Review: The Hunger Games

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Coincidentally, I have been reading a lot about the gladiator games of ancient Rome. This gave me some additional insight into the film version of The Hunger Games that I was not completely aware of when reading the book. For instance, the name of the nation that has formed out of the ashes of the United States is Panem, which is Latin for bread, recalling the term Juvenal coined, “panem et circenses,” (bread and circuses), the strategy of the Roman Empire to keep the people soft and at bay by providing them food and entertainment. The Hunger Games reinforces this by littering Roman names throughout, such as Caesar, Seneca, and Cato.

Following a rebellion, the government of Panem has created the annual hunger games as a means of both punishment and reward. From each of the 12 districts of the nation come two “tributes,” aged 12 to 18, selected by lottery, one male, one female. In a large arena they will be pitted against each other until only one is left alive. This will be televised, complete with expert commentary, to the masses. The winner will be feted with riches. Perhaps the best reason for the existence of the games is spoken by the president, (Donald Sutherland): “A little hope can be effective. A lot of hope can be dangerous.”

We only see two of the districts. District 12 is in what was Appalachia, full of coal mines and poverty (apparently, Panem forgot about the bread part). Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the daughter of a deceased miner, supplements her meager table by being an expert hunter. Her younger sister is in her first year of eligibility for the games, but her odds are low (like the NBA draft lottery, the system is weighted by certain factors). But indeed the younger sister is chosen, and Lawrence immediately volunteers to take her place.

Also chosen is Peeta Millark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker’s son. He has long had an unspoken crush on Katniss, and the two had a moment when he took pity on her and threw her an old piece of bread. As the games go on, they will fall in love, although, intriguingly, they pretend to at first just to make their stories more interesting, which gets them sponsors to provide them extras for the games.

The other place we see is the Capitol, which is in stark contrast. It is kind of an Emerald City, full of wonder where the people wear flamboyantly colorful apparel and wigs. Lawrence and Hutcherson are wined and dined as they are prepared for the games, where they will have a 23 out of 24 chance of dying.

The book, one of a trilogy and a publishing sensation, is for young adults but contains some grown-up ideas, especially about totalitarian governments and the human craving for violence. The author, Suzanne Collins, says she got the idea while flipping channels and seeing, in short order, a reality game show (presumably Survivor) and footage of the Iraq War (one might cynically suggest she had seen the Japanese film Battle Royale, which is in many ways similar).

The film version, directed by Gary Ross, is a disappointment. Like many films based on beloved books, it is reverent to the point of being suffocated by its source material. As with the book, one waits impatiently for the games to begin, as we get a lot of preparation, including exposition on the rules, etc. The film is a bit long at 142 minutes, and could have used some trimming.

Mostly, though, Ross is a bad choice for the material. His milieu is bland, middlebrow entertainment like Seabiscuit, and I suppose the producers of this film simply wanted to make sure no mistakes were made as they reap the whirlwind. The box office and “A” Cinemascore indicates they have done that. But for those of us who expected to be more challenged by the material, Ross is like a musician who hits all the right notes but doesn’t get the passion of the piece.

As it is, The Hunger Games is acceptable as a megaplex blockbuster. I’m not sure how those who haven’t read the book will respond. For those who have, almost everything is here. Lawrence and Hutcherson are given handlers, including a sort of publicist (Elizabeth Banks), a stylist (Lenny Kravitz), and a mentor (Woody Harrelson), who won the games previously. In his first scene, Harrelson is drunk and expresses no interest in helping the kids, but later will be a kind of comic relief as he exhorts Lawrence to victory. Harrelson is fun to watch, but there’s no reason given for his transformation.

I’ve loved Sutherland since he appeared in MASH, and he does a fine job here of a twinkly yet murderous president, but it’s hard to hear his voice anymore without thinking of his ads for airlines and oranges. Stanley Tucci is appropriately over the top as the Ryan Seacrest of the games, adorned in a purple suit and blue wig. As for the leads, Lawrence and Hutcherson are bland. Lawrence physically embodies the role, convincing us that she really could survive in the woods by eating squirrels (one can’t help but think back to her in a similar situation in Winter’s Bone), but the character is so taciturn that there isn’t much call for emotion. In the book she narrates, so there’s a lot of internalizing that can’t be expressed. Late in the film, though, when Katniss begins to rebel in her own way (such as by adorning one of the fallen children with flowers) we can begin to see Lawrence breaking through a bit.

As for the violence, as in the book, much of it is off-screen. Most of the bloodshed happens in montage. I wasn’t particularly impressed with the editing of this scene, nor of the entire film for that matter. Maybe my own blood lust demanded more. But many of the deaths are perpetrated through out-thinking opponents, such as the clever use of a hive of wasps.

I’m sorry that The Hunger Games team didn’t take a more daring approach to presenting the material. This will satisfy many, and that’s fine, but I would have liked to see more creativity.

My grade for The Hunger Games: C+.

About Jackrabbit Slim

Location: Vegas, Baby! I’m much older than the other whippersnappers here, a baby boomer. I tend to be more snobbish about film, disdaining a lot of the multiplex fare for “cinema.” My favorite films: Woody Allen’s oeuvre (up until about 1990), The Godfather, The Graduate, A Hard Day’s Night, Pulp Fiction. Politics: Well, George McGovern was my political hero. I’m also a prickly atheist. Occupation: Poised to be an English teacher in Las Vegas. For many years I was an editor at Penthouse Magazine. My role on this blog seems to be writing lots of reviews and being the resident Oscar maven.

13 responses »

  1. Nice review Jackrabbit. I ended up seeing this after work last night, and had a very similar response to you. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the cinematography which I had read about beforehand and was annoyed by (extreme closeups).

