The Hunger Games

A girl’s struggle to stay alive in a future civilization is presented in this faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling 2008 novel. In a post-apocalyptic version of North America, children are selected as players or tributes to participate in a fight to the death with each other until there is but one victor. Naturally this is all televised to the delight of the viewing public.

First things first. Let’s discuss that timeworn plot.  A nation in which the state exerts cruel, oppressive control, often incorporating combat, is nothing new. There are many ideas within The Hunger Games that have roots in earlier works of fiction. The Most Dangerous Game, Nineteen Eighty-Four, Lord of the Flies, Rollerball, Logan’s Run, The Running Man and Battle Royale are the most obvious to me. That last example addresses themes nearly identical to this film. While I see no reason to discount The Hunger Games on that basis, I can fault the story for a lack of originality, which deliberate or coincidental, lessens the impact. I must also take exception to the basic premise. While a dystopian society might plausibly force children to face off to the death for the reasons explained here, it’s a bit of a stretch to accept that the citizens would happily bet on and enjoy their mortality as entertainment. Nevertheless I still appreciated the way The Hunger Games unfolded. I admit I was captivated.

The Hunger Games thrives in artistically representing this future society. Many scenes are perfectly realized, some of the best even precede the battle stage. In the beginning, the moments where one boy and one girl from district 12 are chosen is suitably tense. The stark color palatte of grays matches the starkness of the landscape. It’s gut wrenching and the atmosphere enhances the dire mood. Providing some comic relief is Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket who becomes a flamboyant and cheerful caretaker to her young charges. Her obsession with politeness is ironic given the sport’s barbaric nature.  Later our lead must prove her abilities to the state so she can be assigned a rating before the games begin. As we watch the athletic ability of her adversaries, we share in her dread of what is to come. Her assessment ends with an act of impudence that appropriately elicits laughs as well as concern.  All of these depictions greatly benefit the cinematic expression.

Adapting a book is tricky, especially one in which the narrative is so heavily based on the inner thoughts of the main character. To help with that, the script fleshes out what happens behind the scenes to explain things that Katniss assumed in the text. Both the President and the games’ designer in charge have deeper discussions here that elucidate the intimate workings of the competition. The events with Seneca Crane as Head Gamemaker are visually arresting. He’s surrounded by a bank of TV screens with employees that do his bidding – manipulating the action. It betrays a civilization gone wrong. Actors Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones provide color commentary like ESPN anchors to inform the audience of the game’s events. We can feel ourselves get caught up in the pageantry of it all, despite the utter depravity of the matches.

Screenwriters understand that what makes science fiction ultimately succeed isn’t a lot of special effects and pyrotechnics, it’s fascinating characters. The fact that the games don’t actually start until past the halfway point wasn’t a problem for me. This concerns a loss of innocence, not which child can throw a knife better. Jennifer Lawrence is star Katniss Everdeen. Not only does she embody her tough, athletic skills but she projects a vulnerability that is incredibly affecting. Lawrence is believable as our young heroine even when she is up against competitors that are stronger and more physically imposing like Cato from District 2. Matching her is fellow tribute player from District 12, Peeta Mellark, portrayed by Josh Hutcherson. Their relationship is touching. It grounds the picture and we genuinely care about them. Also of note is Rue, a tiny bird-like girl with a lot of heart. Her friendship with Katniss provides one of several engaging plot points. The Hunger Games is always exciting, never boring. Despite the familiar trappings, director Gary Ross infuses the story with a style and excitement that not only benefits the original novel, it improves upon it. Katniss Everdeen is a protagonist we can love and champion. She’s at the center of a swift and rousing drama. It’s telling that given the 142 minute running time, I was surprisingly prepared for a longer movie. That’s how involved I was.

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31 Responses to “The Hunger Games”

  1. Great review!! I, too, was surprised how short this seemed. I didn’t expect you to like this that much, but I knew you’d enjoy it. Jennifer Lawrence was so great (as usual).

    Here’s my review:

    http://themoviefreakblog.wordpress.com/2012/03/23/review-the-hunger-games/

    • I think the movie seemed short because I read the novel. I was anticipating the events in the book. I was very pleased with what he added (the behind-the-scenes of the control room) and what he removed (Katniss’ constant remembrances of Gale while she was playing the games). I was very pleased with the way it was adapted.

