Mar 23 2012 9:50am

A Thoughtful Adaptation That Adds Greater Depth: A Review of The Hunger Games

In an era when current sci-fi projects vacillate between the beloved Star Trek remakes and the laughable “space jail” adventure Lockout, Lionsgate and Gary Ross have brought us a fascinating piece of speculative fiction that is an utterly disturbing commentary on human evolution and survival. The Hunger Games is not the next Twilight; if anything, it brings to mind the last two Harry Potter films, but even then, it stands alone as a parable about war as entertainment.

In the four years since Suzanne Collins’ novel was published, fans have hatched theories about the Capitol and what led Panem to institute this annual deathmatch pitting its young citizens against one another. We’ve probed the physical and figurative borders of the twelve districts and pondered Katniss as a romantic heroine and a mentally ill antihero. This film will only further that conversation, with undoubtedly thoughtful meditations on the characters, customs, and conflicts of the trilogy.

Despite any fears from fans about inaccurate castings, not a single member of this ensemble stumbles. Believe it or not, Jennifer Lawrence, relatable and humble on the red carpet, has Katniss’ essential unlikeability down. She plays the character as fiercely self-sufficient, the quintessential fish out of water raging at her unfamiliar surroundings. However, the best performance is Josh Hutcherson’s nuanced portrayal of Peeta: Understated and sensitive, painfully aware of how disadvantaged he is in the Games. Unlike Katniss, who is basically the best candidate that District 12 could offer, Peeta knows that the odds will never be in his favor. The film accurately handles each character’s brief elation at making the Capitol citizens laugh or coo over their stories, only to have those hopes dashed when they witness a rival tribute playing those same heartstrings.

Woody Harrelson manages to make an old drunkard a commanding presence, and he meshes well with uber-proper Effie in an odd-couple partnership we’re excited to see develop in the coming films. Elizabeth Banks was our first peek into Capitol fashion and etiquette, and though she has only a few moments that weren’t already revealed in the trailers or the Capitol Couture site, she is nonetheless radiant as a woman who has drunk the Capitol Kool-Aid.

The decision to cast unknowns or early-career actors as the other tributes was smart, as it lends a meta dimension to these secondary characters: They’re young professionals who’ve had only brushes with fame, now living out that much-scrutinized role. Some of them have agendas, like the sexual Glimmer or the muscled Cato, but not a one of them knows how to handle this situation.

I’ve heard fans say that the movie has a ‘70s sci-fi vibe, but considering my limited experience in that genre beyond the early Star Wars movies, I’m going to put forward another possible science fiction influence: Joss Whedon’s Firefly. James Newton Howard’s score evokes the space opera with its simple strains, soaring against the bleakness of District 12 and almost brittle as they clashes with the Capitol, a city so shiny it almost hurts to look at.

Director Gary Ross’ greatest achievement in this adaptation is to uncover the inner workings of the Capitol and the Games itself. It’s a scare tactic but also a thriving business that employs many a morally ambiguous citizen. The “game room” is a fantastically unique touch: Bringing to mind the war room from the Star Wars space battles, we watch Seneca Crane take up the same post that Admiral Ackbar once held, as dedicated to sabotaging Katniss with fire and muttations as the Mon Calamari was to destroying the Death Star.

The mechanics of the Games are not lost on Katniss, who gazes up into the digital grid of the Arena sky from her perch in the trees at night. (I was surprised that the producers decided to make the Arena so obviously fabricated, when that realization plays a major part in the second book, Catching Fire.) I won’t give too much away about the Games themselves; just as the trailers showed us very little of the fighting, I want you to enter the deathmatch with as few expectations as the tributes themselves.

