May 1, 2020
The Hunger Games (2012)
Despite not being much more than a rote checklist of events from the source novel, The Hunger Games got mostly positive reviews upon release (84% on Rotten Tomatoes). Given the movie is based on a bestselling young adult series that blends violence and romance, most critics likely went in expecting another Twilight. When it turned out to not be that, they were more than willing to give the movie a pass, and it surely helped that the film is anchored by It Girl and past Oscar nominee (and future winner) Jennifer Lawrence. But in retrospect, the movie doesn’t really have much reason to exist other than cashing in on the success of the book.
I’ve read Suzanne Collins’ original novel, and while it’s no landmark of American literature, it’s a solid effort, well-written, and fast-paced enough that I breezed through it in a day or two. Other than a female protagonist and the broad genre of young adult sci-fi/fantasy, the book has nothing in common with the clumsy, repetitive, boy-crazy prose of Stephenie Meyer.
The story is centered on Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl living in the future dystopia of Panem (as in, panem et circenses), a tyrannical state divided up into numbered districts. Some districts are well off, but others (including Katniss’ home of District 12) are mired in poverty. They exist solely to provide raw materials to support the decadent high life of the capital city, a mega-metropolis where the wealthy have grown so bored and idle that they’ve taken to garish fashion and extreme body modification. This is personified in Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a Capitol rep who looks like the psychedelic merger of Marie Antoinette and the White Queen.
The backstory is that decades ago, the districts launched a failed revolt against the Capitol, and in retaliation, the unsubtly-named “Hunger Games” were established. Every year, each district is forced to provide two young tributes, a boy and a girl, to compete in a televised fight to the death where only one victor gets out alive. This year, Effie draws the name of Katniss’ younger sister, so Katniss volunteers in her place and heads off to an almost certain death.
Of course, Katniss survives—the trailer for the sequel Catching Fire has already spoiled that particular plot wrinkle—but the book and the film try to add some twists and turns to keep everything from being a foregone conclusion.
The Hunger Games are shown to be like a massive reality show, complete with pageantry, audience participation, and sit-down interviews conducted by the smarmy Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). Unfortunately, it all comes off as a satire of reality shows as written by someone who’s never actually seen a reality show.
The games themselves find the 24 young competitors on an artificially controlled outdoor “set”, and over the course of the competition, only one of the combatants dies directly at the hands of our heroine. Clearly, this was a deliberate attempt to make Katniss sympathetic—it’d be hard to identify with someone who savagely slaughters other kids—but it works, in the book at least. There, Katniss is resourceful, smart, and at the same time nurturing and vulnerable. She’s vastly more believable than your standard-issue Strong Female Lead™, who’s basically just a dude with tits. Katniss survives by her own wit and cunning, and surgical use of her trademark bow and arrow, not by getting into brawls with guys twice her size.
That’s the book, at least. As for the movie, the casting of Jennifer Lawrence appears perfect on the surface, but I’m not sure she fully inhabits this character. She seems to mostly float through the story, going through the motions, much like everyone else in the cast. I never see much of Katniss’ sharpness behind those eyes.
Since no YA novel would be complete without romance, or more specifically a love triangle, the male tribute from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) confesses to having a crush on Katniss, which angers Katniss’ actual boyfriend (Liam Hemsworth) watching back home. Supposedly, their puppy love is something they stage for the cameras at the prompting of their mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) to get “sponsors” in the audience to supply them with vital food and medicine. But it appears likely these feelings are less “staged” for Peeta than Katniss.
Whereas the novel was told strictly through Katniss’ eyes, the movie gives us a more omniscient view, introducing us to Panem’s president (Donald Sutherland) and the Hunger Games’ architect (Wes Bentley, who after enduring 13 years of plastic bag jokes must now surely be the target of just as many “weird facial hair” jokes). I’ll just assume these scenes exist to set up the sequel, because they don’t really add much to the proceedings.
Many have pointed out the story’s similarities to Battle Royale, because nothing gets the internet riled up like the possibility that white people have misappropriated some piece of Japanese pop culture. But really, the idea of people fighting to the death for the amusement of the public is nothing new. Both Battle Royale and Hunger Games are basically The Running Man with teenagers.
The concept of kids being forced to murder each other is a shocking one, but the film itself is tepid and squeamish about its own subject matter. Of course, graphic violence is easier to get away with on the page, and a faithful adaptation probably would have been rated R. But all the edges have been completely shaved off to make The Hunger Games acceptable viewing for every age group that read the book. Who would have thought a movie about kids killing kids would be this family-friendly?
Accordingly, the action scenes are filmed in a incoherent, herky-jerky style to obscure most of the bloodshed. The camera constantly bounces up and down and whips back and forth, making for a frustrating (and nauseating) viewing experience. It’s pretty sad that “I could tell what was happening” is high praise for an action movie these days.
Honestly, the movie is fine. There’s tension and suspense where there needs to be tension and suspense, and as far as I can remember, all of the important stuff from the book is in the movie. Well, except for the whole “hunger” part of the Hunger Games. In the book, the residents of the poorer districts were constantly on the verge of starvation, but in the movie, everyone looks healthy and well-fed. In the novel, when Katniss boards a train to the capital, she gorges herself on all the food on display. In the movie, she barely even glances at it.
That pretty much sums up the film: director Gary Ross (who also gave us such pulse-pounding action flicks as Seabiscuit and Pleasantville) doesn’t seem all that hungry to exploit the full potential of the source material and deliver a great movie, just one that’s good enough to launch a franchise. Some of the scenes work individually, but taken as a whole, the movie is drab and inconsequential.
In the midst of the games, Katniss befriends a young girl named Rue. Her death scene was a memorable moment in the book, but the filmmakers can’t even summon forth the effort to make a little girl’s death all that moving. Rue later became the subject of controversy due to stupid racists who read the book, skimmed over the description of the character, and then were outraged that a black actress was cast. Because clearly, it’s all a Hollywood plot to trick them into actually caring about a black person.
I think the fault for this bit of ugliness partially lies with author Collins for her overly timid description of Rue. Seriously, white writers, if a character is black, I believe it’s okay to refer to her as black. You don’t have to use the “dark brown skin and eyes” hedge, a vague description that could just as easily apply to Indians, Brazilians, Filipinos, Dominicans, or Native Americans. Given how few black characters we get in these bestselling young adult franchises, can we at least make sure kids recognize the ones that are there?
I’m digressing a lot. That’s because The Hunger Games is just that kind of movie. It’s far too average and unassuming to even really criticize. If you’re a fan of the book (and not a crazy racist), you probably enjoyed it. If you’re not a fan, you probably think it’s just okay.
The sequel, which reportedly contains Hunger Games: All-Star Edition as its centerpiece, is due out in November. And they’ve gotten rid of Gary Ross in favor of Francis Lawrence (no relation), who also directed Constantine and I Am Legend. I think it says it all that this appears to be a step up.