Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy of young adult novels has become a phenomenon in the past few years. The books have generated a rabid fan base from both the male and female demographics. Due to the incredible popularity of these books, it’s no surprise that Hollywood production house Lionsgate jumped at the chance to secure the rights to film adaptations of the series. However, with a cast and production crew of fairly green Hollywood-ers, the film has faced an upward battle against the massive amount of hype the fans have created around it. Opening weekend gross numbers are one thing, but the real question is how well the book translated to the silver screen.
The film starts out by explaining to us the state of the dystopian world Suzanne Collins created, and how every year one boy and girl from each district is chosen to train and fight to the death in an arena as a punishment for a failed rebellion against the Capitol many years ago. The sole survivor of the Games is showered with riches, as a symbol of the Capitol’s ongoing generosity despite the message the Games are clearly trying to convey to the 12 districts. After this text crawl, we are whisked away to the home of Katniss and Prim Everdeen, two sisters living with their mother in the incredibly poor and hungry District 12. Katniss attempts to comfort her sister on this day, the day of her first Hunger Games reaping. After this Katniss leaves to meet up with her best friend, Gale Hawthorne, and we discover that Katniss has developed proficient hunting skills alongside him, in order to provide food and money for her starved family. After this brief introduction of their lives, the members of District 12 are rounded up for the reaping, the selection of this years Hunger Games contestants. Despite the fact that this is Prim’s first year, her name is selected. In a panic, and an attempt to save her sister from a fate that would most likely result in her death, Katniss quickly volunteers herself in Prim’s place. The boy chosen is one Peeta Mellark, and the film quickly establishes that he and Katniss share a previous connection before they are both whisked away to the Capitol.
It is on the way to the Capitol that we are introduced to Katniss and Peeta’s would-be mentor, Haymitch Abernathy. Haymitch is District 12’s sole Hunger Games victor, but he has devolved into a drunk and cynical man. Peeta refuses to accept this, and his insistence results in Haymitch’s begrudging mentoring of them. Haymitch introduces an important aspect of the Games to them: if one is to survive, they must also be very political, and get the rich members of the Capitol to like them. This is because sponsors can send their favorite Games contestants tools that can be key to survival or even victory throughout the course of the event. Forever the lone wolf, Katniss doesn’t understand how to get people to like her. It is revealed, however, that Peeta is extremely charismatic and a gifted speaker. He winds up spinning himself and Katniss as star-crossed lovers, much to Katniss’s chagrin and to the thrill of the Capitol.
Soon, the pomp and flashiness of trying to gain favor with the superficial members of the Capitol gives way to the true, horrifying reality of the Games. We discover that some Districts actually train their children from a young age to be proficient killers, ultimately groomed for the Games. These contestants are generally the favorites to win the Games each year, and are referred to as Careers. In a flash of defiance, Katniss manages to impress the Gamemakers of the Capitol with her incredible skill with a bow while simultaneously labeling herself as a potential threat to the Careers. Eventually, all of the children are thrown into the arena and the brutality of the event is showcased in full force. Katniss and Peeta ultimately split up, since there can only be one winner, and they are forced to face the horrors of the arena and the prospect of having to kill others. After many of the contestants have been killed off, and as a result of the popularity of the Katniss/Peeta romance that Peeta sold in the Capitol, the Gamemakers introduce a new rule stating that there can be two winners so long as they hail from the same district. It is when Katniss begins her search for Peeta, and their eventual alliance occurs, that the film reaches its climax. Soon, they have to deal not only with the Careers and the ever-changing whim of the Gamemakers, but also the romance they thought was only for the cameras.
Movies based on books are always difficult to judge because they are inevitably compared with their source material. In the end, this is simply unfair. Going into The Hunger Games, I didn’t bother myself with details and the minor changes they made when writing the script. My primary concern was with whether or not they would be able to capture the tone of Collins’ books. I need not have worried. Gary Ross, who directed and served as co-screenwriter alongside author Suzanne Collins, deftly and expertly captured the bleak feel of the novels. This was apparent in the visuals and in James Newton Howard’s score. The first scenes of District 12 struck a chord with me, possibly even moreso than the book; reading it was one thing, actually seeing it was another. I feel that what Ross did here was exceptional; in less sure hands this film could have had major problems. However, Ross was able to easily handle the emotions and action where necessary. If I had to take a knock at his direction and writing, I’d say the movie had some pacing problems. The District 12 scenes and Capitol parts seemed to be rushed, and then the film
slowed down as the characters entered the arena, only to speed back up again as it approached the climax. Some characters and ideas just weren’t given quite enough room to breathe, although I didn’t always feel as though this was an issue because Ross was able to squeeze in very subtle hints as to what these characters were feeling and going through, and how the situations were affecting them. As for the cinematography, a lot of people have expressed their annoyance over the film’s incessant use of shaky cam. I can understand why people wouldn’t like this, but it didn’t really bother me and I felt that the shaky cam method lent a sense of immediacy and an added layer of tension to the film. Also, using this method was probably the only way they could attempt to convey the violence in the arena while still securing the ever-important PG-13 rating.
As for the acting, Jennifer Lawrence was absolutely brilliant. She is fast becoming one of my favorite actresses, starting with what I saw in her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone and followed up by her turn as Mystique in X-Men: First Class. She brought in the protective older sister vibe she expertly conveyed in Winter’s Bone, along with the action chops she showcased in X-Men. Both were blended together brilliantly, and she added that awkwardness-in-her-own-skin feeling that you get about Katniss from the book. The issues regarding some of the other characters not getting enough breathing room are because Lawrence was heavily focused on, to the point where she almost carried the film on her own. However, the supporting cast was strong enough that they would not be denied the
occasional spotlight. Woody Harrelson’s portrayal of Haymitch was one of my favorite things about the movie, as he provided levity and a sense of seriousness where necessary, while also conveying the sense that Haymitch is damaged goods. Lenny Kravitz struck me as perfect for Cinna, and Liam Hemsworth was much more likable than in any film I’ve seen him in before. As for the other lead, I’ve always liked Josh Hutcherson. I’ve felt for a long time that he is going to be a big up and coming star soon. This would have been the case if he had been cast as Peter Parker in the new Spider-Man reboot coming out this summer, but he was beat out by Andrew Garfield. What he does here as Peeta, though, will be a big stepping stone towards Hollywood realizing that he has a lot of leading man potential. His Peeta was almost spot-on how I imagined Peeta would be like. The charisma he conveyed during the interview with Caesar Flickerman was exactly how I expected Peeta would speak, but the fact that Hutcherson so effectively performed it is evidence of his own substantial charisma as an actor. I’m hoping Peeta gets more screen time in the next movie, but what Hutcherson did with the time he had here was everything I could have hoped for.
So, a few pacing and cinematography problems aside, I felt that The Hunger Games absolutely lived up to the hype. Gary Ross, although a somewhat fresh director, impressively brought the book to life on screen. A slew of great actors brought the characters to life, and Suzanne Collins’ role as screenwriter and consultant shined through in the film’s high production values. Millions saw it this last weekend, but if you’re someone who is still on the fence about it, then I can say with confidence that this is an excellent adaptation of a very good book.