Better late than never, 411's Jeremy Wilson checks in with his full review of the mega-successful blockbuster The Hunger Games. Is it a worthy adaptation of the popular novel, or has Hollywood dropped the ball?
Directed by: Gary Ross Written by: Gary Ross, Billy Ray and Suzanne Collins Based on the novel The Hunger Games by: Suzanne Collins
Katniss Everdeen: Jennifer Lawrence Peeta Mellark: Josh Hutcherson Gale Hawthorne: Liam Hemsworth Haymitch Abernathy: Woody Harrelson Effie Trinket: Elizabeth Banks Cinna: Lenny Kravitz Meacham: Clancy Brown Caesar Flickerman: Stanley Tucci President Coriolanus Snow: Donald Sutherland Seneca Crane: Wes Bentley Claudius Templesmith: Toby Jones Rue: Amandla Stenberg Cato: Alexander Ludwig Clove: Isabelle Fuhrman Mrs. Everdeen: Paula Malcomson Primrose Everdeen: Willow Shields Foxface: Jacqueline Emerson Thresh: Dayo Okeniyi
Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images all involving teens. Running Time: 142 minutes
*Some SPOILERS are contained within this review. If you don't want to know, read it later. If you don't care, read on.*
There is a scene, nearly two-thirds of the way through Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, that is as powerful and emotionally heartbreaking as any you are likely to read in a novel. In Collins' book, Katniss Everdeen befriends and teams up with a young competitor from another district midway through the titular “Hunger Games.” The young girl, Rue, is slight of build but cunning in a way that catches Katniss' eye, reminding her of her younger sister Prim, who she loves and wants to protect so fiercely that she volunteered to take her sister's place in the deadly “games.” The two forge a bond bound of necessity, but very soon we as readers get the sense that they are kindred spirits, more sisters than competitors. They are the unlikeliest of survivors, able to use their own skills and the misperceptions of others to their advantage. The bond they form during the do-or-die competition is one that grows substantially, to the point that it becomes impossible to imagine Katniss killing her younger partner, even though there can only be one victor. It would be like killing her own sister.
The Hunger Games isn't really about Katniss and Rue, but their relationship and the events that occur as an extension of it are important to this film's story as well as the series' world at large. By now, many know the thrust of the film's plot. Teenage girl Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is forced to save her younger sister from having to enter the dreaded and deadly Hunger Games, and so she volunteers to take her place. The Hunger Games are an annual competition to the death involving one boy and one girl from each of the 12 districts of Panem (the ruins of a futuristic North America). Katniss and Peeta Mellark are ushered away from their homes and taken to the Capitol where they are pampered and prepped for the coming Games, where only one of the 24 Tributes will come out alive. Along the way District 12's only surviving victor and the man who must guide the two of them – Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) – does his best to prepare them by way of tips, training and strategy. Part of this strategy is using Peeta's declared love of Katniss in the pair's favor, getting the wealthy residents of the Capitol to sponsor the two and buy them gifts they will receive during the Games.
Even though we know the rules of The Hunger Games – there can be only one victor – we struggle to imagine the endgame in the relationship of Katniss and Rue. When that endgame does come, it is less of a surprise and more of a breathtaking gut-punch. Katniss's inability to save Rue is in stark contrast to her earlier, successful sacrifice for Primrose and her reaction to the young girl's death is the spark that essentially sets the rest of the series into motion. As Katniss's anger rises at the injustice of a young girl being killed for sport and entertainment, she lets out a primordial scream, not caring about anything or anyone else. But instead of moving on and letting a fellow competitor's body be taken off the field of play – even one she grew close to – she does something that is essentially unheard of in the history of The Hunger Games. Unheard of even in the history of Panem; she properly mourns. She stays with the girl, singing a lullaby as Rue's life slips away, closes her eyes after she passes and decorates Rue's corpse with a blanket of flowers. She then gives the same salute of respect and admiration – three middle fingers of the left hand to her lips and then lifting her arm out – that District 12 gave her when she left for the Games. Such was the power and meaning behind the gesture that Rue's own district (11) donated a gift of bread to Katniss. It is a moving and poignant moment in an action story full of blood and gore, the horrors of the spectacle being drowned by the kindness and respect (and simmering anger) of one citizen to those she doesn't even know.
