Saturday, March 24, 2012

"The Hunger Games" - Film Review and Analysis

Well, I saw The Hunger Games - in a full theatre, popcorn and pop, the whole nine yards. To review it, however, I feel like I have to review each aspect of the film individually, because even 12 hours later, it's still hard for me to examine the film as an artistic creation independent from the novel itself. When you watch a film that's based on a book you've read and enjoyed, you're not exploring, you're waiting - for that one scene, and then the scene after that, and then for that special character's appearance. I watched this movie differently because I'd read the book and remembered it so well. WARNING: FILM AND BOOK SPOILERS AHEAD.

The Adaptation:
Honestly? Full marks. In terms of overall accuracy to the source material and conveying it in an understandable way, the film did an excellent job. What pieces were cut from the film, like Madge's character or Peeta's prosthetic leg, made sense and didn't detract or distract from overall story (honestly, Madge never had a huge impact on the series, and Peeta's fake leg is much like Luke Skywalker's fake hand - mentioned once and then never again). What scenes were added contributed to the story and to its place as first in a series (more on that later). A.

The Katniss:
Also very good, which surprised me, since Jennifer Lawrence was easily the weakest link in the acting chain in X-Men: Gay Mutants In Love. Lawrence underacts and plays it close to the vest, which is in keeping with Katniss' character. Katniss isn't a screamer or a maker of speeches - she's private, she's introverted, and she's focused. Jennifer Lawrence embodied her perfectly. A

The Peeta:
I'm sorry, Josh Hutcherson, but you are really, really silly. He's not a terrible actor, and Hutcherson does a decent job when he's playing it up for the Capitol audience, but his serious acting just can't compete. It's not even about how he overacts, but more like the tone he sets with his character is off. He acts like someone in a far less perilous situation - like a person who wants to win the Boston Marathon, whatever it takes, not someone who's fighting to the death with a bunch of other kids. The audience actually erupted into unintentional laughter at the scene where Katniss finds him all painted up at the stream. C

The Gale:
He's pretty and not annoying, which is all that was asked of him for this movie, really. A

The Supporting Cast:
A mixed bunch, to be honest. Haymitch was decent but not outstanding. Elizabeth Banks channeled Bette Midler from Hocus Pocus for most of the movie as Effie Trinket. Lenny Kravitz was excellent as Cinna - but his portrayal also raised a lot of questions about Cinna's character and his motivations, and why he works for the Hunger Games if he clearly doesn't support them.

Every other kid in the Hunger Games (especially the Careers) was terrible. I mean, just awful. Similar to Peeta, they didn't set the right tone. There's a scene where the Careers are chasing Katniss, and the way they acted wasn't menacing at all. It felt like they were going to corner her and tease her about her jacket and throw beer cans at her like a bunch of hicks. They were acting like bullies when they should have been acting like predators. When they murder the tribute who starts a fire (off-screen, of course), afterward, they're giggling and snarking like they TP'd her house. With a film already hampered by a PG-13 rating, it was up to them to pick up the slack and inject some legitimate menace and suspense into the film, and they failed royally. C-

The Love Triangle:
One of my favourite aspects of the novel was the ambiguity surrounding Peeta and Katniss' relationship. We think Peeta is faking his love for Katniss for audience support, so Katniss goes along with it, maybe starting to feel the real thing, if only a little. The big discovery at the end of the novel is that Peeta's feelings for Katniss are actually real, and his heart is broken when he realizes that Katniss is still very much ambivalent. Granted, the subtlety of their relationship would be tough to translate onto the big screen, but the film still failed on that score, and I think it failed especially with the viewers who haven't read the books, because at least we know what they're trying to do.

Firstly - the whole background between Katniss and Peeta with the burned bread was really clumsily filmed. In a recurring flashback, it's raining, Peeta sees a sad Katniss lying against a tree and throws a loaf of bread at her. It lands in a puddle. She never picks it up. Discussing this past in the cave, she never mentions her family's starvation or how important that bread was to her, just that Peeta gave it to her. While the books' readers would understand, I think the new viewers would just be puzzled as to why this was such a big deal.

Secondly, while the film tries to imply that Katniss is fabricating feelings for Peeta, it's not followed up on, and there's no scene at the end where it's established her feelings for Peeta are not exactly on the level. I understand to some extent that that is a subtlety that just can't be easily filmed, and it looks like they're jettisoning that whole ambiguity and going for the full I-Love-Two-Guys thing that only slowly developed in the books. But while I may understand it, I don't like it. C.