    Haymitch’s transformation could have easily been explained by dialogue (which it had been in the books) which was something to the effect of I’ll stay sober because we might actually have a fighting chance this year.

    I think they could have done a much better job of showing more of the uprisings in the other districts, which leads in to the second book. I kinda felt they tied everything up neatly at the end of the movie, not really leaving much anticipation for “what happens next?” which is how I felt after reading the 1st book.

    I think I have to agree with your C+.

  2. I’m sorry that The Hunger Games team didn’t take a more daring approach to presenting the material.

    I have a bunch of complaints about the movie, but this is the biggest one.

    I haven’t read the book, but this seems to me like tricky material to film, because there’s an inherent contradiction in the middle of it. How you make a movie about kids killing each other for entertainment of the masses, without turning it into that kind of entertainment itself? Surely there’s something grotesque about this, where the movie invites us to recoil at the treatment of these kids while at the same time asking us to sit back and enjoy watching them square off against each other. There’s even a character at the beginning who talks about how the Games would end if people stopped watching – he even mocks the audience for “picking their favorites and crying when they get killed,” or something to that effect. But that’s exactly the dynamic the audience has with the movie! The filmmakers seemed to have very little self-awareness on this score.

    Some elements I think were interesting but handled clumsily. The idea that some districts – perhaps those that are politically favored, although I don’t recall if this was made clear – train their kids specifically for the Hunger Games is provocative and makes some sense. But in the movie, not much was done with this point except to provide sneering stock villians. That’s boring.

    Along similar lines, the idea that tributes work for sponsors is pretty compelling and rings almost uncomfortably true. But in the movie, the only purpose it serves is similar to the magic spells in the Harry Potter movies – whenever someone’s in a bind, someone arbitrarily comes up with a spell to save the day. Same here, where the filmmakers seem to want the threat of injury and danger to seem ever-present, but when someone actually gets injured … Hey! No worries! Here’s some magic cream!

    I also liked, in theory, the idea that the TV producers can manipulate the arena settings, but again, the idea is presented and then used only for the requirements of the plot. We get a couple of extra action scenes and pointless CGI dogs – seriously, you’d think that they had a union-mandated CGI budget that they were required to spend – but that’s about it. I suppose this is actually a plausible way for a TV show to develop, with the manufactured conflict and audience-pleasing storylines, but this only goes to my first point about the movie being the same kind of entertainment that we’re expected to recoil from.

    There seems to be some confusion over what the movie is really about. The filmmakers don’t seem much interested in the social commentary that seems built-in to the story. At the same time, it’s too invested in its presentation of a dystopian future to work as a story about Katniss, and as noted in this review, it only makes occasional efforts to explore her character beyond her basic role in the plot.

    A lot of the first half, before the games actually start, should have been cut. The training sequences in particular were complete dead weight.

    I do think that it’s mostly well-cast, although Hutcherson is a total zero, which makes the love story (already kind of unwelcome and ham-handed) seem downright intrusive as the film is winding down. Harrelson’s character seemed the most interesting to me, and I actually thought that his “transformation” was pretty clear – he’s jaded with his role of “mentoring” meat for the grinder and wakes up as he notices that one of these kids has more gumption that usual. It seemed like he really came alive after Katniss did her bit with the apple.

    At any rate, there’s enough here that seems interesting to me that I feel I should maybe read the book. This seems potentially like good material that was just not handled well in the conversion to a franchise-minded film.

  3. Regarding Mark Reads, he lost me when he said he hates first person narrative. Some of the greatest works in literature are first person–did he hate The Great Gatsby, Moby-Dick, David Copperfield, Catcher in the Rye, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Sound and the Fury, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the work of Raymond Chandler? He’s kind of a dope.

  4. I’m not a big fan of first person narrative either but that doesn’t mean I didn’t like those novels (that I read). He certainly does come off as kind of a dope…perhaps that’s why I find it hilarious most times. Some of his shtick gets old quickly and catch phrase usage interminable, but when he hits upon a feeling that is the exact same as the one I had it’s a communal achievement that is uniquely “internet”

  5. He may be funny, Joe, but I just couldn’t get past that statement, which makes him sound like an ignoramus. It’s the same with movie bloggers who say they don’t like black and white films.

  6. I watched this over the weekend and in preparation for it I read the novel, which I found an excellent read, genuinely gripping and had me eagerly wanting to read the next book in the series.

    Unfortunately, my reaction was virtually the opposite to the film. Sadly, the negative comments from all here are pretty much spot on.

    The first 20 minutes or so I took a strong dislike to. I usually don’t mind ‘shaky-cam’ as much as some do, but I found it really off-putting as used by Ross here. Was totally the wrong way to set up the story and atmosphere and just left me cold.

    Things did pick up from that point, mainly once Haymitch entered the picture thanks to Harrelson’s being reliably entertaining. And after that opening 20 minutes, the film was professionally done.

    But at no stage did I feel any emotional investment in the characters or the story – considering the brutal and often vicious events that occur in the story, it’s amazing how bland the whole thing is.

    As JS said, it just feels like it exists to reproduce the novel, not to exist as a film on its own. If you haven’t read the book, I think it would be even worse to experience as you know of none of the detail of the relationships between the main characters that exist in the novel, which are presented superficially here (especially the relationship between Katniss & Rue). The film’s better to experience if you’ve read the novel but the film is still a much duller version, and is incapable of adding anything interesting of its own (with the possible exception of Sutherland as President Snow).

    Lawrence is pretty good in the lead, but is stymied by the passionless construction of the film..

    I’ll be reading the remaining books in the series, but don’t think I’ll be bothering with the remaining films.

    Rating: C

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