Review: 'The Hunger Games'
Guest Blogger Reports On How The Book Compares To The Movie
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.
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!
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.