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Review: ‘The Hunger Games’

Guest Blogger Reports On How The Book Compares To The Movie

Above: Stanley Tucci and the glamorous, not emaciated-looking Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."

Cinema Junkie will be posting two reviews for "The Hunger Games" (opening March 23 throughout San Diego): one from guest blogger Miguel Rodriguez, who read the book, and one by Beth Accomando (going up tomorrow) , who did not read the books.

Over nine months ago, I wrote a book review on Suzanne Collins’s “Hunger Games” novels for the KPBS Cinema Junkie blog. In that review, I expressed my apprehension over the inevitable film adaptations, helmed by “Seabiscuit” and “Pleasantville” director Gary Ross. Well,” The Hunger Games” is finally hitting theaters this weekend, and I had the opportunity to catch an advance screening on Wednesday. It seemed fitting that I should provide this review of the film in light of my previous article.

So, were my concerns valid? As it turns out, I am conflicted, so I will begin this with the positive aspects of the film. After a day’s reflection, I find that its overall effect has stayed with me for longer than most Hollywood blockbusters, which are more often than not forgotten seconds after leaving the cinema. I attribute a bulk of this to my appreciation for the source material. On a surface level, the film is remarkably faithful to the story and to the characters that populate it.

I will get that story out of the way here. It takes place in a future vision of North America called Panem in which the geography is divided into districts with a Capital at the center. The Capital lives in excessive opulence while the districts suffer increasingly extreme poverty as they go from District 1 to 12. As a way to maintain control, The Capital takes two adolescent tributes (aged 12 to 18) from each district to compete in a brutal televised last-man-standing battle to the death called The Hunger Games. Our protagonist is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence of "Winter's Bone"), a 16-year-old girl living in destitute District 12. Katniss volunteers to compete in The Hunger Games in order to replace her little sister, who was selected in a random lottery. The rest of the story follows Katniss through training and competition in The Hunger Games.

The film will probably make most fans of the books happy. A bulk of the credit for that goes to an impressive script that reveals the backstory of Katniss and her world in short bursts, without needlessly impeding the narrative. Adapting beloved text is tricky terrain that can go horribly astray, but this one was presented with greater finesse than I was expecting. Despite its two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time, there weren’t too many wasted scenes. Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins both worked on the screenplay, as did Billy Ray, whose credits ("Suspect Zero," "State of Play") suggest he was brought in to help with the scenes of tension.

Considerable credit also goes to the main cast, especially the performance by Jennifer Lawrence as the protagonist Katniss Everdeen. I mention her first only because the success of the film rests largely on her shoulders, and she was up to the task. All of the idiosyncrasies that made Katniss a relatable character are presented by Lawrence convincingly. Also, according to an archery teacher writing for Wired, she even demonstrated great form as an archer. Many of the supporting cast also offered solid performances, but I do think the show was stolen by every appearance of Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones as color commentators of the Hunger Games in progress.

Jennifer Lawrence stars in "The Hunger Games," which opened at 12:01am on March 23rd to multiple sell out crowds.

Lionsgate

Above: Jennifer Lawrence stars in "The Hunger Games," which opened at 12:01am on March 23rd to multiple sell out crowds.

The art and production design was also very well executed, which brings me to the elements of the film that are extremely frustrating. In the 14 years since ”Pleasantville,” “The Hunger Games” is only Ross’s third film as director. While his other films aren’t necessarily my cup of tea, they do demonstrate directorial competence and a penchant for the presentation of characters an audience can sympathize with. In “The Hunger Games,” Ross continues to deliver characters we can root for. Unfortunately, Ross also seems lost when skirting the delicate balance between bleak fantasy and stark realism, overtly violent themes and a neutered PG-13 rating. His answer to both those contradictions is a devastatingly unfortunate overuse of handheld, documentary-style camerawork—commonly referred to as “shakycam.”

In the cases of the scenes of violence, this is an understandable practice, albeit a teeth-grinding one. They needed to have children meet horrible ends while satisfying the MPAA that the film would be appropriate for its intended audience of 11-to-18 year olds. Obscuring the violence with a constantly moving image is one way to do that. It would be less painful if the camera got shaky during the few seconds of direct violence, but vast stretches of the film are marred (nearly ruined) by a constantly moving camera and increasingly quick edits that refuse give the audience any more than a fraction of one second to take in an image. In the first act, when we are introduced to Katniss’s impoverished District 12, the shakycam is so intolerable that any real message about their living conditions is completely lost. That is a grievous failure of cinematography—it’s simply lazy, stupid filmmaking.

One of the concerns I had was regarding the PG-13 rating imposed on books where extreme violence is a pertinent part of the entire theme. Neuter the violence and the whole purpose of the story fizzles away. Considering the effective way implied violence has been used in the past, I know that a PG-13 rating while maintaining thematic potency is possible, but it requires significant directorial flair. Unfortunately, the film is wildly inconsistent in this area. At times it is highly effective. The seconds leading up to the start of the games got my heart beating with its labored countdown building suspense. At other times, either the shakycam removes any sense of anything, or the edge has simply been taken away from the scenes that are particularly biting in the novel. The softening of the bite dilutes the drama and any message held therein.