This scene is also found in Gary Ross' cinematic version, but suffers slight alterations that change the fundamental nature and effect of the scene, and subsequently, part of the film itself. Yes, foreknowledge of Rue's death lessens the effectiveness and gut-punch of seeing it on the big screen. However, even for those familiar with Collins' novels, it was still a hard scene to watch. That wasn't my problem with the film's version. And I am certainly not talking about the apparent change in the character's race, which has led to some very unfortunate criticism and outcry from “fans.” No, the thing that keeps sticking out about that scene – and of the film itself – is a missing piece of bread.
Rue's death in the film isn't all that different from how it is written in Collins' novel. The two girls hatch a plot against the Careers that involves Rue lighting fires to draw their attention and Katniss destroying their rations (the Careers are better fighters than they are survivalists). After the deed is done, Katniss returns to the appointed spot where Rue should be waiting. However, soon Katniss realizes something is wrong, eventually hearing the younger girl's screams not far off and goes racing to save her. As Katniss cuts Rue out of a net she's been caught in, another tribute throws a spear – meant for Katniss – and kills Rue. He gets one of Katniss's arrows for his troubles. Katniss stays with the dying girl, singing, crying and decorating the dead girl's body with flowers. She turns to the camera up above and gives the District 12 gesture. And then...we see District 11 rioting.
That may sound bizarre or nit-picky to some, but for me, the alterations changed the meaning of Rue's death and the film itself. Instead of kindness being reciprocated, Katniss's reaction and gesture sets off the beginnings of rebellion. The more gentle touch from the book with having the poor citizens of District 11 pull their resources together and send Katniss a loaf of bread (that is prohibitively expensive at that late stage in the Games) is replaced by a more direct – less powerful – allusion to discontent and revolution. The problem with that is that it causes the viewer to contemplate even more the background and history of The Hunger Games themselves, the relationship of the Districts and the Capitol and why this anger and resentment from the Districts hasn't manifested itself before now. It also rushes the violence that does ultimately spring up in the Districts. Instead of the Districts being shamed by Katniss's gesture and kindness toward a weaker opponent from another district, slowly building resentment and the desire for freedom from The Capitol, we are plunged head-first into the uprising.
This one scene and the change made for its film adaptation exposes one of the bigger flaws in this film. If all it took was the death of a young, innocent child to instigate violence against the authoritarian Capitol, why hadn't the Districts risen up before in the 75-year history of the Games. What I'm saying is that the film's handling of this crucial scene makes it harder to accept the general premise behind the story; that these districts, under the control of a totalitarian regime for three-quarters of a century, have handed over two of their children every year to compete in the most heinous and disgusting gladiatorial competition. 24 children go in and 23 come out. Are we to not believe that there weren't young, innocent children murdered in even more brutal and inhumane ways during the Games before Rue and Katniss came along? I'm not saying the film's handling of Rue's death isn't powerful on its own; there will be plenty of people who may even prefer it. However, the film rushes through the relationship between Katniss and Rue, giving audiences hardly any time to understand and invest themselves in such a pivotal relationship.
Any character's death is only as emotionally powerful and effective as the time invested in developing that character and his/her relationships. Whether it was a decision due to time constraints or creative license, Ross and company rush through the relationship between Katniss and Rue and, in the end, rush the revolution. To be frank, we just don't care enough. We care about Katniss, but who was Rue? Who are District 11? Who are the other Tributes in the Games? Why would war come now instead of in the recent past or future? Yes, revolution can be sparked by one action, one event, one victim. That victim – in this case Rue – can be used to rally support and galvanize people into action. That can happen in the real world as much as in the movies. However, what makes this different – or what SHOULD have made this different – was that shaming. That a girl from another district who barely knew one of their own would seemingly care more about one of their own is the spark, not Rue's death. That is why the novel's version is better, more powerful. It is a wordless message of appreciation and respect between the two, one that plants the seeds for Panem's revolution, and subsequently, the rest of the story. What it also does is undercut the arguably even more powerful symbolic gesture from Katniss and Peeta at the very end of the Games. Instead of THAT being the “star-crossed lovers” spark that lights an uprising (which it should since it comes at the end of the Games and film) in the majority of the Districts, we are led to believe it only took one child's death to do it. Again, one might ask why it hadn't happened earlier.
