27 March 2012
Having devoured the books in a matter of days, I was more than excited about the film adaptation of The Hunger Games. With the inevitable elimination of that all-too-troublesome first person narrative, thoughtful and promising casting, a director who is a sworn fan and oh-so-welcome authorial input on the screenplay, I was pretty convinced that The Hunger Games the film (and subsequent sequels) would only improve on the beloved franchise (as, I personally believe, the oft-compared Harry Potter films did not). I was far from wrong. The theatre at which I saw an afternoon show on opening day, March 23rd, was packed despite an astounding 31 showings taking place at that same cinema on that day alone. Today, 4 days later, in another country, and at the work/school-unfriendly time of 3:45, the theatre was still remarkably full (and, thankfully, missing the laughter-prone contingent who did their best to spoil that Friday showing). Even ignoring the massive monetary success of the film’s opening weekend, it’s clear that director Gary Ross has managed to translate the complicated and unnerving story with heart and finesse, adding where necessary and making some difficult but understandable cuts. While the film is far from perfect, it’s as close as I could have hoped, save a very few nitpicks.
Leading lady Jennifer Lawrence is simply magnificent as prickly but loving Katniss Everdeen. Lawrence’s stunning good looks are a purely incidental, mildly helpful distraction from her intelligent character interpretation. Her moments of intense emotion are good- the Reaping where she volunteers to replace her sister in the titular televised fight-to-the-death, the mourning of her greatest ally- but it’s the stillness in her moment-to-moment performance that is truly inspired. Whereas the first person narrative in Suzanne Collins’ novel lets us in on Katniss’ Every Thought and Feeling (a great annoyance, if nothing else), Lawrence plays Katniss’ desperation to hide such things, avoiding those nasty “emotions” that make her weak, or so she thinks. Her rashness, her prejudice, her temper, her self-deprecating timidity- they’re all still there, they’re just folded into Katniss’ heroic tale more complexly than in the novel’s hammer-to-head narrative.
The one character who looses complexity in his page-to-screen voyage is Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ fellow District 12 tribute/love interest/martyr/hot baker/camouflage expert. One of the few things that’s lost without Katniss’ narrative is the extent of her distrust towards Peeta. We get a single outburst after his revealing pre-Games interview and a warning from Haymitch that Katniss had better keep a knife handy, “[Peeta] knows what he’s doing” but Lawrence’s Katniss is far less wary than Collins’ original. The major reason for her uncharacteristic ease is that the very little moral ambiguity Collins provided to flesh Peeta out from his saintly shtick is largely taken away. His waving to the Capitol citizens from the train and his easy charm during his interview Caesar Flickerman read as earnest more than strategic and it’s readily apparent that he’s only hanging with the Careers early in the Games to protect our heroine from their swords (taking the murder of the District 8 Girl away from him feels like an unnecessary ploy to keep him likable, as if he could ever be anything else). Josh Hutcherson does a fine job in the role, soulful and charming throughout, though the crimes committed against his hair are unforgivable. Peeta’s uselessness in the arena is underplayed too, further idealizing him, which I’m sure some people liked but I found painfully unhelpful.
Luckily for simplified Peeta, however, poor Gale still stands zero chance against him in the overriding love triangle. It’s not really a love triangle so much as a love story with a background character who throws the occasional well-meaning wrench. In the novel, Katniss thinks about Gale constantly, certainly any time the idea of romance or marriage comes up. That and their established connection are the only really strong arguments for the possibility that, having navigated the actual perils of her Incredibly Threatening world, Katniss might choose to be with the boy who Did Not battle through Two child-massacres alongside her. Katniss’ nostalgic loyalty is replaced by a handful of shots in which Liam Hemsworth looks wistful while watching his best friend/soul mate fight for her life and mack on another guy on live TV. Unfortunately, Hemsworth is one of the few actors in the film who doesn’t quite live up to the standards of the production. In the coming films (particularly Mockingjay, in which he’ll finally get more than a few lines), he might still step up, but as of now, Hemsworth’s slightly forced young-macho manner inspires giggles from the audience more than any sense of real longing. The brief hunting scene at the beginning of the film, on which their entire relationship hinges, establishes a loving chemistry between Katniss and Gale, though it’s not until his brief-but-memorable goodbye scene and the moments when he attends to Katniss’ sister Prim- carrying her away at the Reaping, holding her on his shoulders upon Katiness’ return- that Hemsworth is able to sell any of the rich history between him and Katniss.
The other major supporting characters are played with the sort of precision that their inspired casting promised. Woody Harrelson is a splendid Haymitch, though a tad unexpected. He’s a little more together than his page connotation, a little more fun (a side effect, I would presume, of the quest for a PG-13 rating- his addictions are downplayed, his self-destruction less inescapable so far in the story). Haymitch in the film is also more socially functional than in the books- we’re treated to the occasional shot of him schmoozing on Katniss and Peeta’s behalf, rounding up sponsors to save their lives. The complex relationship currently developing between him and Katniss- the full extent of which won’t be understood until the final film- is given efficient attention, Harrelson and Lawrence communicating revealingly in his quick assessment of her flaws and insightful pride after she shows a spark of rebellion during her training. Elizabeth Banks is similarly effective, superbly cast as District 12 escort Effie Trinket and gifted with some of the film’s greatest lines (my favourite: “That is MAHOGANY!” after Katniss drives a knife into a dining room table). Banks’ wonderfully timed performance gets a little lost under her over-the-top Capitol couture (a bit much, even for the Capitol) but she’s simply great underneath all the frou-frou. Lenny Kravitz, a surprising choice for Katniss’ thoughtful stylist Cinna, is not at all what I pictured- he’s far more masculine and imposing, a little more aesthetically rebellious (Kravtiz keeps many of his ear piercings, a detail the understated book Cinna doesn’t share)- but he’s kind of great, loving and warm in his few short but crucial scenes with Katniss.
