You know how, when you see a movie made out of a beloved novel—if you can bring yourself to do it, that is; oh, who am I kidding? We all do it—you have in your head at least one or two favorite lines, scenes or even mere moments that you believe simply must be done justice? Sometimes, you may not even be aware of this adamant conviction of yours until after the fact, as you leave the theater or press stop on the DVD and think to yourself: “Man, they really screwed that line/scene/moment up.”
The latter was surely the case with me and the all-new movie spectacular that, apparently, “the world will be watching:” The Hunger Games. I had no idea I had such strong feelings about certain aspects of the book, or that I had hoped so fervently they would play out just as well—or, preferably, better—onscreen than they had in my head. But as I left the theater, amid a general hubbub of mixed critiques mostly centering on whether that person was the reading type or not, I found myself thinking: man, they really screwed those lines, scenes and moments up.
Which was somewhat annoying of me, because I really rather enjoyed the film as a whole.
A quick précis of the action, in case you have not yet read Suzanne Collins’s YA phenom and have somehow not gotten the gist from the plentiful—nay, ubiquitous—trailers: sixteen-year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives with her mother and young sister in the disadvantaged District 12, at some unspecified point in humanity’s post-Apocalyptic future. Her District, and the other eleven like it, are all held in thrall to the Capitol, a far-off bastion of the elite and the effete; the Districts do the work, the Capitol has all the fun, and to atone for an uprising against this institutional drudgery more than seventy years earlier, each must send two of their adolescents, one boy and one girl, to fight TO THE DEATH in an elaborately staged Arena, until only one survives. This event, like a slightly more vicious version of the Big Brother house, is followed slavishly by the vacuous denizens of the Capitol—and with sorrow by almost every District, who hate to see their sons and daughters die cruelly at the hands of other children. (Well… yeah.) Into this Arena steps Katniss, in her sister’s place, and she—along with the male tribute from her District, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)—must battle for their lives against almost impossible odds. But the dangers of the Arena are as nothing to what lurks outside it for a girl who doesn’t know how to follow the rules…
Okay, so it’s not exactly the feel-good romp of the year. Kid-on-kid violence is rarely, if ever, much fun, and when it’s brutal, bloody kid-on-kid murder—ordered by the Government, and considered light entertainment by the masses —that’s a whole other level of ick.
But taking a step back from my (unbeknownst to me) deeply-held views on exactly how certain parts of it should have been transmogrified onscreen, this movie is, withal, well-acted, tensely-plotted, clever in its exposition and visually quite splendid. The gaudy extremism of Capitol fashion is well rendered, in particular, the elaborate manscaping of Head Gamesmaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) is a wonder to behold, as is the humbler attire of the Districts, and threaded throughout are occasional spots of levity that are lifted straight out of the book, as is most of the dialogue—although all too often in an edited form.
Furthermore, the casting of a bewigged Stanley Tucci as talk show host Caesar Flickerman was surely a stroke of genius (as, indeed, is the casting of Stanley Tucci as anyone in anything), as was a likewise bewigged Woody Harrelson as drunken mentor Haymitch, and while Lenny Kravitz as stylist Cinna was perhaps less inspired – he lacks the gravitas of the born actor, and his Cinna is perhaps a shade too rock and roll—it was definitely fun, and there is no question that the man is beautiful and can pull off gold eyeliner in a big, big way.
There’s a lot of good here, indeed.
But… oh, that darned “but.” The “but” that plagues all of us when we see an adaptation of a work we know well, and cannot help but compare what was with what is, and with what might have been. Now, I’ll admit to possibly being hampered here by just how recently I reread the novel – which led to From Robin Hood to Katniss Everdee: The Enduring Allure of Marksmen (and Women!) where I ruminate on just how cool it is that Katniss wields her bow and arrow so expertly, to which the movie does pretty decent service – but I came away just really confused by some of the editorial choices made by our screenwriters (including Collins herself, by the by) and some of the aesthetic ones made by our director, Gary Ross (of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit fame—seriously, they are the only two other films he’s directed. Not a bad resume.).
The important question, though? Just how well did this movie treat our main triumvirate of Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth)? Pretty well, I have to tell you, although if we’re just going on the superficial, Katniss is too tall, Peeta is too compact, and Gale is too mature-looking—but I guess they do grow up quickly in the Districts. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is beautiful, lethal, petulant and frustrating… so, yeah, Katniss. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta I initially found inadequate to the task (he felt less like Peeta and more like one of the 90210 kids discussing college applications), but as the movie wore on, he definitely grew on me. Most especially, the jovial portions of his interview with Caesar were very much book-Peeta-worthy, so much so that I would hazard a guess that might have been Hutcherson’s screen test scene; pity that he has more chemistry with Stanley Tucci than with Jennifer Lawrence, though.
Speaking of Gale: he doesn’t have much to do here, and as we all know the mandatory love triangle portion of our YA tale doesn’t really kick in until the next chapter, Catching Fire. But Hemsworth manages to do a lot with a little, letting even the uninitiated know that he wants to be more to Katniss than a best-friend and hunting partner with just the odd pained expression and longing glance. Despite myself, I was impressed with him, in what was in many ways a cameo performance.
As I suppose I am with this movie, again despite myself. Very despite myself, because even though it held me captivated throughout and enjoyably fleshed out a lot of the story that I had painted in my head in only very broad strokes (I had barely taken even an instant to consider what Effie Trinket might look like, for example, but yes, of course that’s her!), I still can’t help but ponder the many ways in which this movie also… well, kind of let me down. From the provenance of the mockingjay pin to the recognition of the Avox; from Peeta’s truncated confession of love to Jennifer Lawrence’s, er, wouldn’t-quite-silence-the-birds singing voice; and most especially from the disappointing “on fire” chariot ride to a certain someone’s continuing bipedalness at movie’s end, I am finding it hard – because I care way more about this than is seemly, for which I blame H&H’s own Jill Slattery and her post “5 Things The Hunger Games Movie Needs to Get Right”—to forgive the oversights, the amendments and the outright inventions with which we are presented.
The thing is, I know that when next I reread The Hunger Games and its sequels, it will be movie-Katniss I see in my head, and not the amorphous composite sketch I had mentally made of her in the past. Hutcherson will be my Peeta (though I may give him a few inches), Hemsworth will be my Gale (though I may subtract a few years), and most probably Donald Sutherland will be my President Snow, even though I had previously assigned him a kind of evil-Anderson Cooper in-my-head avatar. That is the main problem with watching adaptations, isn’t it? It’s so hard to then allow your imagination to override what your eyes have seen for themselves.
Which, for me, makes that lackluster “girl on fire” scene even less satisfactory, because in my head it was way, way cooler, and now it’ll never be that awesome again.
’Cause, man, they really screwed that up.
So, what about you? Where do you stand on The Hunger Games movie? What parts of the book will you be (or are you) devastated to do without, and what parts could you (or did you) cheerfully see left on the cutting room floor?
Let the games begin!
And check out Heather Waters’s list of recomendations about what to read after you’re finished with the books!
Rachel Hyland is the Editor in Chief of Geek Speak Magazine.