I'm not someone who needs a movie to be perfectly adapted from its source material. Films are their own medium, similar in that they both tell stories, yet are entirely different in how they tell them. Frankly, it is impossible to perfectly translate every detail, nuance and stylistic decision into a cinematic version. Cast and crew have to make decisions, try to be as faithful as you can to that material and ultimately capture the spirit of that material instead of getting bogged down in every character, event and subplot. That's not to say Gary Ross' The Hunger Games isn't faithful. In fact, I would venture to say it is one of the more remarkably faithful adaptations I've ever seen. I would imagine that this is at least partly due to Suzanne Collins' involvement in writing the script. It also may be due to the fear of Ross and Lionsgate of setting hordes of angry Hunger Games fans upon the general public if they were to mess too much with the material.
That being said, the nature of Rue's death in The Hunger Games' film version was a missed chance at creating something unique and powerful. Instead of being simply good, The Hunger Games could have been truly great. It could have been special. Ironically, it is a chance that Collins' novel never really had. The Hunger Games was published before the Arab Spring and Occupy movement, but it is nearly impossible to miss the obvious parallels between this story and those very real world events. The best stories are able to both tell a good story and relate to the truths we find in life. If Collins and Ross had simply focused exclusively on Katniss Everdeen, her sacrifice for her sister, her hopes for a better future and the love triangle that slowly consumes her life, I might feel differently. But The Hunger Games and its sequels are ostensibly novels about war, revolution and the decadency of a society in which even the most heinous of things are entertainment. That same thematic ground is tread in the big screen version, but Ross and company could have connected their film even more with what is going on now. The Hunger Games truly could have been a film that helped define and provoke a generation. Instead, it feels as if it has hewed too close to the gimmick of the story instead of honing in on the impact, consequences and meaning of those broader issues.
There is potential in so much of The Hunger Games that the rather standard action scenes that come in the film's second half seem even more like a waste, given the issues that could have been explored and the relationships that could have helped better define those issues. The Games themselves are fine, but the deaths of the Tributes and the relationship between Katniss and Peeta feel shortchanged. I'm not saying a 4-hour version was needed to properly address this, but there are ways to better give audiences a sense of these characters and why they are important to not just Katniss but the story in general. We just don't have a great notion of any of these characters, except for our two Tributes from District 12. I've already stated why shortchanging the Katniss-Rue relationship is a problem, but all of this violence would have been more meaningful if we knew any other of these characters. This is where readers of Collins' novel will have an advantage over those who haven't, but that's not fair in trying to analyze the film itself.
The one truly standout element of The Hunger Games is Jennifer Lawrence. From start to finish, she is the best thing the film has going for it as she breathes a life and subtlety into Katniss that many other actresses would fail to match. Here, as in Winter's Bone, Lawrence is a tough, downtrodden young woman doing everything she can to protect her family in a difficult, sometimes cruel world. She is not a typical teenage girl; she is a survivor, forced to keep her family going after the tragic death of her father in a mining accident. Lawrence regularly hits the perfect note, whether it be demanding that her mother stay together for Prim, her emotion at Rue's death or playing the fish-out-of-water in the more pageant elements preceding The Hunger Games. The criticism by some over Lawrence's womanly, curvaceous look and “lingering baby fat” (critics for Variety and The New York Times) as well as one internet commentator's claim that Lawrence is “fairly tall, big-boned” and “too big” for Hutcherson and Hemsworth is frustrating to say the least. Apparently, if an actor doesn't starve themselves for a role and has a normal body-type, this is a problem. The argument that Katniss and her family – as well as the whole of District 12 – is starving is fair to bring up, but can be easily countered by saying that not everyone's bodies are the same. Plus, Katniss is a hunter and regularly brings food home after hunting in the forests outside District 12's fence. I have also failed to see the same criticism leveled at the handsome hunk Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who does little more in this film than look pained. Josh Hutcherson is better, but doesn't quite match Lawrence. The rest of the cast are good, particularly Woody Harrelson, Elizabth Banks and Stanley Tucci. All are playing outsized characters and seem to be having a blast giving over-the-top performances that perfectly capture the spirit of those characters and what they bring to the film. Donald Sutherland, as always, is outstanding as the sinister and plotting President Snow.
