The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games

The latest craze to seize the literary world has been transformed, according to the law of Hollywood, into cinema. The Hunger Games, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins, is helmed by Gary Ross and co-written by the author herself. Targeting a younger crowd, the movie yet boasts enough maturity and craftsmanship to appeal to other demographics. I continue to await the next science fiction masterpiece, but if the interlude between masterpieces had more movies of this caliber, I would gripe a good deal less.

In the world of the story, an Empire has put down a rebellion by thirteen districts. The thirteenth district was destroyed and the other twelve must, each year, supply a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 to participate in the Hunger Games. The 24 participants train for a few weeks before competing in a winner-take-all gladiatorial contest that leaves only one alive. Interspersed in their training are interviews with the media, banquets, and chances to impress viewers and thereby win sponsors who can assist the contenders during the competition.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a young girl in district twelve. She hunts for food in forbidden territory but is permitted to do so because she sells much of her catch to the guards (the first in a series of welcome demonstrations of governmental corruption). When her younger sister’s name is pulled as the female representative for the Games, Katniss demands to go as a volunteer in her stead.

She and the male representative, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), are whisked away in an opulent high-speed train. They meet Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former district 12 representative who won the contest years ago. He is to act as their advisor during the training, an endeavor that begins badly before they get past Abernathy’s cocksure flippancy to find a decent person underneath.

In the capital, they encounter a decadent culture full of soft and foppish dandies, the culmination of metrosexual evolution, perhaps. This pampered and preened upper caste is a stark contrast to the gritty miners Katniss and Peeta are used to. Katniss at first struggles to adjust to her new environment, while Peeta makes the transition more smoothly.

I regret to report that the first half of the movie is the one that comes off better. Though the latter half is never bad, some problems do start to accumulate and these prevent it from pulling the viewer to the edge of his seat, as is the intention. The first half, though not without flaws, is a more adroit creation.

I did have some minor complaints with the first hour and a quarter, the shaky camera foremost among them. I will record my complaint once again for posterity: if the camera is jittery, there ought to be a reason. If we are filming a sedate character eating meager scraps of food in his poverty, there is no reason I can think of why bouncing his image around the silver screen, such that we can barely tell what is going on, contributes anything important to the story, conveys anything of the mood and character or does much of anything else except irritate.

Katniss
Katniss

There was a moment in the capital, when the contestants are first introduced to the masses, that I found a little silly. Much is made of the importance of a first impression, so some time is spent designing the right costumes for the chosen. Katniss and Peeta, coming from a coal mining district, are given an ensemble to represent their background and, presumably, impress the audience and win them supporters. This would not be a problem in itself, as their outfits turn out to be a perfect tacky fit to the gaudy crowd that has come to watch them, but the movie does not deride the moment. It treats it is a minor triumph. There is a sudden upswell of music, and then the camera cuts to the two conscripts and pulls back to show black with a few paltry flames trailing behind as they ride through an arena on their chariot. In a world of technology far more advanced than ours, it is difficult to see how this could be as impressive as it was portrayed to be. If I felt like the storyteller were sharing my embarrassment for anyone who saw grandeur in the moment, I would have not been inclined to groan, but such was not the case.

Despite these complaints, I felt that the first half was a bit of solid filmmaking. The camera captures mood and character well, the story develops naturally and smoothly and the adult actors and maybe one or two of the kids make their roles convincing. It is unfortunate that it turned out to be superior to what followed. The second half is the event itself, and the screen time is turned over almost exclusively to the teenyboppers, who simply do not sell their rolls like the older actors. Jennifer Lawrence is acceptable, but the others come off as plastic models and 90210 types rather than real people from districts stricken with want and neglect (or gladiatorial trainees who have spent their young lives preparing to participate in the games, as some of them are).

Apart from poor casting and makeup choices, I felt there was a lack of interaction between the various characters, something that might have raised the stakes on an emotional level. I also felt like there was no recognition of what they were facing. Katniss and Peeta are presumably going to have to kill each other at some point, if someone else does not do it first, yet there is little to no reflection on this. Even Haymitch, who must have done some killing himself, has nothing to offer on the terrible act of killing an innocent human being. A lot of emotional depth could have been added to the story with some development of these ideas.

Implausibilities are numerous once the battle begins. Katniss makes a stupid mistake, for no apparent reason, that one thinks Haymitch would have warned her not to make. A rebellion starts in one district, sparked by something that I can only think is seen every single year during the Hunger Games, yet this time we are meant to accept that it gets people riled up. This rebellion leads the director of the Games to make a decision that makes very little sense in the story, but is full of contrived implication for Katniss and her romantic interest. Near the end Katniss’ previously established tree-climbing aptitude is forgotten so that the climax can be more exciting. Even one of the flaws shared by both halves is revealed as a disappointment only in the second half. This has to do with the introduction of a character, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), whose chiseled jaw, baritone voice, and on-camera swagger simply scream protagonist — again, in a 90210 as opposed to a mining district sort of way — and yet we come to realize that he ultimately means nothing to the movie, repeated cuts to his perspective during the competition notwithstanding (I presume he plays a greater role in the sequels).

Gale Hawthorne
Never been within 20 miles of a coal mine.