In a similar way, the sting of poverty that is critical to the novel is hardly felt in the film. All the tributes look far too healthy. Even before her conditioning for the games, Katniss looks like she spends four days a week in a spa getting spray tanned. The most they do to hint at her squalor is give her some dirty nails. An attempt is made to show the conditions of the rest of District 12 and, while it isn’t a resort, it hardly seems like these are people having to struggle for a few crumbs a day. I don’t think Hollywood knows what that kind of poverty really looks like. Surprise!

"Are you hungry?"..."Nah, not really."... Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth as the not-so-hungry inhabitants of the supposedly poverty stricken District 12 in "The Hunger Games."

Lionsgate

Above: "Are you hungry?"..."Nah, not really."... Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth as the not-so-hungry inhabitants of the supposedly poverty stricken District 12 in "The Hunger Games."

The failings of “The Hunger Games” film don’t make it unwatchable—far from it—but they are extra frustrating in light of the care put into the rest of the film. Gary Ross has gone on record defending the shakycam as a way for us to “look through the characters’ eyes,” but it really just doesn’t work. Even if we were going through those scenes, the human brain has a way of making us at least partially aware of our surroundings. Some of the camerawork in this was just a mess of nonsense. I hope this trend dies sooner, rather than later.

In the end, the quality outweighs the negative, and “The Hunger Games” is an exciting adventure that will probably make tons of money. This review is largely a ceremonial exercise because I know that people are going to see the film regardless of what is written, but I do want to end this with an interesting thought. One of the things I found fascinating about the books is how, even though we are supposed to want revolution and an end to the horror of the games, we still feel the thrill of the action. It is a commentary on the human condition that, in a way, is interactive with the reader—we find ourselves relating to the citizens of the capital who spend every day glued to their TV screens and making bets. I saw something similar during the film. During scenes of rebellion or forced romance, many members of our audience loudly cheered, oohed, or aw’ed. The reader and the audience become the capitol audience.

--Miguel Rodriguez is the director of Horrible Imaginings Film Festival, a San Diego festival dedicated to the horror genre. He also hosts Monster Island Resort Podcast when he isn’t reading, watching movies, or planning to take over the world.

Comments

Avatar for user 'monstress'

monstress | March 23, 2012 at 7:12 p.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

I hadn't really thought about the relationship between the cinematography and the need to get a rating that allowed teenagers and tweens to see a film based on a YA book. It's kind of sad that what is acceptable to read in the books is not acceptable to show in theaters. And it makes me wonder what a more gifted cinematogrpaher/director would have done with the challenge if one had taken on the movie (and if films based on YA novels didn't have such a stigma).

I'm also interested in how Katniss and the other teens chosen still had to be portrayed as healthy and attractive from the start and the ugliness of their world had to be toned down, both sort of lending themselves to your point that the audience in the theater and the audience in the capital are positioned together.

Thanks for a thought-provoking review.

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | March 25, 2012 at 12:58 p.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

This movie doesn't deserve the attention and credit that everyone appears to be giving it. I'm going to take some time and hopefully don't run out of space to express my disappointment with this film.

The script is horrible leading to some much worse after-effects. The pace is ok but very little develops in terms of the story or the characters, any of them in fact. The movie takes it time to explain to the audience what it has already told at the very beginning, but in doing so it presents some mindless, shallow characters along with some pointless trials and presentations that each of the chosen has to go through.

I'll explain. All characters have no backstory at all, save for the main character and even hers is sketchy at most. What we know is that she's strong, takes care of her mom and baby sister, can shoot well with a bow, has a good friendship with a boy and...that's it. This is not enough for a main character. As for the rest of the contestants you get NADA. This is bad because if you're attentive you wonder why the hell some of the others like the violence, why they enter again, and so forth. Then you wonder about the boy with her, supposedly very strong because he's been lifting bags. Great, something to add to her bow skills. Neither skills are use properly throughout the entire film. He was just baggage nothing else worthwhile that the film cared to show. Her bow skills comes down to one kill in close range while she gets Rue killed. Most people would think she's a ranger with some skills but this is not the case because the movie does very little to showcase anything really. Action is not a part of this movie, sorry.

Obtaining sponsors was a complete waste of the movie's middle half. All that training, presentations, speeches and drama...they were all for nothing. All the warnings of how to survive the wilderness was pointless. Why you ask? Well, for one thing you don't see a single sponsor drop a single match to whomever they had picked. What was the whole point of the movie middle then? You got me. To be fair Katniss got several items but they were most likely not from sponsors but rather from Wood Harrison's character (because of the ramarks).