The Extra Stuff:
By extra stuff, I mainly mean, the introduction of other points of view. While books can have a first person POV, movies are pretty much entirely 3rd person, with a few incredibly rare, artsy exceptions. With The Hunger Games I loved it - it still followed the story, but it gave us something new to look at and think about. My biggest frustration with the Hunger Games trilogy is how, with Katniss' limited POV, we end up missing a lot of the important rebel actions, but here we get a taste of it, in five important ways:
  1. Seneca Crane's scenes. As the Games go on, we see the head Gamemaker managing the game with his crew. He's a producer, and he's producing a television event, and it's fascinating to watch how he manipulates the board and why. I would have liked to have seen how he censored or tampered with Tribute footage to ensure it toed the Capitol party line, but it was still interesting watching the very Truman Show-esque manipulation going on behind the curtain.
  2. The commentators: Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci set a very satirical tone as cheery commentators for the Hunger Games, and serve as an incredibly effective Exposition Device to explain things to the newbies without intruding on the story.
  3. Haymitch's wheelin' and dealin': Haymitch manages to smuggle in medicine and food to Katniss during the Hunger Games. We never see how he does this in the novel - again, Katniss' limited POV. In the movie, however, we see him negotiating, making alliances and coming out of his shell in order to get Katniss and Peeta the items they need. This was great - we actually got to see how Haymitch could interact and sell himself to other people, and just how far he was willing to go out of his comfort zone to help his tributes.
  4. The rebellion scene from District 11: While we don't get the bread-gift scene in the film, we do watch as members of District 11 lash out against the Peacekeepers in a violent uprising as a reaction to Rue's death. I don't think this happened in the books, but it was an excellent early indication of the significance of Katniss' actions. I was also caught by the racial symbolism - both District 11 tributes are black, and District 11 is shown to have a higher black population than the Capitol or District 12, and the Peacekeepers eventually put down the rebellion with high-pressure water hoses. I wondered if this was an intentional invocation of Civil Rights Movement imagery.
  5. President Snow. In the first novel, he's more an impending menace than an actual one, but here, we get scenes of him voicing his concerns about Katniss and the significance of keeping the districts under control. I liked this - it gives Katniss' actions a far-reaching impact that connects the Hunger Games to the rest of the series. It also clearly establishes Snow as the central antagonist even if he only meets Katniss is person once.
Overall, these scenes were an A.

The Violence:

Of course, the hardest aspect of this adaption is doubtless the violence. It is a story about teenagers killing each other - but it is also a story written for and aimed at teens. Recently, outrage erupted over the MPAA's decision to give the anti-bullying documentary Bully an R-rating for profanity - thereby barring the film from the very audience (school-age adolescents) it had been expressly intended for.

So I get the PG-13 rating for The Hunger Games - it would hardly be fair to adapt a film from a book beloved by teens and make them unable to see it without their parents. However, let's just say I'm really glad the MPAA has never had anything to do with books.

In this case director Gary Ross uses the tried-and-true Walt Disney method for gruesomely dispatching villains in a family-friendly way: imply, imply, imply. During the scenes of the most intense violence (the initial scene at the Cornucopia) he uses lightning-quick flash-cuts and a jittering camera to give us a sense of violence without showing it. We see weapons slash down, we see the resulting corpses and splashes of corn-syrup blood, but we don't see any of the blows or weapons connect with an actual person.

For the most part, it works. The Cornucopia scene was based on mad chaos and mob mentality in the novel, and the swift, jagged editing of the film's scene gives us that tone while disguising the gore at the same time. The three most disturbing deaths in the actual movie are:
  • Glimmer's death by Tracker Jackers (props to the Foley artists for mastering the perfect sound effects as Katniss pries the bow out of her enemy's swollen, dead fist)
  • Rue's death by spear (the only time we actually see the bloody results of a weapon connecting)
  • Random Tribute's neck-snapping at the hands of Cato (this by far got the biggest audience reaction)
These choices in deaths are interesting because - in both the novel and film - these deaths aren't just gory, they're important. Glimmer is the first person to actually die as a result of Katniss' actions. Rue is the most tragic death, the death of an innocent. Random Tribute's death very clearly established Cato's character and bloodthirstiness as Katniss' most immediate antagonist. The fact that these deaths got special attention definitely shows an understanding of the source material.

