The Hunger Games (2012)
Directed by: Gary Ross
Running time: 142 minutes
Now Showing this week is The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville) and is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins. Having now gained a spot in the top five opening weekend box offices takes of all time, and being the first of those films to not be a sequel in a franchise, The Hunger Games can now no longer be ignored as a force to reckon with the likes of Twilight and Harry Potter (the other four films on the box office list). But before I go into my review of this film, I will throw up a spoiler warning as some of the points I wish to cover will touch upon important moments in the film. I apologise for that, but I have deemed it necessary. Also, I feel I may also come across as a little sadistic by the end of this review, but please judge not. I do so for the sake of art! I will forgo the plot synopsis for length reasons, if you would like my own plot synopsis please read my foresight into upcoming 2012 movies article.
Allow me to begin with the positives of the film: the performances of the actors in this film are excellent. I would not say that there was a bad apple amongst them, and they all performed their characters with conviction and skill. Jennifer Lawrence crafted a very good heroine in Katniss Everdeen; she found the perfect balance between her hard, cold exterior and her internal sense of vulnerability and maternity. I really do commend her on this as it must have been a tough thing to get right; it could have very easily slipped into simply being blank and lifeless but the life was there in her and it came out every now and then at moments that suited. Josh Hutcherson was quite good in the other leading role of Peeta Mellark, however I would say I didn’t quite believe his supposed betrayal in the Games. I know he didn’t actually betray her, but it didn’t seem like he would actually convince anyone that he had. And rather than list every single character one by one and say they were good, I’ll just have a final shout out to Woody Harrelson as previous Games winner Haymitch. I felt that Haymitch was the very embodiment of what I feel the tone of the story is; that huge sense of uselessness, resentment and disgust at the barbaric contest with which they are all part of.
Speaking of tone, the opening sections of the film really nailed the tone I was hoping for in this film. Beginning with some sinister text explaining the uprising of the Districts and the inception of the Games, it was followed by an interview with the Games coordinator about it the role it plays. Couple that with the “Reaping” and a sickening video of why the Games are a good thing (and the fact that it is being played to the people who are being exploited by the Capitol and the children who are about the be sent off to slaughter) and the introductory twenty minutes was excellent. Throw in a few news broadcasts featuring praise for previous contestants and their winning kills and the film had me. It had me right there, and I was sickened, as I and anyone else should be. And all the jokes coming from Effie (the Capitol rep assigned to the District) came off as disgusting, it was wonderful.
But the film wasn’t perfect. And so I move on to my criticisms. But before I do, I know that some of my criticisms stem from my being a fan of the novel; and as with all novel to film adaptations the fact that it can’t possibly be the same as my imagination etc. will be an issue. I have therefore tried to limit my actual criticisms to those that even if they stem from my liking of the book, they are still relevant and are detrimental to the story. Disclaimer over!
While we still have the novel in our minds, there were parts of the film that seemed to assume the audience had read the novel, and for any novel to film adaptation that is a bad thing. You should never, ever assume that everyone has read the source material. In The Hunger Games it wasn’t such a big issue as some of the latter Harry Potter films, but the problem was still there. The big one for me was that everyone was making quick reference to the fact that people’s names can be in the Reaping ballot multiple times but not explaining why this was so. As I recall, one could have their name added an extra time in exchange for a year’s supply of grain. To me, that is relevant information as to another way that the Capitol is oppressing the Districts. But like I said, not a big issue, but also you should never, EVER, assume the audience has read the book.
The characters of the Capitol made me feel very two sided. I found the Capitol to be a very imposing, immoral and disgusting antagonist of the film. On top of the joyful participants in the Games, the Capitol is the villain of the story, the oppressive government that is forcing this violence to occur. And the film was very good at presenting the Capitol in this way when they weren’t on camera. All the stuff I talked about earlier, with the opening sections of the film being so effective, all of that was because we never saw the Capitol; we just saw one representative and a sickeningly cocky video. But once we see them, we see that they are all a strange crowd of mardi-gras/carnivale weirdos. The speaking Capitol characters, such as the commentators, were very well performed and were excellent characters, but they looked just awful. All these different colours and ludicrous outfits didn’t make them seem overly materialistic and Dionysian; it made them look stupid.