Many of the other adult characters are expanded from the book. Most notably, head gamemaker Seneca Crane is promoted about 27 steps above his barely-there role in the novel. His *spoiler alert* demise plays a major role in the franchise’s second installment, Catching Fire, so it feels appropriate that he play a larger role when he’s actually alive. Played with fascinating detachment by the extroardinary Wes Bentley, Seneca’s inclusion in a lot of the pre-film media coverage confused me- as did the hype surrounding the great Stanley Tucci in the small role of TV interviewer Caesar Flickerman. But their prominence is part of Gary Ross and co-screenwriter Billy Ray (along with Collins)’s clever narration-avoiding re-structuring. The Hunger Games play out in a complicated and beautifully drawn futuristic world of Collins’ creation, explained over the course of three novels by Katniss herself. Without her explanations of governmental structure, genetically mutated creatures like tracker jackers, mutts and mockingjays, and Hunger Game history, the film ran the risk of leaving new fans completely in the dust, regretting not reading the books beforehand.
To avoid such pitfalls, Ross, Ray and Collins give more focus to the world outside the arena during the Games. Bentley’s Seneca leads a team of gamemakers in a high-tech control booth, manipulating the fate of the 24 tributes they’re overseeing. We watch the designing of the nightmarish Mutts who terrorize the final 3 tributes, the decision to chase Katniss into the fray with a raging fire, and Haymitch negotiating that fateful decision to bend the rules to allow 2 winners from the same district. Seneca’s cold problem-solving approach and his well-hidden nagging conscience play some of the most fascinating notes of the film (a particularly intriguing scene between him and Donald Sutherland’s haunting President Snow about the concepts of hope vs. fear sticks in my mind). Ultimately, the collision of these conflicting aspects of Seneca leads to his poetic but undeniably unsettling end (wonderfully elaborated on in the film).
Tucci, for his part, is predictably sensational as the ickily friendly TV host who serves as the entertaining exposition machine, filling the audience in on details we need to know in order to follow what’s going on in the arena. He and the also much-expanded Claudius Templesmith (a forgettable but inoffensive Toby Jones) treat the film audience like the viewing audience of Panem, taking in the Games as though they were the most recent installment of Survivor. The effect is a heightening of the horrifying but otherwise too-easily forgotten reality TV aspect of the story, making me guiltily rethink my more-than-gleeful reaction to Colton’s medical evacuation last Wednesday.
The Games themselves play out through stunning cinematography (dizzying and intimate with an great number of handheld shots) and sensational sound editing (visceral and haunting, the best I’ve heard in quite some time). Much has been said about the PG-13 portrayal of the violence in the arena, but upping the gratuity and loosing the target demo wouldn’t have served the film at all; anyone who can’t understand the intensity of the kid-on-kid violence without Tarantino-levels of gore is either heartless or conveniently unimaginative. The tributes are all generally cast just as described. A heartbreaking camaraderie is established beautifully between Dayo Okeniyi’s sweet but dangerous Thresh (my favourite book 1 character) and Amandla Stenberg’s angelic (and fantastically scampy) Rue. Alexander Ludwig is far more all-American-looking than I expected for the Games’ most terrifying character, Career Tribute Cato, but he delivers his final speech (excellently expanded from the book) with stirring helplessness that shouldn’t be argued with just because he’s so incredibly blond (the contrast between him and Peeta in the Games’ final moments is an intriguing and probably accidental phenomenon). I was mildly annoyed by the inclusion of a clip from the otherwise-silent Foxface’s pre-Games interview, Jaqueline Emerson’s haughty delivery taking away from the character’s elusive power, but most of that character’s crucial details remain perfectly in tact.
Necessary page-to-screen adjustments see some of my favourite characters cut- mostly my beloved Madge (who disappeared in order for the far-more-crucial Prim to have more screentime) and Peeta’s father (one of the story’s kindest and most inspiringly compassionate characters). Peeta’s stylist Portia and Katniss’ goofy prep team (who will play a heartbreaking part in Mockingjay if they make it into that script) are cut drastically, but they technically do exist, and the tongue-less Avoxes who serve the Capitol are notoriously missing.
Visually, the Capitol could be less extreme, or, rather, extreme in different ways- the skin tints and face tattoos from the book are sadly gone and replaced by more crowding details like insane eyelashes and stupid hair (though I have to say I am hugely in favour of Seneca’s badass facial hair); and District 12 probably should be less lush. The woods on the edge of the district interestingly parallel the seemingly harmonious nature of the Games arena, but that arcadia should stop at the electric fence that holds the citizens in instead of lending the Seam more livability.
Small details from the book like Prim’s perenially untucked shirt tail and small details added for the film like the use of a blood sample to confirm the identity of children at the Reaping make the world feel all the more horrifically real.
There’s not a lot to complain about in The Hunger Games. My greatest issue with the books (less of a problem in the first installment anyway) is the first-person narrative, which is aptly dealt with, leaving only expanded characterization in most cases. With the exception of understandably deleted characters, it’s only Peeta who doesn’t profit from the film’s representation, and he still has 3 films to improve on that (I’m holding out great hope for Hutcherson’s performance in Mockingjay‘s crucial Peeta arc). In the hands of director Gary Ross, The Hunger Games does in one film what Harry Potter couldn’t do in eight- improves.