With one noticeable and disappointing exception: Cato's death (which is one of the most disturbing in the novel) is reduced to a pale rip-off of Scar's demise from The Lion King. I get that they couldn't show him getting slowly eaten over a nine-hour period, but his death is meant to have an impact, and they could have found a better way to imply that then with the very quick and superficial death scene he does receive. He also gets an out-of-character moment of self-awareness before his death that didn't ring true and seemed manipulative. B+

Overall? I had a good time. I don't think it was my favourite movie of all time, but it was interesting and it did the novel justice. Even now, I still can't pin down how it works as an independent movie, so I don't think I can review it just as a film. What do you guys think? Comments are open!


  1. This is a great summary of the movie. It's hard when a book is just sooooo darn good to translate it and get the same tension in with the obvious audience restrictions. I thought the movie was good but it didn't blow me away.

    I actually want my husband to see it because he hasn't read the books and I think it would be interesting from that point of view.

    Well done review! You brought up some great points. I did love Katniss in the movie and I thought Stanley Tucci was AMAZING.

    I also thought it was interesting that the audience laughed everytime they cut to Gale in the movie. As in tee hee...we know what's happening (the people who read the book of course)

    Over all I am in LOVE with the book for getting my son to read again! It is a book that bridges together generations and this was obvious in the theatres too. Yay Suzanne Collins.

  2. The Hunger Games has as much to say about oppressive politics and the bloodthirsty, heartless media as it does about the internal struggle among the combatants. Still though, everybody here is great, especially Lawrence in a star-making role, and definitely has me pumped up for the sequel. Good review. Check out my review when you can.

  3. Anonymous4:05 PM

    I agree with most of the things you said, but unlike you, I thought Josh Hutcherson did a great job of portraying Peeta. By not acting bloodthirsty, he let the audience know that Peeta has a good heart.

  4. I don't know...I thought Peeta was just supposed to be a natural actor, as Katniss is a natural hunter. I mean, he's an abused kid who hid/downplayed that his whole life. It's how he plays the Careers. Katniss could never have done that. It's not in her skill set. Maybe he masks himself as a coping mechanism, too, minimizing the seriousness of their situation to keep going.

    I was REALLY annoyed by the film's minor fiddling to the Effie and Haymitch characters: minimizing Effie's importance as the tribute's time-keeper/minder while maximizing the alienlike quality of her styling...meanwhile Haymitch is made more likeable/his contributions unabiguously helpful. So, she becomes a scolding, clue-less painted doll, while he keeps his role as dispenser of important survival skills, but no longer pukes all over himself and we are not told that he has (apparently) pretty much failed in his role in the past. Also, why is Haymitch's country hick appearance not the subject of ridicule by the Games'commentators? Why does Snow dress so conservatively? The film-makers have created that huge division between the Capitol/District approach to personal hygiene/fashion, but then decided that the audience would not be able to understand that powerful men would also be expected to dress that way? Disappointing.

    I also thought the movie failed to deliver the starvation message well. I loved Katniss' portrayal, but the actress didn't look like a chronically starved teenager, to me. Primrose and their mother did.

    Totally agree with your take on the loaf/pigs scene. So important and so badly done...also undermines the starvation message.

    I also saw the film with at least one person who had not read the books and didn't get that everyone HAD to watch the games. This should have been made more clear in the film.

    I also think they diluted the horror of the games/situation by not acknowledging that while the Capitol audience enjoys without much empathy, District audiences (after 74 years) must also enjoy it to some extent. Where were the people betting on the reaping? Where were the people cheering when their District's tributes made a kill? That and the style stuff made the Capitol types too alien/easy to hate, IMO.

    Of course, I just dismiss movies I don't love...and only criticize what I enjoy enough to want to argue about!

  5. Great job on this post! I went to see the movie on the weekend, and for the most part thought that they did a good job on the adaptation.

    There was, of course, a lot of depth missing - things like the absolute control of the districts by the Capitol, the why of Peeta going off with the Careers in the first place.

    I did like the addition of the control room and seeing Haymitch coming around to actually working on behalf of Peeta and Katniss.

    Out of the three main characters, Josh Hutcherson was easily the weakest of the three for me in terms of representing the way I see the characters in my head.

    It is hard for me to separate the book from the film too. Would someone who hadn't read the books get how controlling the Capitol was, how much fear there was, etc. Not sure. I would happily watch it again in future.

