Going into the ticket selling juggernaut that is the big screen adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best selling young adult novels my expectations were pretty high. I really loved the books and there are a lot of questions I had in regards to how they were going to translate this material faithfully while being able to appeal to new fans, win over diehard fans and maintain a PG-13 rating. THE HUNGER GAMES is indeed a faithful adaptation and its biggest missteps are the way the action and violence is filmed to come in at a teen friendly rating, moments of the script and aspects of the original story that are oddly absent from the film. It’s still an immensely entertaining flick that’s tense and emotional that falls just short being truly sensational.
There’s a lot of ground to cover as far as plot goes so here we go. War has torn the country into what is now known as Panem which has been divided into 13 districts. The 13th district rebelled against the Capitol which rules Panem and is headed by the slimy President Snow (Donald Sutherland). So every year to punish the districts from ever trying the same thing and to keep them under control the Hunger Games are held. Each district puts forth one girl and one boy, known as tributes, between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in an arena where they are forced to fight to the death until one person stands as winner and wins fame and fortune for their starving family. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young teen that goes to represent District 12 along with the boy tribute, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who has secretly been holding a crush on Katniss for years. Their districts only winner, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), acts as their trainer while Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) is tasked as their fashion coordinator to help them make an impression on sponsors. Sponsors send the tributes helpful tools and gifts in the Hunger Games arena to help them survive and the more popular the tribute the more gifts they receive. In the arena the Capitol has the use of Gamemakers that monitor each tributes location and if the action ever slows down they deploy traps to move the tributes closer together and coax a fight, every action caught by cameras as the Games are televised and each citizen of Panem is required to watch. Katniss has a strong survival instinct and skilled with a bow, but also is not a willing participant in the Games and takes every opportunity she sees to keep the Gamemakers as well as the Captiol on their toes.
That’s the basics of what Gary Ross’ film focuses on. It goes so far as to explain the lethal sting of something like the tracker jacker but one specific character in many of the scenes during the first hour is never even named. Elizabeth Banks plays Effie, who is District 12’s Capitol representative and is the woman who draws the names during the reaping and accompanies Katniss and Peeta everywhere they go before the games begin- had you not read the book or the cast list you would never have a clue who she is or why she’s even there. It’s that mixture of small details that are included but other semi large details that were glossed over that aren’t incredibly annoying but noticeable for fans of the book.
The film moves at a rapid fire pace in regards to the amount of information that gets thrown out in the first hour that I can imagine being a bit overwhelming for audiences unfamiliar with the books. I do feel though that the pace works well for the film considering the run time is just under two and a half hours and unless we are to sit in a theater for four hours cuts from the source material had to be made and the setup pushed across rather quickly to get into the training, interviews and games themselves. Also despite how rushed material feels at times I feel the need to point out that action in movies happens much faster in a movie than in a book because it takes more time to read each word in an action scene than to just see it unfold in real time. Also the book utilizes a lot of internal monologue from Katniss since it’s from her point of view and the film basically puts the audience in a fly on the wall types of situations.
The first hour is all set up for the games- meeting the main characters, the reaping, travel to the Capitol, grooming, parade, interviews and of course training. The second hour is focused on the games with brief shots of citizens watching the televised events, Gamemakers watching each tributes move and shots of President Snow giving orders or explaining his motives for holding the games and having a winner. During these times there are a lot of slower moments that are not all that different from the book, except a lot of the fat is trimmed from the novels and the movies moves quickly from key character moments to action bit way quicker than the books did.
The weakest part for me goes back to when I read the books- the romance. Obviously it’s tailored for a teen audience and it never really worked for me in the books and the same goes for the film. I really like all the characters and Katniss’ indifference toward Peeta but it doesn’t fully translate on screen because once again the book goes in depth to Katniss’ perspective on what she needs to do survive and put on a good show for the sponsors. The dialogue in the books was also pretty corny at times and the script brings some of that over sometimes causing what I felt were unintentional laughs.
The action is also a point of contention- especially when the countdown hits zero to start the games and everyone makes a mad dash for weapons and a massive “bloodbath” takes place eliminating many of the tributes right off the bat. The tension is phenomenal leading up to the countdown and when the weapons start flying the camera goes into convulsions making it hard to decipher exactly what was happening. The choice was obviously to mask the violence and not focus on anything graphic which is understandable but at times the shaky cam can be a bit excessive. The highlights of the games are the curveballs the Gamemakers throw at the tributes to force them together or to speed things along. There’s a scene where Katniss finds herself sprinting through the woods with fire all around her and I found the visuals to be pretty spectacular and very exciting as far as the action goes in that scene. Also another highlight was towards the end that I was dying to see how they translated in the movie that was also tense but it takes place at night and it was tough to really make out everything that was happening.
