn’t take many chances in getting a weapon; she instead grabs a bag close to her and runs off into the woods. Much of the rest of the film takes place within the arena in which Katniss struggles to survive against nature and her fellow tributes, especially the “careers” that have teamed up and are picking off everyone else.
This portion of the film is the focus of one complaint that keeps coming up. Many seem to dislike the fact that the violence is toned down a bit. This is something that I think works for the better. There is still a sense of death and blood but Ross didn’t want to glorify the brutality, which made sense. The viewer should be looking upon the film in the mindset of someone in the Districts, horrified by what they see but not wanting to be entertained by gore and there is just no need for it. When people say they needed to really see the deaths to make it have an impact in a way sort of worries me. If the death of a child, even if barely shown, doesn’t affect you; if instead you need to actually see a child’s neck slit open for it to rattle you then the problem is yours and not the films. How Ross handles the death, which is horrifying in itself, fit the tone of the film which should be enough.
Now I will avoid going any further into detail about the events that take place in the arena. I will say that there are some shocking and highly emotional moments. One in particular nearly brought me to tears, those who have seen it will know which one I’m speaking of. I was worried, since it is probably my favorite moment of the whole series, that it wouldn’t be handled well but it is handled damn near perfectly. The only thing I think they could have handled better within the arena is the interactions between Katniss and Peeta. You really need to be paying attention and make a few assumptions to understand that Katniss’s change of heart is for show, and it does get cheesy at times.
But I couldn’t really hold it against the film. The biggest challenge Ross had to manage was the perspective. In the book it is first person, so much of the exposition and explanations of the world, games, and most importantly Katniss’s feelings are done within her head. The film could have gone with narration for much of this but I don’t think it would of fit. Instead it relies on the audience to put some of the pieces together. It also utilizes the “reality show” aspect of the games by having Caesar and another commentator appear as if they are telling viewers at home what they are seeing. For example there is a scene in which Katniss uses a beehive to her advantage and it cuts away briefly to have Caesar explain that these bees are deadly and cause hallucinations. These cutaways did seem a bit out of place but as I said if you consider that this is viewed as a reality show by most in the Capital then this sort of commentating makes sense.
I enjoyed the direction overall to be honest. I’ve read multiple complaints over the lack of establishing shots and shaky cam. I’ve personally never had a problem with the “shaky cam” technique; I think it adds to the intensity and chaos of many scenes. And I personally have no complaints about the editing. The performances were also very good. The stand out here is Jennifer Lawrence. She fully embodies Katniss and does such an amazing job at expressing her vulnerability while also making her a strong female character. Hutcherson was much better as Peeta than I thought he would be. Harrelson as Haymitch was damn near perfect and the same goes for Elizabeth Banks as Effie. The other tributes held their own. I didn’t expect much from them and so wasn’t disappointed when some had a few terrible moments. Oh, and the girl chosen to play Rue was amazing casting.
For those that haven’t read the book, the biggest differences that stood out to me was the lack of explanation for the Avoxs. Those are the servants in red you see in the background. They are individuals who have been punished; their tongues cut out and forced to be servants. In the book Katniss recognizes one of them from a while back in which she and Gale ran into people trying to escape another District. Also the explanation on how she got the pin is different. In the book it is giving to here by a friend, the daughter of the District’s Mayor. It made sense to leave this out because the characters weren’t needed.
The most important changes I think was all the stuff happening outside of the District. All the interactions with Snow and the Gamemaker, or Haymitch working to help them both behind the scenes are new. We don’t get this in the book and it was nice to get an idea of what was happening outside of the arena and how those characters watching reacted to what takes place.
As for the comparisons to ‘Battle Royale’, I’m seriously getting sick of the two being mentioned together. Although I really liked ‘Battle Royale’ it wasn’t the first film to contain people battling to the death for show and doesn’t have a monopoly over the concept. Just because both contain young adults doesn’t mean one stole from the other or is any better or worse. It bothers me that people like to pick and choose when they can accept certain aspect of a film over others; like accepting films with concepts very close to another for different genres yet here it is all they can talk about. The same goes for the technology in the film. I’ve heard more than one complaint over the lack of deep explanation on stuff like the medicines used or the “mutated dogs” at the end that seem to pop up out of nowhere. Must I remind people that the events in the film take place many years in the future? And that although the surrounding districts are poor with little to no technology, the Capital is still thriving and have made many advances in certain areas that would make medicines that can heal burns efficiently possible. I mean audiences can easily accept the futuristic world of other sci-fi films, even when there is little to no explanation on how things work, yet here for some reason they can’t.
It really just boils down to the fact that it would have never truly satisfied some people no matter what it did. Many wanted more exposition, yet would have complained if it was longer. If it was shorter, then they would have complained even more about the lack of exposition and length. Then there are those who have read the book and are disappointed that things are left out. And finally there are those who went in wanting to hate it because they have this misconception that it is like the ‘Twilight’ books and pandering to teenage girls. Honestly, to truly enjoy it you have to take it for what it is which some just cannot seem to do.
Overall I really, really enjoyed the film. Upon another viewing my love for it might possibly grow. It has its flaws and many aspects of the story are handled better in the book but I felt Gary Ross and his cast did a wonderful and admirable job adapting Collin’s novel. They faced a lot of challenges, and a lot of hate, but the end result was still an entertaining, smart and emotional story with a fantastic lead performance. I eagerly await the sequels and hope it is Gary Ross behind the camera once again. Highly recommended.