The issue of actually seeing the Capitol in all their stupidity ties into another gripe I have, and I apologise because this one is very much a “it was better in the book” one, and that is that once the Games have begun the film still occasionally cuts back to outside the Games and showing what’s going on behind the scenes. One of my favourite aspects of the book was that once the Games began, Katniss was alone. She had to fend for herself, and any influence the Capitol or Haymitch was having on the Games was interpreted by her through their actions. We didn’t see the Capitol team setting up the forest fire, it just happened and we discovered that the Capitol could mess with the environment. We never saw Haymitch bargaining for sponsors and medicine; the packages just arrived and they were symbols rather than just items. And I have heard people say that they couldn’t have left it with just Katniss in the Games as things like the forest fire would not make sense. To that I say no, it is entirely possible, it just would have taken some establishment prior to the games. If you say that the Gamemakers can mess with the environment at will, then when the environment suddenly changes the audience will figure it out. Give them some credit.
One of the complaints I had about the novel was that the pacing was too fast. Once we were inside the Games, the book zooms through the week or two that they spend in the arena. This is mainly due to Katniss’ internal monologue suddenly jumping to new events that are sometimes hours after the one we just read but not having a chapter gap or anything. Anyway, in the film the pacing seems even faster. With only half the movie devoted to the Games, and it having to cross that length of time, it never really felt like the contestants had been in the Games for very long. While this sounds like a minor gripe, the reason I bring it up is I believe that character relationships suffered because of the quick pacing, especially the relationship between Katniss and the twelve year old girl contestant Rue. They had probably four minutes of screen time together before they separated and don’t meet again until (again, spoiler alert) Rue is killed. All their bonding, all their scheming, all the stuff that is there to make us care about her before her death is reduced to four minutes of screen time. As a result, Rue’s death, my favourite part of the novel as it brought a tear to my eye, did not have the same impact.
Speaking of Rue’s death, this leads me into my next point. They changed her death. The same thing happened to her (the spear to the stomach etc, but more on that sort of specifics later) but then they altered the events immediately following it. In the novel, After Katniss sings Rue to her final moments and arranges flowers on her body so as to show the Capitol what they have really done, she receives a package from outside the Games. Inside is a fresh loaf of bread, still warm. Katniss remembers that Rue was from District 11, the wheat farming district and the bread makers for the Capitol. The bread would have cost them a lot of money to send to Rue, and on her death they decided to thank the contestant who showed her some respect and was there for her. No words were spoken, it was all there in the image of a loaf of bread and it was beautiful. It was that moment that brought the tear to my eyes. But that doesn’t happen in the film. Instead, we see the people of District 11 suddenly turn on the Capitol militia that oversee them watching the Games. They kill guards, they ruin buildings, they express the decades of rage they feel against the Games. And it was very powerful, and very appropriate; however I am just wondering: why change it? I can understand changing aspects of novels that won’t directly translate to film, that’s fair, these things happen. But what about the scene I described would not have worked on film? With some establishment of District 11’s role in the world prior to Rue’s death, everything would have fit perfectly. Why did they change it?
But now we come to the big question on all of your minds. The question you all want answered after you read my previous foresight to The Hunger Games (I know this because it’s been the first thing I have been asked by almost everyone I’ve seen after seeing the film). And that question is: what did I think about the way they handled the violence?
I hate to say this, but I wanted more. I don’t say that in a sadistic way, as a call for there to always be lots of blood and gore in everything I see. I say that because it felt for most of the film that it was dancing around the violence that was taking place; that the film was trying to avoid actually acknowledging the fact that these are teenagers murdering other teenagers for the entertainment of the wealthy masses. No one can deny that this is what is taking place, so I just wish they didn’t try to. You never really saw anyone actually hurt anyone, you just knew they did it thanks to quick cuts. But the violent moment with the most impact, both to me and the audience (I heard gasps), was when one of the older boys simply snapped the neck of a younger one. We saw it happen, in full, and it was brutal and horrible. You truly saw what this gluttonous Capitol has created. But in all the other moments you could tell that the film-makers were trying to hide it as much as possible. They never showed Rue get hit by the spear, only her taking it out and a little blood stain on her shirt. The bloodbath that opens the Games is full of quick cuts and is completely silent. I felt it would have been more effective if we could actually hear the screams and yells and the slicing of blades etc. To make it feel like how the soldiers who went to Gallipoli must have felt, having had the idea of war seem so glorious and honourable, to then arrive and hear the horrors of war’s true reality. The film had the chances to present these feelings and have these impacts, but it didn’t take them. And the reason for that is because of the demographic the film is being marketed towards: fifteen to sixteen year olds.
But having said all this, and putting aside the part of me that is a fan of the book, The Hunger Games is a good film. It has a great story, interesting characters and without prior book knowledge the narrative makes perfect sense. It is action packed and funny and thrilling; a great sci-fi adventure. And I will never understand how something that is about teenagers murdering each other for the entertainment of others is popular with the Harry Potter and Twilight crowd, but I am thankful that it is. They’re finally seeing the undeniable truth: dystopian science fiction is the best, every time.
See you next time!