The Hunger Games (2012)

Film #28: The Hunger Games (2012)

The Hunger Games is the highly anticipated film adaptation of the 2008 Suzanne Collins novel of the same name. I read The Hunger Games and its two sequels last year, so I’m familiar with the world of Panem and Katniss Everdeen. Since the books are interesting and easy to read, I’m assuming that most of the people going to see the movie have also paid dues with the source material. For those who haven’t, I’ll recap the backstory: In an undisclosed point in the future, North America has become Panem, a nation split into a Capitol and 12 subservient districts. At one point, there was an uprising from the districts against the Capitol. After this rebellion was put down, the 13th district getting destroyed in the process, the Capitol instated a rule to remind the districts of their failure every year. An annual raffle is held (“the reaping”), during which one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 are drawn from each district. These 24 children are placed in an arena and have to fight to the death. The winner takes home a lifetime supply of food (valuable in the resource-scarce world of the districts) and glory for their district. This deadly battle royale is called The Hunger Games.

Anyone who reads a book before going to see the film version is going to have the same concern: Does the movie adequately capture all of the nuances of the book’s world? The Hunger Games has a lot of backstory to it, a whole geopolitical arrangement that takes quite some time to fully explain. Hunger Games readers, you can rest easy. The film handles the transcription from literature to cinema better than any adaptation I’ve seen before. The film begins with some subtitles giving a quick and dirty rundown of the history, pretty much what I gave in the opening paragraph. This isn’t enough to explain everything, but it does situate the unfamiliar viewer into the proper setting. The rest of the details – from the mining accident that killed Katniss’ father to the genetically-mutated insects the Capitol uses as hazards in the game – are dropped in sporadically throughout the film. There’s tons of these little details that makesThe Hunger Games so enthralling, and the film splits the burden of explanation across a number of means – there are video presentations from the Capitol, flashbacks that Katniss experiences, dialogue between characters, and the ever-present announcing of Caesar Flickerman. Through all these methods combined, the film does the impossible and fully translates the world of the novel into cinema. It probably helps that Suzanne Collins wrote the screenplay herself, which was then revised by director Gary Ross and screenwriter Billy Ray.

The Capitol's skyline (image source)

Perhaps the best translation from book into film comes in the form of Katniss herself. The film’s protagonist is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who embodies the mental image that any reader of the novel must have had of the character. Katniss is a no-nonsense pragmatist who realizes that the world she lives in is unfair, but deals with it anyway. When her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) is drawn for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to replace her instead, the first ever volunteer from the desolate mining District 12. While her fellow District 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) is worried about the Games changing who he is, Katniss has no time to think about such heady ideas as identity preservation. She just wants to fight, survive, and get back home to her sister. Lawrence is absolutely spectacular in the role, bringing the stern determination to the character that marks her as a strong, if not entirely likeable, heroine. Equally adept at his role is Hutcherson, who balances the strengths and weaknesses of his character with ease. Peeta is strong and very politically savvy – he has the crowds of the Capitol fawning over him in no time – but as a warrior and a fighter, there’s much to be desired. One of my favorite parts ofThe Hunger Games, both novel and film, is the reversal of usual gender roles. During the Games, Peeta finds himself grievously injured and helplessly lying in a river. It’s up to Katniss, the warrior hunter tracker, to care for him and make sure he makes it out alive.

The supporting cast is even more amazing, and possibly my favorite part of the film. There’s an almost endless line of unforgettable characters from the book, and every single one of them is brought to perfect realization. Woody Harrelson plays Haymitch, the only previous Hunger Games victor from District 12, and thus the mentor to Katniss and Peeta. He’s drunk more than all the time, and pretty surly about their odds of survival, but he warms up to both of his contestants in time to give them life-saving advice. I heard that John C. Reilly was considered for the role, but I can’t imagine anyone but Harrelson bringing the same energy to this inebriated and reluctant teacher. Elizabeth Banks plays his flipside in the form of Effie Trinket, an escort from the Capitol who is more excited about the luxuries her home has to offer than the life-or-death plight that Katniss and Peeta have to face. In the books, Effie is a shallow nuisance; in the film, Banks brings a human quality to the flighty Effie, and actually generates some sympathy. Stealing the show, however – literally, my favorite part of the movie – is Stanley Tucci as interviewer and announcer Caesar Flickerman. Tucci owns every instance that he’s on camera, with his hammy smiles and cheesy jokes. At times his delivery struck me as a charming version of Jon Lovitz, with a voice that occasionally descended into growls of excitement. The character’s role was expanded a bit from what it was in the book, and that’s possibly the best decision that Ross and his crew made. Caesar the Cheeser is unmatched in his awesomeness.

Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman (image source)

I already mentioned how well the film adapts the book’s politics and history, but something has to be said for its production design as well, because it’s the stuff going on in the background that really immerses the viewer in this dystopian future. The film opens in District 12, which is as grimy and rubble-strewn as any post-apocalyptic world you’ve ever seen. The despair that inhabits this place is tangible; the emotional weight that accompanies these hardships is so powerful that it speaks for itself. That’s why, during one of the most emotional moments of the film, when Prim is drawn for the Games, there’s not a single bit of music to be heard. The Hunger Games excels in its quiet moments, letting the seriousness of its situations rest upon the viewers with no manipulative music to guide them. The silence lets the audience think, as they might while reading the book, about the images and tragedies that they’re witnessing.

Whip away from District 12 into the Capitol, and you have an equally impressive setting in front of you. This is an entirely different world, where crystal clear water runs rampant, and every inhabitant is decked out in the most garish of fashion decisions. The giant betting boards that show the odds of each tribute drive home the desensitization that makes the Games possible: The people in the Capitol don’t care about the lives and deaths of the participants from the other districts. They just want their bread and circuses. Inside the game control room, we get to see a room full of technology that’s the logical extension of what we have today. Transparent touch screens fill a command center that lets the game-runners rule everything from the arena’s forest fires to its day and night cycle. This technological sophistication reinforces the stark contrast between life in the Capitol and life in the lower districts: The means to an easy and plush life are there, but they’re withheld in order to punish and control.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) in the background (image source)

The movie isn’t perfect. My biggest grievance comes with the action scenes. I knew something was up when I was feeling a little nauseated five minutes into the film. During those first few shots, the camera shakes as though it were strapped onto a roller coaster, and the result isn’t anything artistic or emotional, it’s just sickening. They stop the overuse of this Bourne-esque technique once they get to Katniss in the woods, but they bring it back whenever there’s fighting going on. Between the extremely shaky camera and the editing cuts that are too fast to cognitively register, the action scenes are entirely ruined. I understand why they did this – it’s a movie about teenagers killing each other, and you don’t get a PG-13 rating showing that in full graphic detail – but it detracts from the film nonetheless. My other issue was with the way the Game was handled. Whenever you have a last-person-standing event, it’s NECESSARY to know how many participants remain. The Hunger Games fails to keep the viewer properly updated. More than half of the tributes never even get mentioned, so their slaughter when the Games begin seems insignificant and entirely inevitable. Again, I understand why this is the case; a 2.5-hour film doesn’t have the luxury that a 300-page novel does in naming and introducing two dozen side-characters. It just made the Game less suspenseful for me.

The Hunger Games is a magnificent film – exciting, emotional, and with a flawless cast inhabiting every single role. Its action scenes leave a bit to be desired, but between the fascinating settings and the mature translation of another world’s history and politics, it’s a movie that will captivate its audience for the full duration of the runtime. The Hunger Games will go down as the perfect example of how to adapt a novel into a film, and nothing is more exciting than realizing that we have two more of these ahead of us.

Final rating: 8/10

–James A. Janisse

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Stray Observations:

  • “A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous.”
  • ^The movie added a subplot that wasn’t present in the book: The stuff that happened between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and the Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). Another great choice on behalf of the filmmakers; we got to see these two actors more than we would have otherwise (including Seneca’s bomb-ass facial hair), and it did a great job setting up the menacing Snow to be the series’ main antagonist.
  • I was so, so worried about the film inflating the whole “love triangle” thing between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale. When reading the first book, that issue never even occurred to me. But no, the movie stays strong in the face of potentially grabbing the Twilight audience, and it only features a scene or two where Gale is visibly perturbed by the connection between Katniss and Peeta. Well done, film. Well done.
  • I really expected to cry when Ru was killed, but for some reason, the emotional impact of that moment wasn’t there for me. I did, however, tear up during the subsequent riot in District 11. Something about people willing to risk their lives to fight against injustice always seems to make me cry.
  • The movie is 2.5 hours long, but you won’t realize it. I was actually pretty sad when I realized how close it was to being over. Message to Gary Ross: Go ahead and make Catching Fire a full 3-hour affair. We won’t mind, I promise.
  • Caesar spin-off? Can we have one?
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