Yes there is something of a melodramatic love triangle that has led some to compare The Hunger Games to Twilight. Let me make this perfectly clear: just because both involve two teenage boys in love with a teenage girl, doesn't make them all that similar. In fact, Collins deserves oodles of credit for steering away as much as possible from the kinds of Twilight-inspired pitfalls that many have derided. Truth be told, this will become a much bigger deal with the next two installments of the series, Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Here we only see Peeta's declaration of love for Katniss, one which we remain unsure is totally genuine or instead is part of the Games. Gale, save for an opening scene talking with Katniss beyond the borders of District 12, is essentially a bystander. A disgruntled bystander, but a bystander nonetheless. There is no brooding teenage girl, no icy cold sparkling vampire and no shirtless were-hunk. The "Team Peeta" and "Team Gale" stuff is forced; Katniss isn't nearly as interested in her two lovers as her Twilight counterpart. Plus, anyone who has read all three novels knows there really isn't a competition. One has the looks, while the other routinely puts his life on the line for her. Collins would have been insane to have her strong, independent heroine go for looks. This movie doesn't deserve to be lumped in with Stephanie Meyer's garbage.
Perhaps the biggest problem I had that wasn't story-related was Ross's choice to use the dreaded “shaky cam.” Much like I would argue that most films don't need to be shown in 3D, the use of shaky cam in The Hunger Games – while not as distracting as in Cloverfield or creatively used as in Chronicle – is wholly unnecessary and an unfortunate creative decision. Ross has said the method was used because Collins' novel is written in the first person. It is meant to help us see the events of The Hunger Games through Katniss Everdeen's eyes, but more often than not, I yearned for smoother, steadier camerawork. There is a time and a place for shaky cam (you will not find a bigger fan of The Shield), but in The Hunger Games it feels like an unwelcome addition, getting in the way of a story and characters that don't need it (it is especially noticeable – and unnecessary – in the beginning of the film).
Anyone who has heard or read about The Hunger Games has come across the comparisons to Kinji Fukasaku's 2000 cult classic, Battle Royale. Both films have a remarkably similar central conceit; a group of children are put into a large natural arena and made to fight to the death. There are some further similarities between the two films, but I think it would be unfair to Collins to say she “ripped off” the Japanese classic. The Hunger Games is a broad story from the start; the Games themselves don't even start until halfway through the book. Battle Royale is about the battle; The Hunger Games is about the war. Where Battle Royale's focus is more limited and narrow, Collins' Games are part of a bigger tale and grander scale. Battle Royale isn't all that interested in what lies beyond the island its characters are made to fight to the death on. That film's plot is an extension of its character development, while the opposite is true for The Hunger Games. This film is plot heavy, its character development coming out of that plot, leaving many subplots and secondary characters unexplored.
If you are going to go that route and not keep you focus narrow, then you'd better go all out and put some effort into the broader story elements you include. Unfortunately, this has always been my biggest issue with Collins' novels and again here in the film version. As it stands, The Hunger Games is a pretty good YA action story, but it is average science fiction and even worse at examining the broader thematic issues it only briefly touches upon. While the connections to the Arab Spring, the 99% and reality TV culture are there, The Hunger Games only grazes the surface of them, missing a golden opportunity to speak to issues at the heart of those events and to connecting with the masses on a level beyond merely being an entertaining escape. The Hunger Games is good, but it could have been so much more.
The 411: The Hunger Games is a solid, entertaining film. It's got an interesting plot and a strong, compelling central character. The Games themselves are entertaining, if a bit standard, and lack the impact and effectiveness found in Suzanne Collins' novel. While we get a great sense of Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark, none of the other characters – in or out of the arena – are given much beyond a single character trait (Haymitch is a drunk, Effie has bright hair and an affected way of speaking). Jennifer Lawrence is superb, easily the best aspect of the film. She rises to every scene and is dynamic in a way that makes it easy to see why two boys would fall in love with her and why a country would be galvanized by her actions – even if she doesn't fully understand the role she is playing in the grander scheme of things. As a YA action film, The Hunger Games is pretty good, but it comes up a bit short at being truly great science fiction or a film that effectively tackles real world events or truths in life. There is so much potential in the material that it keeps you engaged and guessing. While it may not totally match the insane hype surrounding it, it says something about Lawrence and the film's other strengths that it does manage to entertain and be reasonably compelling for the most part, instead of getting crushed under the weight of all that hoopla. Recommended.