My complaints for the most part are nothing more than minor grievances I have with choices by the filmmakers- they make the film imperfect but no less enjoyable. Aside from my complaints about the romance nothing else really hurts the movie for me. Jennifer Lawrence is fantastic and I couldn’t picture anyone else in that part- she’s a powerful actress that has a wonderfully emptive face that really pushes across her sadness and utter fear in situations and an adorable smile in others. Haymitch is my personal favorite character from the books and Harrelson plays him perfectly I just wish there had been more of him. Banks is very fun as Effie and Stanley Tucci as the charismatic Caesar Flickerman is always a delight when he’s on screen. I even enjoyed Josh Hutcherson as Peeta even though I never cared for him in the books. Gale (Liam Hemsworth) takes a backseat in the first film just as he does in the book once Katniss heads to the Capitol but he was great in the scene where he has to say goodbye to Katniss.
The biggest surprise for me and incredibly effective aspect of the film- the silence. The majority of THE HUNGER GAMES is long stretches where there is no score whatsoever and you just hear the sounds of nature and other ambient noise- or moments where the chaos of a scene is muted and certain sound effects are amplified that certainly make an impression. Throughout the film I was delighted that there were not music swells around every corner telling me when I should feel sad or warning me that something crazy was about to happen. Eventually there are moments where the score kicks in during dramatic moments but a good slice of the film goes without the use of score. What I found effective about the choice to leave out music was how much it highlights the desolate nature of the settings and how hopeless and empty the world of Panem can be. It also helps make a film that’s essentially fantasy feel more realistic and gritty even amongst the glossy world of the Capitol.
The world the film creates is vast and beautiful but at all times I couldn’t help but feel a bit claustrophobic- largely due to the tension created by the score or lack thereof. The moments before Katniss steps into the tube to enter the arena had me on the edge of my seat holding my breath even though I’ve read the books and knew what was essentially getting ready to go down. Even in the woods when you see the map of the arena it looks massive yet the action happens so fast and furious that it never feels as large since there’s never a real long stretch of time where there isn’t a threat lurking around the corner. This is more of a compliment than a complaint because the more closed in I felt with the setting the more tense and on edge I felt.
One other praise I’d like to put forth to the film is that it made me feel more emotional during certain moments that the book fell short of. As much as the first book drew me in, I never had a real emotional reaction until the later books and those moments packed a bigger punch in the film even with the abbreviated involvement of certain characters. I attribute my emotional connection to the strength of Jennifer Lawrence’s performance- although I really enjoyed the brief glimpses of Haymitch watching Katniss struggle in the arena.
Eavesdropping on conversations outside the theater, there was a mixture of people praising how faithful it was and how some people thought the book was way more action packed. I fall in the camp that believe it was extremely faithful to the source and disagree strongly with anyone who says the book had more action. I personally enjoyed the second book the most and this film leads into it about as well as I could have hoped. I refer back to my previous comments that action feels a lot more drawn out when you have to read each word describing the scene and with the movie every detail is right there in front of you which makes the action play out as it would in a natural setting. The film doesn’t linger on details in the action and instead just throws it at you and it keeps you on your feet even if you know what’s going to happen. I feel strongly that almost every action beat is present and accounted for and translated exactly the way it should have in the context of the movie.
Does THE HUNGER GAMES live up to the massive hype leading up to its release? Yes, for the most part it lives up to the quality of the book if not improving it along the way. My opinion comes from the side that doesn’t care for the romance of it all, but the interest in the plot, the futuristic setting and the path the story goes in the subsequent books. The film is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but as an adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel it succeeds on several levels. The PG-13 rating does handcuff the overall effect at times, but what THE HUNGER GAMES lacks in brutality it makes up for in the emotional depth of its main character and the tension created from the film’s sound design and relentless pace. Fans will have to fill in the blanks as far as some of the small details of the story goes and new fans might find themselves lost every now and then but the film manages to find a balance that makes it accessible to audiences that have read the books or are going in cold. THE HUNGER GAMES has about everything you can ask for- action, drama, comedy, fantasy and even a small amount of horror. There are hiccups that hold the film back from being as unforgettable as it had the potential to be, but the style and performances still manage to create a heart pounding experience that’s fun and exciting to watch.
Reviewed By: Luke (@CrummyLuke on Twitter)