When we’re not following Katniss through the Arena, we’re also privy to other strategizing: President Snow uttering quiet threats to smother hope in the districts as he tends to his rose garden, and Haymitch threading his way through Capitol society to garner sponsors for his stubborn charge. His ability to move between social groups belies his earlier drunken ineptitude. Then there’s Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), bringing to mind Today show commentators at the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as he dissects the Games from the comfort of his studio, making sure that the millions of viewers don’t miss one second of the Katniss/Peeta love story or the Survivor-style alliances.

The Hunger Games represents an unprecedented effort on the part of producers and the studio to interact with the fanbase and match their expectations and humor. The costume designers gave Wes Bentley a rocking beard—fans responded by creating a Facebook page dedicated to it—Bentley gave that fanpage a shout-out. You can see that interplay with the sly but subtle allusions to reality television mentioned above.

The tone firmly strikes a middle ground—never campy, but also not deathly serious. The movie could have benefitted from a little more humor, especially with Katniss and Peeta’s etiquette lessons with Effie, but there are still expressions and juxtapositions that made the audience laugh even with a language barrier. (I saw the movie in Paris.) At the same time, I was miffed to see that some of the book’s more disturbing details regarding the Games’ violence were omitted or glossed over as we crawled toward the ending. However, let me emphasize that this is the most faithful adaptation we could have, and it has much more depth than the similarly dedicated but critically panned Watchmen.

The truest indication of The Hunger Games’ strength as a story is that it inspired Ross and his crew to bring it to life and incorporate their own interpretations of Collins’ world with confidence that fans would welcome this added dimension.

Natalie Zutter is a playwright, foodie, and the co-creator of Leftovers, a webcomic about food trucks in the zombie apocalypse. She’s currently the Associate Editor at Crushable, where she discusses movies, celebrity culture, and internet memes. You can find her on Twitter.

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Colleen Palmer
1. arianrose
Oh, wow, this makes me even more excited to see it. The most fascinating parts of the books to me were the parts outside of the Arena. I'm fascinated that they leave Katniss and show other views on what's actually going on.

(And I'm a wuss when it comes to violence in movies, so I'm not that saddened that they removed some of that. Rather the contrary.)
lake sidey
2. lakesidey
Just got back from seeing it - I quite liked it. A lot of detail from the book was (unsurprisingly) left out, many minor characters and scenes pruned (or should that be reaped?). Still, it was enough faithful to the book to keep me happy

One thing I felt though was that someone who hasn't read the book might not get all the nuances (quite a few people in the audience seemed to have this problem). So if you haven't read it, consider doing that first.

If you're already a fan, though, I'd have no hesitation in saying - go see it. And may the odds be with you!

Jenny Kristine
3. jennygadget
"At the same time, I was miffed to see that some of the book’s more disturbing details regarding the Games’ violence were omitted or glossed over as we crawled toward the ending."

I can see the argument for that, but I also understand why they did so. It's not just a matter of keeping it PG-13 to capture more ticket sales, I also think sometimes it's easy for adults to forget how shocking it can be to be 13 and see violence on screen being perpetrated against other teens. Especially when that violence is, at it's root, being caused by adults.

There is a lot of violence in moves for teens and kids, but it tends to be either cartoon violence, or violence that is being done to adult characters. It's still relatively rare to see teens - not college age kids but 12-17 year olds - being subjected to extreme violence. When that violence does happen, it tends to be monsters (like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park) not cold blooded murder being orchestrated by the adults whose job it is to feed and clothe and educate them. Even in Harry Potter, until the last few movies/books, the kids were running around saving the world behind the adults backs - the adults that were out to get them were exceptions to the rule and were sometimes dealt with by other adults, not the kids themselves.

I think the director and the rest were also very conscious of making sure that they were not ever going to be the kind of movie that was passed around among peers as a movie that was fun to see for the gore. I think the fact that they focused on, for example, the banality of dealing with a sword wound drove home the point to their target audience more than more blood when it was being spilled would have.

The theater I was in - which was full of mostly 12-24 year olds - did very little cheering or anything like that. It was almost complete silence from the moment the film proper began rolling. I got the impression that it wasn't just about making sure everyone could hear, but rather about being respectful of what was happening to the tributes. It was like the silence that followed Cedric's death, only extended throughout the whole movie.

