Not Hungry Enough: A Review of The Hunger Games

Posted: March 26, 2012 in Dystopia, Film, Literature
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Because what the internet needs is another commentary on the film adaptation of The Hunger Games . . .

Going into the release, I quickly reread the first book (for the fourth time) so that I could more easily be pedantic and nitpicky about how they adapted the film, what they chose to play up or omit, and how well it worked as a representation of the overall feel and main themes of the book. Most of the time this kind of thing leads to fannish and annoying pointing out of differences as if trying to show off what a smart, super-fan one is, but I’m going to try to stick to things that actually make a difference in overall tone.

As a whole, my take was that the films was “good but not great” for reasons I’ll explain in a second, and I’m sticking to that even if it makes me a killjoy for those who have wholly embraced it as everything awesome is supposed to be (Scott Tobias’ review at The AV Club is a pretty close mirror to my own thoughts . . . if I weren’t going to itemize and explain every detail I though worth considering).  As for the latter folks swept up in the hype, which seems to be far too much of the internet, witness, for example, the simplistic, uncritical accolades from “film critic” Margot McGowan at SF Gate. McGowan’s absurd “review” is narrow in scope and merely lauds the film for not breaking the from those elements that allow for a feminist reading of the book (which is a dubious position for many reasons that other, more capable folks have pointed out).  Not that it isn’t a reasonable point to care that Katniss isn’t sexed-up in the film, but in the book that concern is primarily and textually Katniss’ . . . transferred over to the reader via her inner monologue. And the ultimate choice on whether or not to go this route in presenting her is Cinna’s, which he decidedly goes against.  Further, concerns McGowan raises about gender equality (in numbers of tributes? seriously?) are patently absurd, as is the ladies working together to save each other angle she generates.  The film is loyal to the book on these counts, which isn’t the same as it being “awesome,” which implies levels of both loyalty and creative changes to the source material that still capture the spirit of the novel and enthrall the audience.

[major spoilers follow]

Let me start with the things the film did pretty good or exceptionally well:

Overall setting, especially District 12:   The set designers and animation people nailed pretty much everything.  The Capitol, the arena, brief views of unrest in District 11, and even the lavish train and lodgings at the training facility were all amazingly realized with excellent attention to details that evoke the atmosphere of the book.   D12, however, was, with one glaring exception listed below, absolutely amazing.  I was concerned going in because the Reaping scenes in the trailer seemed so sterilized and clean, but seeing the Hob, various areas in the Seam, and interiors of Katniss’ family’s home quickly alleviated those concerns.  D12 is dirty and dilapidated, the people look beaten-down and hungry, except for Katniss and Gale (more on this below), and the overall effect helps set up the class dynamic that could have been elided since we don’t have Katniss’ interior thoughts and memories.

The underlying themes of oppression and revolution:  This is one area where losing the first person narrative of the novel is an advantage.  Director/writer Gary Ross and the writing team (that included Collins) actually go beyond the events of the first novel by cross-cutting scenes of unrest in District 11, backstage elements of the Games emphasizing how the gamemakers think, and interactions between President Snow and Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane.  Where the novel, due to the first person narration, is Katniss-centric to the point of not fully developing things that Katniss and readers will have to be caught up on in the second book, the film does an excellent job of preparing viewers for what is to come in the next installments.  It also ramps up the stakes of what is happening in the arena and how Katniss’ naive and heroic acts are seen as rebellious.

Casting: Many have already commented on how amazing the casting is, and a bunch of racists with poor reading comprehension have denounced it for making brown characters brown, and I’ll do little more than mostly agree with the former and repeat that Jennifer Lawrence was pretty much perfect, as was Woody Harrelson (though under-utilized).  The one major exception for me is Liam Hemsworth as Gale, who comes across as far too much of a brooding, hulking, hunky, tough guy out of a typical teen romance instead of a rough-and-tumble, outdoorsy young man with critical political and even revolutionary thoughts.  He is the one character whose performance in no way sets up what he becomes in the coming books/films.  Both Cato and Kravitz’s Cinna are kind of meh, too, but not bad in a truly striking way like Gale.

Pacing:  Obvious problems with condensing the novel aside, the film doesn’t rush to get the tributes to the training center and the arena, which could have been disastrous.  Adequate time is spent in the lead-up to the main events to establish Katniss and Peeta as characters and to give viewers a solid sense of what this world is like.  Not perfect, but solid.

