Skip to main content

Review (2): ‘The Hunger Games’

Does The Film Work Even If You Haven’t Read The Books?

Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in

Credit: Lionsgate

Above: Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in "The Hunger Games."

I posted a guest review from someone who had read the 3-book "Hunger Games" series. I thought I would also give you a review of "The Hunger Games" (opened March 23 throughout San Diego) from the perspective of someone who had never picked up the books.

I don't have a lot to add to guest blogger Miguel Rodriguez's review of "The Hunger Games," but I did want to weigh in as someone coming to the film with no background information from the books to fill in the blanks. And I wanted to add my two cents about the whole shakycam trend.

I will admit that compared to "Twilight," the most recent young adult book to be brought to the screen with great fanfare, "The Hunger Games" looks good. But then I might embrace just about anything because "Twilight" was so problematic for me. It was not just badly made and a poor story about a whiny lovesick girl and her anemic boyfriend but it also had those damned sparkling vampires. "The Hunger Games" is less silly and aims a little beyond the tweener girls that are "Twilight's" mainstay.

"The Hunger Games'" novelist Suzanne Collins cites Greek mythology and Spartacus as inspiration for her books. Some have accused her of stealing the idea of kids battling to the death from the Japanese book/film/manga/anime "Battle Royale." Perhaps, but doubtful, especially since the motivation for the kids killing kids comes from two very different places. "Battle Royale" was a reaction to a rapid rise in youth violence in Japan and the growing fear that kids were wild and out of control. The "game" in "Battle Royale" was designed more as punishment for the unruly children to teach them a lesson, as well as to drop the population of the youthful offenders. "The Hunger Games" harkens back to Greek mythology and the notion of lives sacrificed as a tribute. There are heroes/heroines in "The Hunger Games." There are survivors in "Battle Royale."

In case you don't know the story, "The Hunger Games" is set in a futuristic, post-apocalyptic America. The reason for the apocalypse is unclear in the film -- perhaps war or global warming or just human stupidity. But the result of the upheaval is that there is now an opulent and repressive ruling class and government that has divided the rest of the country into 12 districts. Each year, each district offers up one boy and one girl, aged 12 to 18, as a "tribute." The 24 tributes then engage in a battle to the death in which only one child can emerge a winner. The games are televised and the tributes must try to find sponsors that will help them get what they need to survive. The focus of the film is Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a young woman who volunteers as tribute in order to save her little sister from having to go. Katniss is the Spartacus, the slave who becomes the rebel leader.

Without the background details from the novel, the film comes across as rather vague and generic. I get the feeling that the big plot details are all present and accounted for but the details, the nuance, and the ideas are what's been lost in the translation from page to screen. We get a sense of the great divide between the have's and the have not's. The luxuries of the wealthy are well played up but the poverty gets a nice glossing over as it did in Steven Spielberg's "The Color Purple." The problem with this is that the people we see in Katniss' District 12 as well as those in other districts don't seem that badly off. They don't look like they are starving and living in oppressive conditions. So without that gritty sense of their world it is hard to understand why parents reveal so little outrage as their children are led to slaughter. I got a similar feeling of dissatisfaction with "Never Let Me Go," in which children cloned to provide organs for their rich genetic twin, never question their fate or resist it. We need to see why these people have become so passive.

The early goings of the film are not very compelling and this is probably due mostly to director Gary Ross' choice of relentless shakycam. Ross, like Joe Wright in "Hanna," are dramatic directors venturing into the action realm and not quite certain of what to do when they get there.

When I questioned Wright about all the fast cuts and shakycam in the early parts of "Hanna," he initially dismissed my complaint as a generational thing -- someone my age simply wouldn't get that fast action pace. Ha! I live on action films and the best of them -- like a good musical -- know when to pull back and just let the action play out. But Wright ultimately made this confession: "To be honest some of those sequences were near the beginning of the shoot and I was a lot less confident of shooting action at that time and so I probably didn't have the confidence to let certain sequences play out and was sort of trying to learn how to shoot action on the job really."

Wright's and now Ross' first response is to go all shaky, like "The Blair Witch Project" and Paul Greengrass' "Bourne" films. After all, that shaky camera conveys realism and a first person point of view, and will pull the viewer into the character's world like a first person shooter video game, right? Wrong... on multiple levels! This visual style needs to be motivated and in the early part of the film there is no reason for the shaky camerawork. Video games offer steadier shots because they understand that gamers want to see what's going on. The human eye sees better than this even if a person is running. And if it's a documentary feel he's after, documentary cameramen try to keep their camera steady. It reminds me of when Dick Van Dyke explained that when you play a drunk you are not a person trying to walk crooked and off balance, you are someone desperately trying to walk straight and balanced. It's the same with shakycam -- all efforts should be made to keep the shot steady then you will get enough movement to convey hand held camerawork but not so much movement the audience needs Dramamine. The key is understanding the difference between hand holding a camera and deliberate shakycam. Once the film gets to the games and the pursuit through the forest the shakycam is more motivated and tolerable but still poorly done.

Greengrass in the "Bourne" films is one of the worst offenders of this shakycam, which is ironic since he used it so well in "Bloody Sunday." When I interviewed him back in 2002 this is what he said about depicting violence: "When I started as a young filmmaker I made documentaries. I've been making dramas but you never forget your roots. I remember being in places like Beirut or El Salvador or the Philippines--places where there were tremendous conflicts--and what a camera does in a conflict is become skittish. You very rarely see people shot on camera for one good reason, when guns start going off, nobody really knows where the shooting is coming from and no one can predict where the bullets are going to land. And then eventually when the camera settles, you see the cost, you see it there and that was really how I tried to do it."

"When the camera settles." That is key! The camera needs to come to rest more often so that the exaggerated movement stands out by contrast. Ross never learns this lesson. I'll pitch in for a tripod on the next "Hunger Games" installment if he promises to use it. Okay, that finishes my rant on shakycam.

Photo caption: Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."

Photo credit: Lionsgate

Elizabeth Banks and Jennifer Lawrence in "The Hunger Games."

Some of the things "The Hunger Games" gets right are the production design and the sense of a media show. Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones are perfect as smarmy TV hosts all pumped up on ego and celebrity. Ross gets the TV show right, and he also does a fine job building some tension leading into the opening of the games. But once the games start, it's back to glossy formula. When Katniss gets injured a "magic" ointment seems to cure her wound as if it had never happened. That pulls us out of the reality of what it would be like to be struggling for survival while injured. The violence -- in keeping with the PG-13 rating, is relatively bloodless and painless. The irony is that Ross gives us a Hunger Game much in the same way that Stanley Tucci presents it in the futuristic world -- as glossy entertainment without much root in the real world.

"The Hunger Games" (rated PG-13 for for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images - all involving teens) has solid acting from Jennifer Lawrence, who in many ways is just playing her character from "Winter's Bone." Both young females live in poverty, have moms that have mentally checked out, are protective of their younger siblings, and are smart and focused when it comes to pursuing a goal. "The Hunger Games" is by no means a great film. It is not in league with the adaptation Peter Jackson did of "The Lord of the Rings" novels. But "The Hunger Games" offers a smart, unsentimental heroine who is refreshing and a storyline that at least hints at some more complex ideas about governments, repression, and standing up for what you believe is right.

Companion viewing: "Battle Royale," "Logan's Run," "Lord of the Flies"

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.