There were a few parts that I found it interesting and questionable that they left out or added in early, but I don't think more physical violence would have made sense.
Jennifer McBride
4. vegetathalas
I just saw it, and it was great. One of my favorite book-to-movie adaptations ever. They were faithful, but not slavishly so. I loved it.

But they did change the ending somewhat. And they used a whole lotta shaky-cam at the beginning. So keep your Dramamine on standby.

I want to force my boyfriend to grow a beard like Seneca Crane's...
5. Snapdragon
Well, as someone who's never read the books, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the film.

I really liked the psychological aspects (the viewers' reactions to Rue and Katniss's relationship, for example) and how it showed the unreality and manipulation that go into reality TV.

Are the books in first person or third? I liked some of the scenes that showed the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of Haymitch et al, but arianrose's comment @1 makes it sound like that stuff isn't explicitly shown in the book.

And that beard was indeed awesome.
Jenny Kristine
6. jennygadget
@ Snapdragon

They are in first person. The behind the scenes scenes - which are not in the first book at all - were a way of conveying the same information as some of Katniss' internal monologues. A lot of what she and Peeta do and say is meant to be strategic, but since they can't have her voice over her thoughts and reasoning (or, they could but I'm glad they did not) they show the Gamemakers and citizens reacting to her choices - and then in turn affecting the Games.

The behind the scenes scenes aren't entirely made up either though, much of them, like the riots, are borrowed and reconstructed from information that Katniss learns in the sequels.
7. Kat4
Just back from seeing it, and the 16 or so year old guy next to me was audibly shaken by the kills. He was there with a female friend, hadn't read the books, and I think the fact that kids were killed really shocked him. So yeah, while I think the film glossed some of the tougher parts of the book, they read their potential audience wisely.
john mullen
8. johntheirishmongol
I took my wife to it last night. I had read the first book, she had not. We both enjoyed it. It is disturbing to see images of young getting killed but it's a movie and you have to realise it. I do have an issue with the filming of the violence and that is that you get confusing images with no overall sense of what is going on. This type of filming began with Gladiator and I don't care for it.
Steve Taylor
9. teapot7
I just saw the film - accidentally, due to them changing the screening schedule for John Carter :( - without having read the books or having paid much attention to their popularity, so I'm the perfect "non fan" audience.

It was pretty decent, and where it really shone was in showing how easy it was for people to be complicit in the system around them - to give away just a little bit of themselves for approval or advantage, and then to give away just a little bit more next time.

I don't know if that was evident in the books or original to the movie but either way, it was very well handled.
Rob Munnelly
10. RobMRobM
Saw it yesterday. For me, 3 1/2 out of 5.

Loved the opening and how it took time to set the scene in District 12 and establish characters. Loved the acting - strong across the board. Loved the set design - strong across the board.

My weakness is that the movie misplayed several key scenes in a way that affected the story impact. One example is Katniss's performance with the Gamekeepers; another is how Peeta's injury and the process by which Katniss has to procure medicine; a third is the key Katniss-Peeta cave time in general. There are others as well. (I won't give details for spoiler purposes.) All could have, and should have, stayed closer to the book and would have been stronger.

In sum, a good, enjoyable movie that could have been truly great.
Jennifer B
11. JennB
I just saw it and I loved it. I wish that they had left in the gift from District 11. I really missed that little loaf of bread. It was so meaningful. I also think that they gave Snow a little too much screen time with Seneca Crane. Crane was all about ratings, but he would not have ignored a direct order from President Snow. That just doesn't make sense.
Bill Capossere
12. Billcap
I thought they did an overall excellent job with the film. My only semi-large complaint was that we didn't get to see more of a process with Haymitch--thought he turned too sober too smooth too effective all too quickly. Lawrence was fantastic, as was Harrelson, and Peta was also strong. Banks is economically deployed to great effect, as is Sutherland, who does dignified creepy menace so well.