  2. Wow, didn’t expect this movie to get such good reviews, may have to check this one out some time. Great review.

  3. Rochelle Says:

    *possible spoilers alert!? – Really well written & insightful review Mark, I almost started to believe that I enjoyed the movie much more than I originally thought. I want to preface this by saying that I did like this movie & even thought the two(2) plus hours flew by, I’m just not in love with it. I do agree with you on some of the changes & omissions, but I feel that a lot of the emotion & surprise was taken out as a result of some of the new turns. The biggest losses for me were Rue’s story & the love story between the Katniss & Peeta. While both are still in the film, they are so weak & artificial feeling, it’s hard to love the characters enough to crave the sequel. That being said, I will see the sequel, If for no other reason than to see who’s playing Finnick.

    • ***** SPOILERS AHEAD *****

      *****DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVEN’T READ THE BOOK OR SEEN THE FILM*****

      If I can adequately convey my enthusiasm for the film so that you might enjoy it more, well then that’s high praise. Thank you for the kind words.

      First off, a movie will always truncate events and characters, Otherwise the film would be 6 hours long. I thought the film did a brilliant job of fleshing out bits that needed more explaining (i.e. behind the scenes of the games in the control room) and eliminating unimportant details (Haymitch constantly drunk, vomiting all over the train).

      For most of the book and movie, the relationship between Katniss and Peeta was a ruse in order to line up sponsors. The audience wants a love story Haymitch tells them. I’ll admit that in the book, it is much more explicit that Peeta wasn’t acting by the end. But by then the story was over so that aspect really didn’t matter. Their “romance” wasn’t the thrust of the narrative. It was about this girl’s journey as she tries to stay alive.

      Rue saved Katniss’ life twice: by pointing out the wasp’s nest so she could escape the tree and then applying the leaves to heal her after she got stung. To me it seemed very obvious that these incidents (albeit more fleeting in the movie) were enough to generate a real bond between the two girls. When Katniss broke down and cried after her death, I felt it.

  4. Seemed this really hit a chord for you. Your passion really shown in the review

  5. It took me a few weeks to read the book, so its funny how all that time is condensed to 2 1/2 hours, in a movie. I thought they did a great job. They cast it perfectly, and edited it just right. Minor things left out, but I expected that. I was very pleased. Two thumbs way up !

  6. Hey Mark! I have just skim-read this to get a general idea of your take on the film – our discussion should be good! We haven’t read the books.

  7. I really liked the movie but thought the adaptation could’ve been better. Jennifer Lawrence was stunning, though, and I loved the art direction and score.

    • Where do you think the adaptation could’ve been better?

      • SPOILER ALERT

        I thought the scene where Rue dies was much more powerful in the book. In the movie, I felt it was sort of rushed.

        Also, the whole Katniss-Peeta relationship. In the book, it’s clear they’re doing it to get sponsors. In the movie, it starts that way and they say it explicitly, but then they kinda drop it.

        Cinna’s part was reduced significantly, also.

        What’s good is that President Snow and Seneca Crane have bigger roles, for example.

    • I have to admit I thought it was a near perfect adaptation. The problems with the movie that kept me from giving this an even higher rating were problems already inherent in the source material. I have to say, I liked the book, but I enjoyed the film even more. I guess that’s why I have a film blog and not a book blog….lol

  8. Great review. Really enjoyed the film too.
    Just curious what you thought of the parts where the people in the control room unleashed a wildfire and animals out of the blue and how they manipulated the game. The fire and animal’s magically dropped in were two parts I had to really suspend my disbelief. That stood out as far fetched from the rest of the story.

    • Far fetched because it didn’t seem possible? The state had complete control over the design of the games so I bought into it.

      Those parts were in the book too, so I wasn’t surprised by those events. It actually made MORE sense in the movie because Katniss has to GUESS why these things were happening to her in the novel whereas in the movie we’re shown why.

      In fact, in the book, the wild dogs were mutations, animals mixed with the DNA of the dead contestants so they had the facial features (the eyes for example) of the fallen contestants. Can you imagine seeing a wild dog with Rue’s face? So glad they removed that part out of the book for the movie. It would’ve been so cheesy!

  9. Great review, althought I did not like the movie at all. I hear the book consists of her inner thoughts yet with the movie it was baffling what Katniss was doing and the plot was pretty unengaging, at least for me.

    • A lot of her thoughts explained why things happened in the book, like the wildfires that the game makers started or when they released the dogs. In the movie, it was more explicit because they showed you who was responsible and why. Sorry you didn’t like it, but thanks for commenting.