Keeping with Collins’ reticence to discuss the history of Panem/the world:  One of my favorite elements in the books is Collins’ refusal to spend a lot of time on historical background for what is essentially a post-apocalyptic dystopia. As someone who studies these overlapping genres, I far too often see quite the opposite: a need to over-explain everything about how the world we purportedly used to live in go to this state.  Nearly all the best examples of the genre (excepting the classics like We and Brave New World) are reserved about doing too much history.  The film keeps with this and uses a brief film-within-a-film at the Reaping to give viewers the basic background of the Games and the political situation, but the catastrophic events that led to the collapse of our civilization are merely hazily sketched.

There are other things that I could mention here: specific scenes, details of setting, etc., that the film does well, but I’ll go ahead and move on.

Things I found less than great about the film pt. 1: Why did you change/omit that scene/plot point?

There’s a post at MTV.com on scenes that were cut that were missed by fans of the novel, and as a fan I can sort of agree with them.  However, I don’t think all those scenes, such as that with Peeta’s dad and Katniss after the Reaping, are at all necessary to the film.  I’m fine with alterations and abridgments unless they really change a character or the plot.  I certainly don’t mind the shift in the origin of the Mockingjay pin (and writing out Madge) or the omission of Katniss’ story about Prim’s goat.  There are, however, a few that did feel like mistakes:

Haymitch at the Reaping falling off-stage (and other Haymitch scenes on the train):  The Reaping scene, in my mind, is crucial to two things in the book: first, establishing his character and, to a degree, his relationship with Katniss prior to them even interacting (recall that his drunken pratfall draws attention away from her in a moment of weakness, which is a redirection he is adept at even if not always on purpose); second, establishing a kind of dark humor to the book (Peeta adds to this in various scenes as well), which is overall an element lacking in the film.

The we’re off to see the wizardiness of the career wolfpack:  Maybe I’m not remembering closely enough, but I don’t recall this group hooting and laughing all the time as they hunted other tributes.  Trash talking in the moment of confrontation, sure, but being loud and giggly, not so much.  This undercuts the seriousness of them as dangerous and predatory threats and gives these scenes too much of a juvenile feel.

The sanitization of the final scenes in the arena:  Not sure where to start, and these omissions are certainly a product of the PG-13 rating (like the above point).  Several elements are missing from this that seem crucial.  First, the dog muttations are not obviously enough identified as the dead tributes, which is a mistake because it leaves out one of the true horrors of the Capitol’s willingness to use its technological power that is an important point in the later books.  Second, Peeta’s leg is not badly wounded, which alters greatly the events immediately after Cato’s death (him threatening to let himself die so Katniss can win), omits the Katniss screaming for Peeta scene mentioned in the MTV article, and apparently means no prosthetics.  Third, Katniss shoots Cato almost immediately after he falls to the muttations rather than spend the night listening to his agony, which forces the shift from her viewing him as a dangerous enemy to another victim of the Games into too short a time span.

Leaving out the scene where D11 send Katniss bread: I seriously have no idea why this was cut given how little it would take to keep it in.  Losing it is a missed opportunity to emphasize how singular Katniss’ actions are and foreshadowing the sense of alliance between districts that builds in the later books.

Things I found less than great about the film pt. 2: Major thematic issues and the like:

Katniss and Gale aren’t hungry enough: Perhaps what bothered me most about Gale was how much of a well-fed gym rat he looks.  Likewise, but in another way, Katniss; while she talks about gaining weight in the lead-up to the Games in the book, it is still understood that the usual scraping to get by in D12 makes her wiry at best.  Instead, Lawrence’s Katniss is obviously quite curvy and womanly in her training outfit and chariot entrance scenes.  This portrayal of both is probably a good move from a marketing (and subtle sexualizing) perspective, but struck me as out of place (Peeta gets a pass in my book as he is the son of a baker . . . and those carbs).  Both Lawrence and Helmsworth should have gone the route of Christian Bale in The Machinist or Viggo Mortensen in The Road ahead of filming.

Playing up the love triangle (subtly, but still):  The way the fan and media hype Twilightized the story bothered me, and I hoped the film would not follow this route.  I guess it doesn’t too much–it is clear that Katniss is learning to play along with Peeta’s love story as we go along, and her actual affection for him is a product of human companionship and closeness and empathy.  However, was it really necessary to cut to Gale watching every time a kiss was televised?  This will get more attention than it deserves in the next film, I’m sure.

