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In Cinemas: The Hunger Games

Posted on the 30 March 2012 by Desertofreel @Kob_Monney

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games

May the odds be ever in your favor.

Opening to huge success in America, The Hunger Games is the type of film Hollywood loves to make, coffers swelling as box office receipts flood in. Adapting Suzanne Collin’s book, The Hunger Games is never as good as it could and really should be. Despite the hoopla over it, the end result of Gary Ross’ direction and co-writers Billy Ray and Collin’s script is a sanitised version of the book that lacks a satirical bite.

The Hunger Games (a name that’s never explained*) is a gladiatorial contest shown on television where each of the twelve districts ‘offers’ one male and female between the ages of 12 and 18. This acts as remembrance of the conflict that almost destroyed the nation of Panem and as a sign of The Capitol’s strength (think classically styled Rome). During the reaping of the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen’s sister, Prim, is called out to be the district’s tribute; in an act of sacrifice Katniss volunteers in her place. She and fellow tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcheson) will be up against 22 other competitors who will be vying to kill them.

I have bones to pick, so many that this could turn into a rant rather than a review. I’ll try to whittle down my grievances without spoilers but in short the film is a shadow of the book. It condenses and expands the games and roles of several characters but it simplifies the source, stripping it of its complexity and, perhaps in its worst move, de-emphasises the violence on screen throughout – violence shouldn’t be glamorised but it should go hand in hand with the point you’re trying to make. I’m not sure what Gary Ross’ point is.

The first hour is okay, wasting little time in setting up Katniss and the world of District 12. It’s when the games start that the changes become apparent and few of them enhance the story, again simplifying it and reducing the tension.

A prime example is Donald Sutherland’s President Snow, a presence felt but not really seen has been padded out to give the viewer a villain it can heckle. Its changes like this, attempts at making the film more accessible, that turns it into a more conventional and palatable one, softening its edges and distilling the viewers’ ire into one character instead of the Capitol and its people.

Its lack of complexity stretches to its characters, all of whom aren’t given the depth they deserve. The film opts for Katniss perspective but rarely questions her (a pacifist character who kills in self-defence). The other contestants feel thin, barely glimpsed and lucky to get a word in. The career districts (1 and 2, I think) are turned into villains, the kind that would end their sentences with a malevolent cackle or ‘nyuk, nyuk’ type of laugh. It’s a shallow treatment of their characters, stripping them of their base humanity, asking the audience to take sides and turning a moral gray area into an easier to digest black and white one.

I haven’t even started on the shaky cam aesthetic. The effect of the contestant deaths has (rightly or wrongly) been reduced so you can’t quite tell what’s going on. Imagine your older sibling holding their hands over your eyes when you were kid to shield from seeing stuff you shouldn’t be seeing and that’s the exact effect Tom Stern’s cinematography has here. Ross and Stern’s choice of handheld is annoying and it upsets the geography in favour of immediacy and a false sense of immersion. Confusion reigns.

What’s good about The Hunger Games? Jennifer Lawrence’s performance is good (not phenomenal, just good) guiding the viewer through a world that’s strange and, at times, threatening. However, while her version of Katniss may not have the annoying inner monologue/constant anxiety, paranoia and indecision her counterpart in the book has, she’s a less complicated character that’s (understandably) fighting to get back to her family but seems less annoyed at being used as a pawn with her anger shown once and dissipating pretty quickly.

Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett is spot on, her gaudy appearance and optimistic attitude a sign of just how far removed the Capitol is from reality, unwilling to acknowledge the barbarity of the games. The same applies for Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman. The rest of the cast fare a little less, Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ stylist Cinna has a few moments; Harrelson’s Haymitch is not quite the boorish malcontent he is in the book, Gale (Liam Hemsworth) is on the periphery for the whole film and Josh Hutcheson’s Peeta is a character whose head you never really get into.  The same goes for the relationships in the film: the book pads them out, here the film races through, giving few reasons to be emotionally invested in the outcome of…well…anybody.

The Hunger Games is not a facsimile of the book, losing a lot of the complexities and overall Orwellian mood the book evoked. Judged on its own, its average, suggesting very little about our own culture and barely exploring its ideas/characters.  I’m genuinely surprised at the praise that’s been falling at the film’s feet, whether you’re an avid reader of the books or someone completely fresh to it, The Hunger Games never really suffices as an intelligent adaptation. Disappointing.


*The Hunger Games are called so because the winner gets extra food and money for their district, incentivising the games for each district.

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