Shy of someone discovering a hidden stream of subliminal messages buried within the movie ordering you to punch any Twilight fans you come across and shout “Hunger Games 4 Life!”, this film is essentially review proof. Anything negative anyone says will be dismissed, and the fans will flock to it regardless. And those fans are legion – possibly legion enough that even if the rest of the world decided to ignore the hype, this first in a trilogy of stories would do moderately well. Thankfully for everyone, that is a non-issue and the movie can stand on its own merits. The last thing the world needs is yet another geek fight between hardcore fans of a young adult series and the rest of the world. The adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games may not win over the haters, but the finished product is strong enough to throw a sequel or two on its back.
Besides, if The Hunger Games had been a flop, some dedicated fan somewhere, somehow would have found their way into an early screening and taken to chanting the mantra “must not sleep, must warn others,” while steadily blogging a stream of consciousness diatribe about every little flaw and blemish the movie had. And there are a few, but thankfully none are enough to dissuade fans from gleefully dropping their hard earned cash on a viewing, then waiting expectantly for the second book in the series, Catching Fire, to hit the theaters November 22, 2013.
The Hunger Games isn’t a perfect film, but it is a faithful one. The story honors the book and makes very few sacrifices, and those made are perfectly understandable and legitimate and take nothing away from the narrative. The casting is also spot on, which is especially important because the stars are set to become the face of a multi-million dollar franchise assuming everything goes to plan.
The only real faults are with the camera, which now and then seems to want in on the action and goes out of its way to try to join the storytelling party. The budget of The Hunger Games wasn’t opulent, but it was enough that you would think the filmmakers could have afforded a tripod at least to avoid a constant stream of hand held-looking shots. It is one thing to use a shaky cam technique during an action sequence–when done correctly, it can add to the intensity of the fight–but when used in a long shot, when people are walking down a long hallway, it is not only out of place, but distracting. Shaky cam is a privilege, not a right. And The Hunger Games uses it constantly. But that is something that can be overlooked generally, and some may even enjoy the sensation of running through the forest as flashes of non-descript things happen here and there.
When you think of action films, the odds are heavily in favor of you not immediately thinking of the films Pleasantville or Seabiscuit. And yet from that pedigree comes Director Gary Ross, who also took on co-screenwriting duties, and has been confirmed as the director of Catching Fire as well. But perhaps the choice to bring Ross onboard was a tactical decision as much as an artistic one. His quick, shaky glimpses of the action make it a bit more palatable to watch what might be an otherwise horrific glimpse of a child being brutally murdered, which is the heart of the movie. The glimpses rather than the focus on the violence were also certainly key to keeping the rating in the much more fertile PG-13 soil rather than R.
Shaky cam aside the film does several things right, and one of its biggest positives is its ability to quickly tell a huge amount of back story well, very quickly. With a simple cut of an interview, you are immediately introduced to the concept of The Hunger Games, a brutal institution founded after a devastating civil war in the dystopian country of Panem, a collection of twelve districts beholden to a futuristic Capitol city in what used to be North America.
One boy and girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen are selected at random from each of the twelve districts and forced to fight to the death for the amusement of the Capitol audience. The sole survivor will live a life of luxury while the 23 dead will serve as a reminder of the cost of rebellion. It is a new world and a different mentality, and The Hunger Games film quickly gives the setting and history then jumps right into the life of the film’s star, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
Following the selection of her younger, and much weaker sister Prim, Katniss volunteers to take her place, almost certainly signing her own death warrant in the process. With a few more brief but loaded scenes you are shown the comparable decadence of the capital and introduced to Katniss’ mentor, the generally drunken lout Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), as well as her fellow District 12 competitor and soon to be potential murderer/victim, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson).
All of this is handled gracefully and quickly. The handheld camera occasionally turns a beautiful shot into a bouncy one, but you can’t fault the pacing.
As with any book-to-film adaptation, there will be things that are cut, and things that fans feel should be expanded on. That is simply the nature of the beast and the alternative would be to make a movie that was three and a half hours long, or a film that strayed from the source material. Having read the books, there were those moments here and there, but surprisingly few of them. It would have been nice to see a few more scenes with the sympathetic stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), his crew are almost entirely removed, and a few other things were jettisoned, but there is more than enough to give you what you need and allow those that haven’t read the book to know the score.
Personal gripes aside, The Hunger Games adaptation manages to touch on all the major points of the story faithfully and quickly without really losing much of anything.
There is also a definite sense that there was a great deal of the film that ended up on the cutting room floor. One character, the co-announcer of the games Claudius Templesmith, is played by the increasingly well-known British actor Toby Jones. In the final product, he has possible two lines. There is no way the filmmakers would have brought an actor of Jones’ quality in for a few minutes of work. His omission is only felt if you recognize the actor, but he will probably ride again when the Director’s Cut hits blu-ray a few months after the theatrical cut is released on home media.
The reason this movie works though isn’t just the fast pacing and it isn’t really because of the narrative. It works because the actors make it work. With a film featuring such an alien plot, you need to do one of two things to sell the mood: first, you can have numerous people hammer home the emotions you are trying to convey, one supporting character at a time. The second, and far more effective method, is to have the primary characters do it with quick things like the look in their eyes or well timed and believable emotional outbursts.
Lawrence sells the film with her eyes. She manages to appear guarded and disconnected when the moment calls for it, then can quickly go to containing panic or determined. Hutcherson also manages to project earnestness. Harrelson and Kravitz both make impressions in relatively minor roles, as does Donald Sutherland as President Snow, who’s role from the books is beefed up with promises of more from him in the future. They all treat their roles with the severity they require.
It is through the moments with the characters where fans will recognize The Hunger Games from their imaginations. Hutcherson should be able to win you over as Peeta, and Lawrence will be the face of Katniss. The action is a bit more subdued than you may hope, which is partly the result of a PG-13 rating and partly due to the shaky cam (which needs to die a horrible death). But maybe that is just a personal preference. Regardless, it isn’t a big enough issue to really hurt the film.
As with any movie that comes from a book, there are a few moments where your imagination will outpace the movie, and that is unavoidable. The Hunger Games actually does a better job than most when it comes to this. The filmmakers treat the property with care, obviously wanting to both honor the source material and be sure to avoid screwing up a potentially lucrative franchise. They manage to pull off both.
The movie does the job it needs to. It faithfully retells the story, and it prepares the way for the second film, as well as the third (and probably fourth, which will be part two of the final book, Mockingjay). If you are a fan, rest assured the adaptation of your beloved property won’t disappoint you. For those that weren’t aware of The Hunger Games before this movie began bombarding your consciousness with ads, you may as well go and see what all the fuss is about. You won’t be disappointed.