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | March 25, 2012 at 12:58 p.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

The use of camera was horrible, so horrible I almost threw up a few times after 15mins into the movie. The shaky camera work is NOT put to good use and shakes more than CSI but not as bad as Blair Wtich.

The game itself is stupid. I can imagine very young kids liking this idea but to younger adults and adults like myself it's painful to watch. Again, let me explain. all 12 Tributes are toss into this very controlled wilderness. Setting aside how the games starts and half of the tributes are slaughtered, lets focus on the game itself. When someone is killed there is a cannon that goes off follow by a picture. Well, this isn't consistent throughout the movie and at one point towards the end when Katniss thought her fellow district 12 (forgot name) might have been killed and begins to search I almost laugh my ass off in the theater. I'm like, there's the cannon now comes the....wtf, the movie takes off on its own to give the audience the sense of danger, worry, suspense, etc while Katniss searches and yells out loud for him. Well, she not only found him but the dead person which the Capital never showed. More on this below.

Later in the movie, the black guy is killed by vicous dogs "produced" by the Capitol out of thin air. The canon goes off and his picture is shown to all. Okayyyyy. That was easy enough. What then was all that crap above? And as I've mentioned the Capital can controll EVERYTHING in this wilderness, even produced the dogs that probably doesn't exist. What this means for us adults is that the Capital has utter complete control who they want to win. This is obvious when they prevented Katniss from reaching one of the borders, in flames and broken small branches of course. But the best part was the huge fireball seemingly coming out of nowhere.

This leads to the movie not really explaining why when Katniss raised 3 fingers that Rue's district rioted, why the others didn't. Worse, since all district knew the rules of the game why it hadn't happened before, if they did. The movie doesn't explain. Maybe because it was the tenderness in which Katniss treated Rue? If matters not because EVERYONE knows there's ONLY ONE survivor. All the young and small will not survived as showed when they are toss into the game itself. Then you wonder, is she going to be some sort of leader for a future rebellion? But the movie gives you nothing else.

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | March 25, 2012 at 12:59 p.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

All the hints that Woody gave to Katniss prior to being send to the game itself was all worthless. The movie did little to show the 5%, 10% and 20% death rate causes in the game. Water? Plenty, heck there's a huge river by the looks of the map. Cold? I don't know, several nights tie up in the tree with nothing on but the same clothes seems fine; several nights sleeping on the ground seems fine too. Diseases and injury? Apparently nothing on this as well. So then, again, what was all the drama in the middle for?

The medicine used in the movie not only cures but it cures and heals overnight, almost completely! The technology of the Capitol is astounding to say the least but enjoys the barbaric games that is held. Strange.

As Beth mentioned all 12 districts are suppose to by very poor. I did not get the sense of it at any point in the movie at all. Her flashback of the bread was worse than anything trying to resemble "poor" in the movie. In this sense one cannot really associate, at least not for me.

The neo post-war custom design is ludicrous. It's like those of Judge Dredd. Was ok for when it was released but shortly afterwards are utterly ridiculous. I can appreciate what they are trying to convey though as with many British type Neo post-war literature tries to do. Maybe I favor the Neo post-war of Japan like those in Akira and many other films.

Characters are lacking any sort of story to them. Woody's character seems to be a anguished rebellion trapped within the Capitol waiting for the right time to rise up and rebel. His mate, I assumed, is straight Capitol material with her manners and what not. Why she does to districts to pick and such I have no idea. What is her role in the Capitol, the games, to the tributes? Shrug. It appears shes only there to give the 2-3 remarks such as "That's oak wood!" and scare the audience with he costume. As for the other tributes there are almost 0 detail about them. How can this possible be when the movie is about them? I just really don't understand. How can anyone possible care for any of the 12 when they know absolutely nothing about them? Maybe just showing how young, small, innocent and cute Rue is is enough? No, it's not.

The ending. The ending was bad. The both came home on the 200mph speed train to a standing applause and ovation. I'm sitting there wondering why? These two just survived a hellish nightmare that EVERYONE knows about and even watched on the big screen. If anything, they would be comforting more than celebrating. And if they had the right to celebrate, was it for them surviving? winning for district 12? Or simply that it was the only once occasion to be happy in any district? Are they getting anything from winning? I can imagine Katniss having horrible nightmares about the game much like how she felt when Rue died in her arms (which I think was her fault for being portrayed as a ranger but have little sense to move her and Rue out of the way).

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Avatar for user 'The0ne'

The0ne | March 25, 2012 at 1 p.m. ― 2 years, 9 months ago

Well, I can go on and on but this movie was way too hyped. I have never been so disgusted with a movie in such a long time now. The script was bad, no character development whatsoever, ridiculous game setting, inconsistent portrayal of too many things to list, bad use of camera especially the nauseating shaky style, etc...

Again, sorry for the long post but it had to be said. This movie is not worth 2-3 stars at most. It's so bad I remember it enough to debate with anyone here if only to make it clear why I said what I said.

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