The violence--while part of me wanted more to better capture the disturbing aspect of it, which was after all such a huge part of the book, I really can't fault them for toning it down to keep the PG-13. Which is also I'd guess part of the reason for the quick cut/shaky camera. In an ideal world, an intelligent board would allow for more shown violence in a story about violence and its effects, as opposed to just gratuitous violence, but, sigh.

I thought they did a nice job filling in the background scenes with Snow, the game-running itself.

I actually could have lived with another 20 minutes (and how often does one say that nowadays about a movie?) to flesh out some more of the characters. But even so, it was effective. I was worried how on-screen time would impact Rue material, but it really didn't.

The audience clapped quietly at the end, clearly impressed and moved.

Highly satisfied with it
Gerd K
13. Kah-thurak
I was a little underwhelmed by the movie. Even though I did not read the books it was pretty obvious, that a lot of character development and maybe some other crucial things were left out in this movie. As Billcap allready mentioned Haymitch goes from useless drunkard to effective mentor in too little time and with too little motivation. Also the relationship between Katniss and Peta is displayed in an awkward way. I dont really get, why she trusts him again so easily after he sided with the group that wanted to kill her.

Also it is not shown in a good way why she doesnt choose to kill any of her opponents after she attained the bow - she should have been able to do so, but instead she goes for the supplies, which does not really make sense without any inner conflict beeing shown. That all the other players which would really have been morally wrong for her to kill die by bad luck or are killed by others also seems a little to convenient for a plot that shied away from any really hard decisions.

I also really didnt like the shaky camera, though that is not something specific for this movie.

Otherall I would give the movie a 6 out of 10, for beeing a little above average, but missing the opportunitiy to do something really interesting.
Chris Wuestefeld
14. CWuestefeld
Just went to see "The Hunger Games". Overall, I approve of the movie adaptation.

My only complaint is with the cinematography. I HATE the shaky camera thing. And that, together with an overabundance of ultra-zoom closeup, had me thoroughly unable to see what was going on -- and I read the book, so I know the story.

For example, in the scene where she's shooting an arrow at the bag of fruit, I really have no idea what happened with that first shot. I simply couldn't decipher the scene in the time it was shown.

I do understand the idea of disorienting the viewer to convey the protagonist's own disorientation. But it's not worth it if the viewer can't understand anything else you're doing -- even more so, if like me, the shakiness gives you motion sickness.

So: quit it with the trendy cinematography. Get back with what we know works. The story is too significant to waste on stylistic experimentation.

That said, there was something else in the film that I don't remember from the book. Without giving too much away, did the book actually contain the two announcements of changes in the game's rules? I can only remember Katniss thinking about how the game would have to come to an end.
Debbie Solomon
15. dsolo
@14 - Yes, the two announcements were in the book, and Katniss and Peeta did decide to take the poison berries at the same time, provoking another change. At the time of the "two winner" announcement, the only other complete team was Cato and Clove. Katniss was shooting the bag of fruit to try to trigger the explosive devices around the supplies.
I thought the ending could have been a little more explicit in showing that Katniss thought she was acting the part of the "star-crossed lovers", and Peeta wasn't. They should have left in Haymitch informing her that she was going to have to keep it up forever, due to having to come to the Capitol every year for the Games. Also, Haymitch's drunkenness was played down too much, as the cause of it becomes clear in the later books.
Chris Wuestefeld
16. CWuestefeld
@15 - I pretty much agree with your comments.

To clarify about the arrow-fruit: I did understand what she was trying to accomplish. My point was that she apparently missed with her first shot. But I was unable to tell what happened different from her intent. I saw a bizarre light-gray screen flash briefly, and before I could decode it, the scene changed. The style of cinematography prevented me from understanding what that 1st shot did.

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