Mar 22 2012 3:47pm

The Hunger Games Film Review: What Was, What Is, and What Might Have Been (Spoilers!)

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games movieYou 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.

Katniss and Prim*********SPOILERS*********

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…

Caesar and KatnissOkay, 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.

Cinna, Haymitch, and PeetaFurthermore, 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.

Katniss EverdeenBut… 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.).

Katniss and PeetaThe 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.

Katniss and GalePerhaps the casting director is Team Gale. (Pah! Team Peeta all the way!)

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.

Effie and KatnissAs 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.

President Snow and Seneca CraneThe 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.

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Christopher Morgan
1. cmorgan
Anderson Cooper huh? I always pictuerd Snow as a more malevolent Pat Robertson...

I'm very eager to see Cinna and the Mutations. I really want them to get that right.
Heather Waters
2. HeatherWaters
Yeah, I find I'm usually disappointed in book-to-screen adaptations too, but from what I hear, this is nowhere near as awful as the Blood and Chocolate movie was, so I'll have that for comfort.

Glad to hear LH is good as Gale (yay) in the brief time he gets (boo).

All the actors look different than what I pictured. I'm still bummed that Kristin Chenoweth didn't get the role of Effie.

I'm happy that you and other reviewers I've been following have been so pleased with JL's performance as Katniss, though. That's great.
Rachel Hyland
3. RachelHyland
@ cmorgan

A more malevolent Pat Robertson? Huh. Seems unlikely. As to the muttations... I'll be interested to know what you think!

@ redline_

Now, see, I liked the adaptation of Blood and Chocolate. (Hugh Dancy! Olivier Martinez! Come on.) Also, Kristin Chenoweth as Effie -- outstanding notion!
Vanessa Ouadi
4. Lafka
@redline : can we even speak of an "adaptation" about Blood and Chocolate _ the movie is so far from the book, it could be 2 independent works.

I'm so looking forwards to watching Hunger Games _ probably this week-end. I hope I won't be disappointed because I liked the book (I only read the 1st one, and it's torture to skip all these articles on H&H lately because I don't want any spoiler about the two following ones). I was ecstatic when I saw that Cinna was portrayed by Lenny Kravitz (yes, I'm a groupie, so sue me :P). And yet, even in the movie trailer as it is aired in France, I spotted a few inacurracies already _ as usual with on-screen adaptations, I'm both eager and nervous.
Stacy Ann
5. Stacy Ann
I felt the same way watching the movie last night-- I couldn't help but notice the details left out or not done justice. (*Spoiler-- both the intact leg and the pitbulls on steroids really ruined the end for me.) I also never saw/felt desperation in the arena (e.g. Katniss never went thirsty). The fact that the movie was SO well acted (Jennifer Lawrence, Stanley Tucci, and Woody Harrelson are standouts for me), made me forgive some of the rushed moments.
Rachel Hyland
6. RachelHyland
@ Stacy Ann

Yes! She never went thirsty, yet how many pages did that take up in the book? I actually think my most missed scene in the Arena, though, was when Rue's people send the bread, and Katniss says gravely: "My thanks to the people of District 11." Such a small moment, but it says so much about her character, and about theirs'.
Stacy Ann
7. Stacy Ann
I really missed that moment as well, but I did like the addition of the District 11 scene.

I'm not sure why they cut and rushed so many moments-- another 20 minutes of film would have added so much more depth (for readers and non-readers alike).
Stacy Ann
8. aculver1
For me, the issue I had with the movie was the pacing through out. The books make you feel as though the games take a long time to finish and in the movie, there is only 1 hour and half (maybe) for the games. Another issue is the ending of the movie felt very rushed, as though they had to get it set up for the next book. One thing I did like was to see the gamemaker station and what happened on that end. Seneca directing what should happen when. All in all a very good movie, but nothing beats the books.
Vanessa Ouadi
9. Lafka
OK, so I finally saw the movie last night! I liked it well enough but I got out of the theater with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, I couldn't help but noticing there were many details that were missing / added / amended.

In particular, I got scared as hell the whole first third of the film (basically, all the scenes in District 12 and before Katniss gets in the arena). Some of them were only details, some were more seriously ruining the atmosphere. It started with the very first scene, the one where Seneca is interviewed and clearly states that the Hunger Games have been created to remind people what it costs to get rebellious. I don't know if I read the book too fast or what (and I only read book #1, so perhaps it makes sense when reading #2 and #3), but I had the feeling that it didn't fit. I had always pictured the Capitole to hide their propaganda well behind so-called generous intentions, pretending there's nothing more in Hunger Games that wonderful entertainment for all the Panem districts people, who are looking forward to it year after year. It was through Katniss thoughts and discussions, mainly with Gale, that we understood what the Hunger Games are really about. It seemed quite out of tone for a Panem official to admit that Hunger Games' main purpose is to remind people of being docile.
And it went on : the mockingjay pin, Haymitch presence on (and fall from) the platform...
Even the relationship between Katniss and Gale seemed a little bit out of characters : we have the feeling there already is ambiguity between them in the movie, while in the book we feel more camaraderie than really love interest before Katniss gets closer to Peeta and asks herself some questions about her relationship with Gale.
And yes, I did look forward the little bread scene and was very disappointed when it was replaced by the riot scene in district 11 _ OK, here I suppose it prefigures the next books, and it was interesting enough, but still, the little bread scene was such a sweet moment, I missed it in the movie.

Beyond inaccuracies, some scenes just disappointed me because they were nothing like what I had pictured while reading the book : the fire chariot (my, that was grotesque), the Cornucopia (I imagined something more spectacular _ bigger, brighter...), the hybrids...

But, on the other hand, I had some very pleasant surprises.
First of all, the casting really rocks! (thumbs up to Tucci in particular, the man is brilliant!). I can't think of any character I would have depicted in a really different way, it was really a pleasant surprise (in particular if I compare to the disappointments I had with some Harry Potter and nearly all the Twilight characters).
Second, the "behind the scene" scenes were interesting. The book offers a single-sided point of view, given that we only follow Katniss, and it was fascinating to see how the Hunger Games organizers manage the arena in order to offer spectacular entertainment. That was a rich idea :-)

One in all, I liked the movie and had a good time watching it, but I missed some details from the book that would have only made the movie better.
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