Dulling the overall brutality and using stupid camera tricks:  As with the last scene mentioned above, the overall menace of brutal death in the arena is definitely toned down from how it is portrayed in the book (though props on the footage of a past Games with the brick scene).  This is due to the need to get a PG-13 rating, but executed through very deliberate decisions and those stupid swooping, dizzying camera “effects”  that are all the rage in action films these days (I could hardly figure out what was happening at times during battles).  Scenes where changes were made include: Glimmer’s corpse (not bloated and gross to the point in the book), Peeta’s lack of a horrific, new leg wound at the end that necessitates a tourniquet and then amputation, the aforementioned Cato vs. muttations scene, and Thresh’s lame killing of Clove (pounding her head against the Cornucopia is a poor substitute for smashing it with a rock; he also comes off as far less threatening than he should).  In addition to this, the Gamemaker-created storms in the latter days in the arena, which add to the threat of the whole set-up, are pretty much absent.  I’m not calling for gore for gore’s sake here, but  the real horror of the arena for tributes is dependent on the horror of kids killing kids in particularly nasty manners along with the ongoing interference of the Gamemakers.

Overall, a sense of dumbing down the novel:  This is my major complaint overall, but one that is hard to articulate.  I got the feeling that where the book aimed for a late-teen to early 20s audience, the film was pandering to younger, ostensibly less-sophisticated viewers.  Some of this is evident in/a product of the sanitization and the other factors mentioned above, but it really stuck out to me in the overt explanations of how one gets sponsors by being likable as the only way to do so.  In the novel there are various ways tributes get sponsored–often because they are badass killers with a good chance to win (the wealthy Capitolites are betting, remember?).  More importantly, like some other elements obviously explained in the film, Katniss mostly has to discover how this works herself rather than being directly told.  This is just one element that I think limits how resourceful and smart the film’s Katniss comes across as.
Again, I’m pretty impressed with how well it was done, especially compared to most other adaptations of books I like.  And I may come closer to thinking it is awesome when I see it a second time.  However, it certainly isn’t perfect and it is a disservice to the excellent source material to pretend it is.

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Comments
  1. sarahsss says:

    Yes! Particularly your assessment of Haymitch (and Gale), which I didn’t even get to in my review. My only point of ambiguity (which perhaps speaks to the “dumbing down” you wrote of as well) is in the PG-13 violence. As I discussed with my viewing buddy, Mel, too much violence and you turn all the viewers in the theater into the Capitol audience; too little, however, and you sanitize the horror. On some level this is an unsolvable quandary. I felt that Rue’s death lacked some oomph (certainly the power of the Reaping scene) because the violence was sanitized but I can appreciate the desire to avoid inciting the visceral pleasure generally found in cinematic violence.

  2. nightwork says:

    I think putting the IRL viewing audience in the position of the viewers in Panem (Capitol and Districts) is pretty unavoidable. What the filmmakers can do to the viewer with him or her in that position is where ethics of violence come in for me.

    This is why I take particular issue with how they changed Katniss’ killing of Cato. In the book, the reader (along with most viewers in Districts (besides 2), and even the Capitol), is excited at that moment because Katniss has essentially just won when Cato falls to the mutts. Initially you think she can wash her hands of the actual final blow and avoid the guilt of another death that is directly her responsibility. The reader and, in my reading, viewer are happy with this deferral to the Games themselves as the final killer. However, as it drags on through the night (and you’re staying up watching this), you realize that this monstrous boy is just another victim, suffering horribly, and that Katniss not killing him immediately is unmerciful and even selfish. You also understand that the Gamemakers are doing this on purpose, and by doing so probably losing the support of their audience and inciting rebellious thoughts themselves. Listening to Cato suffer is part of the trauma of the Games for Katniss and Peeta, but also the viewer and reader, who know there is no hope for him and cannot really be enjoying this. Katniss’ final arrow, then, is a kind of device for catharsis for all, which puts her in the light of “good” while the Gamemakers and, by extension, the populace of the Capitol are quite obviously “bad” via going way too far. However, she isn’t perfect because waiting to shoot made Cato’s end so much worse for him.

    One thing I left out pondering at any depth because it is a much bigger question than how well this film worked is the issue of audience maturity and ratings between books and films. The violence in the novel is unquestionably R (not to mention the sexualization of children/teens in the chariot scenes and the like being beyond our ability to “rate”), but it is nothing I would have a problem with my daughter reading as a, say, 10 year old. However, if that same violence is presented visually rather than textually, I’m far more concerned about her seeing it and understand why it was toned town (though will never understand those spinning cameras). I can’t help but wondering if this is somehow related to our privileging of reading and (most) books over the more commercial medium of film.

  3. […] my review of The Hunger Games film, I wrote that I was a bit disappointed with the sanitization of, and changes to, the end […]