The Hunger Games is immensely popular. The book is flying off shelves, and the movie broke all sorts of records. And of course, when something is popular, it’s generally fashionable to hate it. Case in point, many of the critical reviews of the film.
One review in particular, sent to me by a friend, had me a bit worried about the movie before I saw it. Now, in retrospect, I think the review is actually comically petty. It’s MovieBob at The Escapist’s review. In it, he rakes the film over the coals for some pretty minor infractions, many of which are actually criticisms of the source material (for instance, he says the name ‘Katniss’ pulled him out of the story — seriously?).
MovieBob is probably being completely honest with his review. But it seems to me that popular things are often held to a much higher standard from certain critics. For instance, if The Hunger Games was some independent film no one had ever heard of, I would bet money that MovieBob wouldn’t have grasped at quite so many straws to tear it down.
Now, I’m not immune to this. I’ve launched my share of criticisms at popular media. Twilight comes to mind. But, in my opinion, the criticisms of Twilight are vastly more fundamental than “Their names are weird” and “The visuals are lacking.”
So what did I think of the movie? Actually, I’m going to make a pretty horrifying comment for bibliophiles. I think The Hunger Games film might actually have been better than the book. While the book had some interesting themes and characters, it was dragged down, in my opinion (and it’s just my opinion) by Collins’s simple and sometimes lazy writing. The film doesn’t have the same issues. Aside from some minor laziness in the visual effects department, all the components of the film were very well done. Here are a few of my highlights:
Katniss (and Jennifer Lawrence) kicks ass
When I first read The Hunger Games, I wasn’t immediately on board the Katniss bandwagon. Sure, she’s loads better than, say, Bella Swan – it’s not even close – but I still felt that she was far too passive. Things happened to her, but she didn’t affect a lot of change. I grew to like her more in the second book, but I still would have liked to see more from her in the first.
The movie, on the other hand, has no such problems. Katniss isn’t any more active as far as the plot is concerned, but Jennifer Lawrence (one of my favorite young actresses, as I elucidated in my 2011 Oscars roundup) imbues her with such quiet strength that one can’t help to root for her. The most fantastic scene in the movie, in my opinion, occurs during the countdown to the games. Cinna is trying his best to reassure Katniss, who seems almost in shock as the announcer marks each passing second. A lesser movie, with a lesser actress, would have done something like the following.
Katniss: “CINNA I’M SO SCARED.”
Cinna: “It’s okay. *Hug*”
Katniss: “OKAY I’M READY, LET’S DO THIS!”
But that’s not what happens. Instead, Katniss doesn’t say much of anything. Instead, she just shakes. It’s noticeable, but subtle. And it’s completely realistic. The look on her face as she rises into the arena is pure acting perfection. Katniss is capable, strong — but she’s also terrified out of her mind. It made me feel the same emotions, and I’d already read the book.
The film doesn’t shy away from brutality — but it’s not cartoony, either
In NPR’s David Edelstein’s review of the film, he comments that “If the film’s director, Gary Ross, has any qualms about kids killing kids, he keeps them to himself. The murders on screen are fast and largely pain-free — you can hardly see who’s killing who.”
I must respectfully disagree. I understand the worry that the PG-13 rating drove the lack of violence, but I’m not entirely sure that’s true. The film did a fine job of evoking horror at the brutality of the Games. At the end, we see Kato, the most villainous of the children, and it’s clear he’s been completely broken and stripped of his soul by the experience. And while it’s true we never linger long on gore, Katniss’s shock, the desperation of those around her, along with the fantastic mood-setting music work much better.
The problem with using violence as a way to elicit a horrified response is that it rarely works. No film portrays this concept better, in my opinion, than The Passion of the Christ. The entire point of the movie was to make the audience weep at Christ’s torture. But the violence is so over-the-top that it feels like a Looney Tunes cartoon. He might as well have dropped a piano on Jesus’s head.
I, for one, am very glad Ross didn’t go this direction with the film. I think it’s actually more relatable that way.
The music is perfect
Not a whole lot that needs to be said. While I’m not sure the score works as a standalone piece, it was fantastic in the movie itself.
Backstory is handled cleverly
One issue movie adaptations often have is trying to fit in a bunch of past history and technical details. The Hunger Games deals with this two ways.
The first is via flashback, mainly to two important events: Peeta giving Katniss his old bread, and Katniss’s father’s death. Both of these could have been done hamfistedly, of course, but I think Ross handles them well. The bread flashback is done in spurts as Katniss gets to know Peeta — we get a little more of the scene each time, and finally, in the end, we see why it’s relevant. The flashback to Katniss’s father (and her mother and sister, incidentally) come while she’s hallucinating from the tracker-jacker stings. It’s sort of a convenient way to do it, but it also makes sense. It’s not too jarring, and it sets up the Rue-Prim equivalence without Katniss having to say “OMG RUE YOU REMIND ME OF MY SISTER.”
As for the details about the games, I think the film does a brilliant job of telling us exactly what we need to know, and no more. Yes, there are some unanswered questions. That’s going to be the case for any speculative fiction (well, any good speculative fiction). But I had a good grasp of what was going on, as did my fellow moviegoers, none of whom had read the book.
In MovieBob’s most boneheaded criticism, he says the whole concept of the arena was confusing. That comment is inept to the point where I’m wondering if he even saw the same movie I did. The film makes it clear the arena is artificial, subject to the Game Maker’s whims. I’m not sure what else Bob thought the audience needed — perhaps he wanted President Snow to come out and deliver a “HERE ARE THE TECHNICAL SPECIFICATIONS OF THE ARENA” speech. I dunno.
Is the movie perfect? Nope.
For all I liked about The Hunger Games, there were some missteps, and even some places where I agree with MovieBob’s critique. The lack of focus on the actual hunger part of The Hunger Games is really mystifying. I suspect we’ll see a lot of tummy-rumbling and cake-gobbling in the deleted scenes, but the fact that Ross really thought none of that was necessary really confuses me.
Also, as I previously mentioned, the visuals were a let down. The effects were blended poorly, and it’s incredibly obvious when the backgrounds switch from a set to a green screen. In a specific example, Katniss’s “Girl on Fire” outfit is incredibly underwhelming. In the book, I imagined her being encircled by flames, something truly otherwordly. In the film, it’s little more than a little fiery cape, and I probably wouldn’t be very impressed if such a thing made an appearance at the Olympics.
But all in all, I came away incredibly impressed by the effort. It’ll be interesting to see if they can keep it up for Catching Fire, given that I was fairly disappointed in the book.