  6. Janet --> Yeah. I mean, there will always be the nitpickers who hate that they missed certain parts (and I'm that way a little, too), but I think in general this was a good adaptation.

    Dan --> true enough, which was why I wasn't ticked off about the watered-down violence. A significant part of the Hunger Games is the desensitization to violence to the point of absurdity - like, how Effie and so many Capitol citizens just don't GET how people in the districts could hate and fear the Hunger Games. They've grown up watching it so often they have no idea that it's wrong. And we're a culture that is glorifying violence, if not to that extent yet.

    Anonymous --> I wasn't ticked that Peeta wasn't acting bloodthirsty. I was ticked about his acting at being in a dangerous situation. Like, in the cave or at the Cornucopia, I felt he acted like he was, well, in a game, and not a fight for his life.

    Val --> With Haymitch and Effie, I put that down to the movie's limitations. There just aren't enough ways to convey all the nuances of the character so I guess they stuck to the most general things - that Effie is fussy and oblivious (which she IS, among other things), and that Haymitch is careless and troubled and cynical. They implied his drinking more than they showed it.

    As for President Snow, I actually found it effective. The series explained that Panem is derived from a Latin term ultimately meaning 'Bread and Circuses' - meaning as long as the citizens are fed and entertained, they're easily controlled. The alien fashions in the Capitol are meant to convey the empty frivolity of the people. Snow's lack of that is meant to visually convey that he is above such nonsense and is, in fact, a serious threat. At least that's what I took away from it.

    But I DISAGREE ON ALL COUNTS for Katniss. I find I can easily, EASILY write off having a rounder-faced actress. First of all, because she was an awesome actress, and secondly, because we have enough unhealthily thin actresses in Hollywood as it is, and it seems like a smallish detail, because Jennifer Lawrence is nowhere even approaching fat. So she's not sunken - okay, not everyone is Christian Bale, willing to lose 90 pounds for a role.

    As for the districts not being shown betting, again, it's because I think with a film's shorter running time, they sometimes have to sacrifice the little details and the subtleties in order to convey a clearer message.

    Marg --> Actually, when I think about it, I don't think I'd really want to watch the film again. Because it's close-but-not-quite to the original, I'd much rather read the book again than watch the movie again.

  7. Anonymous11:15 PM

    Interesting comments about Katniss -- I think round-faced-ness shows youth, but her contrast with her mother & sister marked her out (to me) as a hunter. She feeds herself, and gets more exercise, more fresh air, etc. But certainly the way she and Peeta picked at the amazing smorgasbord of food in the Capitol would never have convinced anyone that they'd ever been hungry.

    Nice review, Anime june.


  8. @AnimeJune...I completely agree that too many actresses are pressured to appear thin...modeling is worse! I had zero issues with JL's portrayal of Katniss. It was awesome. And, of course she's nothing like fat! She's a slim, strong-looking 21 yr old...which is why I just didn't think she looked like the regularily starved, slight 16 yr old I had pictured from the descriptions in the books.

    I really enjoyed this movie and your analysis. I wouldn't spend the energy/thought arguing about a movie that was just badly done. My issues are nitpicky, for sure.

    I am well aware of the Roman Empire references. I think the movie undercut their actual horror by suggesting that the rich/idle are the only ones really enjoying the bloody spectacle. That wasn't at all the case during Roman times...gladitorial games were much more popular than animal fights becuase the audience, mostly the urban poor, enjoyed the human on human violence more.

    I felt Collins did a great job of making it clear that all of society are implicated, even if the levels of responsibility/range of personal choices vary hugely and that much of this got lost in the books.

    I understand that all books lose nuance in a film treatment, but I think it's worth considering what gets lost and why.

    This movie is provoking many interesting conversations and that makes me very happy!

  9. Gah..."much of this got lost in the movie"!

  10. Charlie10:44 PM

    My biggest pet peeve was that I felt they changed the nature of Peeta's character. Peeta is a fairly boring, weak, and desperate character in the movie eExcept for his interview with Caesar). In the book, Peeta has a very confident, strong and funny personality.

  11. Val --> Oh, of course! I didn't mean to sound so argumentative. And I'm someone who appreciated the adaptation, but don't really want to see the movie again, which indicates that it worked as an adaptation of a book that I loved, but not as a movie that's meant to be entertaining in its own right.

    Charlie --> I understand the difficulty, because Peeta's character is built around subtleties that are difficult to indicate visually.