The greatest disappointment, though, has more to do with what was not done than with what was done. The climax is simply not thrilling enough. Its outset is a bit jarring, because though we have been kept up to speed on the body count and know it cannot be far away, the emotional buildup and final hook are too diminutive or little developed to make us ready for the last chapter. It bears repeating that the movie is not bad, nor is its climax, but the aforementioned problem keeps it far away from being great.

As an example to follow, I would suggest the climax to Predator, a good movie with a great final act. There comes a moment when character arcs are finished, interactions between hero and villain have been sufficient, and a last obstacle and chance for the hero to save himself suddenly present themselves, so that we know the last confrontation is at hand. We are made to endure tantalizing minutes watching the preparation, which is full of hints of things to come, and finally get what we have been waiting for. Something like that, so similar to the Hunger Games’ scenario, would have suited the film nicely. There are many other ways it could be handled, but whatever the ending, it needed more of an emotional crescendo, more of a mix of tenseness and giddy excitement. What we actually got, though not devoid of satisfaction, was more subdued, not as completely fulfilling as it might have been.

All things considered, it was a decent film. It would be easy to exaggerate the libertarian element, but it is an allegory for our times, when powerful interests suppress a people, some of whom yearn to be free. It is not precisely clear that a libertarian solution is one the author has in mind — many a leftwing statist has made similar complaints, after all — but it is nice to see powerful authority depicted as it deserves to be. The Hunger Games is a pleasant time at the theater if you are already on your way, and, even if you are not, you might consider making the trip.

3.5 / 5 stars     

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About the Author

Matthew Bruce Alexander Staff Writer

Matthew is a libertarian living in central Ohio. A graduate of Ohio State University, he majored in Spanish and has published a work of libertarian science-fiction called Wĭthûr Wē.

{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Konrad Graf March 31, 2012 @ 12:15 pm | Link

    I concur with your assessment of the weaknesses, and as a recent reader of the trilogy can add that much of import was lost in the film, though it was quite faithful in terms of setting and other exteriors. The Law of Hollywood states that any deep moral and political content that does not conform to a simplistic left-liberal formula must be omitted as much as possible. Among examples, the 99%-er-esque riot scene in the film did not happen until book two and then in a different context. At that point in book one, something much more powerful happened instead, a positive message of quiet solidarity from people to people that crosses the state’s artificial boundary lines using a form of cultural communication. The state could only watch helplessly at this. This was one of the most powerful moments for me in the entire book, and omitted from the movie!

    Reply
    • Matthew Alexander April 1, 2012 @ 7:54 pm | Link

      “much of import was lost in the film”

      What!? I’m shocked to discover gambling going on in this establishment.

      “The Law of Hollywood states that any deep moral and political content that does not conform to a simplistic left-liberal formula must be omitted as much as possible.”

      Indeed. That’s another of the Laws of Hollywood.

      “At that point in book one, something much more powerful happened instead, a positive message of quiet solidarity from people to people that crosses the state’s artificial boundary lines using a form of cultural communication. The state could only watch helplessly at this.”

      Wow. Sounds like a lot of depth and subtext was lost in the transition.

      Reply
  • Konrad Graf March 31, 2012 @ 12:18 pm | Link

    Let me make the above one step clearer: an act of peace in the book was replaced with acts of violence in the movie. Surprise, surprise.

    Reply
  • Michel Santos March 31, 2012 @ 6:51 pm | Link

    @Konrad, that’s really unfortunate because, I agree, that is a powerful scene in the book that conveys so much about the story’s world. I’m a little concerned about seeing the movie considering your comparison, and also the critiques by Matthew. But at least the movie will lead to a larger readership of the great trilogy.

    Reply
    • Konrad Graf March 31, 2012 @ 11:58 pm | Link

      @Michel I think it’s still worth seeing. I saw the film with two friends who had also both read the books and our general conclusion was that the film did what it did fairly well (didn’t ruin the aspects of the material that it did attempt), but that what was left out of the film relative to the book was some of the most profound and challenging interior material. It is partly the nature of the medium, but not only. This one scene we are talking about above alone could have shifted the tone, for example. I was just looking forward to *how* exactly they were going to pull that message-from-11 scene off and was actually a little shocked when they cut it altogether and instead went to a riot scene, which carried a completely different, and much weaker, tone and message. The most radical message of the book, in my reading, was to just up and create positive and healthy human connections with others right across the artificial game and fence boundaries between us that the state is always busily setting up.

      Reply
      • Michel Santos April 1, 2012 @ 10:26 pm | Link

        Indeed, Konrad.

        I’m particularly interested in seeing the portrayal of the media within the movies, which I think was just outright delicious in the books.

        Reply
    • Matthew Alexander April 1, 2012 @ 7:55 pm | Link

      Michel, the movie is not bad. In fact, I enjoyed it more than anything else I have seen this year except The Gray (not a high bar to get over, but still…). I hope I did not overplay the weaknesses, but there are a number of them.

      Reply
      • Michel Santos April 1, 2012 @ 10:18 pm | Link

        @Matthew: No worries, it’s good to know, and I’ll definitely see it at some point, out of curiosity if nothing else.

        But, it’s also interesting to consider how the movie did evolve as it finally did in view of the fact, from what I’ve heard, that the author herself was somewhat involved in the screenwriting. So, I would be interested to find an interview with her to see her take on the movie and what sacrifices were made and why. Who knew what and when did they know it? 🙂

        Reply

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