In an unspecified future a totalitarian government rises to rule a nation known as Panem. Born from the ashes of a United States devastated by war and the after effects of global warming, Panem is made up of twelve districts surrounding the heart of the government, known as The Capital. In lethal vengeance for a failed rebellion, The Capital forces each district to send them 2 tributes each year to fight to the death in an elaborate arena. These are “The Hunger Games” – fought by children between the ages of twelve and eighteen – where 24 enter but only one can survive.
Starring Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, this film follows the tributes of poverty-stricken District 12 on their journey into the arena. Our movie begins as TV Host Caeser Flickerman interviews Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane. They discuss the “excitement” of the coming games. Cut to District 12 where a young Primrose Everdeen awakens from a nightmare in which her name is chosen at the reaping, forcing her to participate in the games. Right away we get that juxtaposition between the wealthy and powerful people who view the games as entertainment and the horror they are met with by the districts from which the participants come. Enter older sister Katniss, who sings Prim back to sleep, then heads to the woods to do a little pre-reaping hunting. Then back home to get ready for the big event. And of course, Prim is chosen. And in an unprecedented move, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Peeta is also chosen – his name is met with silence, there are no volunteers to take his place – and the two are whisked aboard the train to The Capital. Let the Games begin!
Actually, they don’t get to begin quite that quickly. We spend roughly another forty-five minutes preparing for them. There is the pre-game beautification, the tribute parade and a whole host of other events that take place. The film does a fantastic job of capturing the difference between the abject poverty of the districts and the high tech lavish wealth of those surrounding the government. The easy life of these people is shown as a stark, appalling contrast to what the teens will face in the games. There is a scene where a young Capital child, roughly the age of some of the participants, is given a toy weapon to celebrate the lethal blood bath about to take place on television. It’s a bit heavy handed but that moment emphasizes the difference between the haves and have nots. One gets to play at battle, the other has to prepare to die in it.
For those who are squeamish, don’t fear. The director uses quick, opaque cuts to keep us from being exposed to too much of the violence. This is a blessing in that it makes the movie watchable for folks like me who cringe at anything more violent than say, The Lorax. It’s a curse in that it relieves us of the horror we should feel after watching the terrifying and terrible events. We should feel a bit traumatized by the end of it all. Instead, most leave the theater discussing favorite scenes and performances.
There are plenty of those by the way. Jennifer Lawrence is brilliant, richly portraying the prickly, tough warrior side of Katniss and the soft gooey center that enables her to love so deeply. Liam Hemsworth uses what little screen time he has to make Gale into a three dimensional, extremely likable and sympathetic character. That he managed that all in what had to be very limited screen time makes his performance especially noteworthy. Adorable Amandla Stenberg shone as precious little Rue. I wish Alexander Ludwig, who plays Cato, could have had a larger role, but he did a great job with the one he did have.
Elizabeth Banks, who portrays the ridiculous Effie Trinket, makes every scene she is in a joy to watch. My favorite scene is a vignette with Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch. Seeing him work the Capital folk was just pure magic. Lenny Kravitz blended so perfectly into his role as Cinna that I forgot he wasn’t the actual character. Oh, and the clothes! They were just as perfect as we could have hoped for.
For fans of the book, expect and accept that changes have been made. Several scenes I found key in the novel were missing in the film. I was annoyed by some of the additions made. But overall, the director seems almost married to his source material, afraid to stray too far away from it lest the fans turn into marauding hoards. In some ways that was very important to me – I was only interested in the film because of the book after all. In other ways, I think it did minor (very minor) damage to the pacing of the movie overall. Time – and therefore pacing – is an entirely different entity in a novel. A book has the advantage of crossing over major chunks of time in a paragraph; A film does not.
Some additions were made to provide information to those who hadn’t read the books (or just for those who hadn’t taken the time to memorize every little factoid like some of us have.) Most of these scenes are done by Caeser Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci) in his role as game announcer. I found them entertaining and overall just really well done. They did a fantastic job of capturing how likable Caeser is in spite of the nastiness of his position.
Other additions, such as the time spent with Seneca Crane and President Snow as well as the game control room scenes, were far less to my taste. They added little to explain the on screen action, making them seem like big time wasters. I also felt they just didn’t quite capture the essence of the characters. President Snow is better for being an enigma – that which we don’t know or understand inspires fear. And Crane, despite his eye catching beard, is not significant to the tale. He is played by a straw dummy in book two. His role should not have been much bigger here.
In discussing the movie with several others who have seen it the one conclusion everyone seemed to agree on is that it failed to capture the relationships that were so beautifully expressed in the novel. I did not feel the love between our primaries. I didn’t quite understand why Haymitch cared. The first important partnership Katniss forms in the games lacks heart. The performances were still brilliant, but the actors just weren’t given sufficient material to close the deal. This didn’t impact me much as a viewer because my relationship with the characters had already been formed before I walked into the theater. I am not sure the result it will have on those without that advantage.
Those two minor quibbles aside I do recommend the film overall. It’s entertaining, thought provoking, exciting and mildly romantic. Lovers of the book won’t be disappointed. Newcomers to the series will find it a fun, enriching experience. I’d give it an overall grade of B.
What about you – have you seen the movie? What did you think? If not, do you plan to? How did it compare to the book for you?
May the odds be ever in your favor!
– Maggie Boyd