  10. I didn’t see the movie so I won’t comment on it — just some observations on a couple of points you made.

    Although the films you named all do have SOME things in common, having a staged spectacle in which witnessing the death of one or more human participants is the intended result, hasn’t been done so often. “Gladiator” (along with all the movies that deal with gladiators) qualifies; and Kirk Douglas and Johnny Cash made a western on a similar theme called “A Gunfight”. As visions of a future gone wrong, “Battle Royale” may be the most similar to this one (though I’d never heard of it). Others that come to MY mind are “The Tenth Victim” (an awful thing with Mastroianni), and the Schwarzenegger epic you mentioned, “The Running Man”.

    As far as kids volunteering for fatal combat, naively I feel as you do that the idea is far fetched. But it is true that primitive religions sometimes had children raised to be sacrificed at a certain age, and I guess the kids accepted the idea; some Roman captives DID become willing gladiators; and ordinary folks, raised neither as sacrifices nor warriors, get caught up in popular wars to the extent that they sign up for service of a sort that’s got glamor but is likely (or certain) to get them killed — fliers in WWI, for example, or commandos and kamikaze in WWII.

    • With the exception of Battle Royale, I’m aware that even the films I mentioned aren’t direct copies. The Most Dangerous Game is man hunting man for sport, but it isn’t televised for example. My point is that the idea didn’t seem that original to me. What made it work was the performance of our young heroine coupled with the production design that elevated it to a cinematic spectacle.

      Thanks for the examples of people volunteering for fatal combat. Some good points. Perhaps if the children felt that this is what God commanded, it might have made more sense as to why certain districts had volunteers. Expecting adults to enjoy watching young children (not adult gladiators) kill each other is still something I can’t wrap my head around. Like you said, I may be naïve.

      • hi mark, i liked your review, and this movie is starting to look more interesting.
        i haven’t seen the film but i just wanted to add, that irregardless of how many similar movies preceded hunger games, all it takes is just one that came before, for it to lose originality. i have never forgotten Running man which was an ok movie. i guess my point is that its tough to make an original action film nowadays.

  11. Great review Mark, although it does sound like you enjoyed it more than I did! (http://www.moviewriting.co.uk/action/the-hunger-games-review) I thought it was too long. I know it would be hard to cram in the detail of the book into a shorter film; I thought the pace flagged a bit in certain scenes. I’m looking forward to seeing the next two films in the series, hopefully they’ll be able to put in a bit more about the backstory into those. I went to see it with Rob and Kieran who did a podcast on this film with me; neither of them had read the books and they were pretty confused at some of Katniss’ actions.

    Still, it’s a very enjoyable film and Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant, as ever.

  12. Michael S. Says:

    Your review is SPOT ON! I really enjoyed this movie, way more than I expected too. Having read the book, I feel I would have liked the film just as much if I hadn’t, and that’s always THE sign of a stellar screen adaptation. I frankly liked the film a lot more than I did the book (for various reasons), but mostly because Ross and company knew what elements of the book to cut and what to keep. The overuse of shaky-cam did detract a little in the beginning, but I quickly got over that and really was drawn into the picture and got invested. This is mainly due to the talent of Jennifer Lawrence, who I think really sells it and is a main reason why I like the film so much.

    The scenes taking place at “The Games” were way more intense (and slightly more bloody) then I expected. The scene with Lawrence ascending the tube with Kravitz looking on (after their heart to heart) was immensely effective.

    It’s a finely tuned piece of filmmaking that knows exactly what it wants to be… and succeeds!

    • Yes, yes and yes. We seem to have the exact same take. I do think reading the book helps but I would’ve enjoyed it either way. Thanks for commenting, Michael.

  13. sanclementejedi Says:

    Nice review Mark, While I enjoyed the film despite its rather derivative plot, I felt that it could have been much better. It seemed to me they dumbed down the film to achieve a PG-13 rating. This had the potential to be great but they settled for merely good in the hopes of making some more $$$$.

    I liked how they displayed the 1% of the future to be foppish dandies that cracked me up.

    • The original novel is aimed at children so the PG-13 rating didn’t really surprise me.

      The costume design for the people of the capitol was unreal. Shades of The Fifth Element and the citizens of The Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz! 🙂

      • sanclementejedi Says:

        yeah I hear what your saying but from what I gather the novels are much more graphic and violent than the film. Besides, those Grimm’s fairy tales were for kids and those have witches cooking kids in a oven among other horrors 😉

  14. Great review, keep up the good work man.

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