After annoying everyone I know for two weeks about The Hunger Games, having devoured the trilogy in five days, I finally saw the film (in IMAX, even) today. Wow! Better than I’d hoped, and every fear I had was alleviated. In fact, I’d say it was one of the best book-to-film translations I’ve ever seen–having kept every major plot point, every theme, many details, the feel and emotion… everything was dead-on. Sure, there were some cuts and even additions, but they were made to make the book work as a film, and done so perfectly! But I’ll touch on a those things down in the spoilery section of this essay.
These last few days, I’d read many reviews of the film. Some I read with glee, some with trepidation. Several reviews and articles expressed problems with the film that gave voice to some of my own concerns. Fortunately, only a couple of those concerns were valid; otherwise, most of the criticisms I read are objectively just wrong, and where it’s a matter of opinion… well, do I have to say which opinion I think is more valid? *grin*
The one criticism that was valid, was the over-use of the dreaded shakey-cam! Oh. My God. From the opening of the film, even the quite, setting establishing shots on people and buildings, shakey-cam! Like the camera was zoomed in on something a couple hundred feet away, and not on a stand/tripod/whatever. Know what I mean? Very distracting. However, the shakey-cam use during the violence was actually quite good, ironically. But I’ll touch on that more when I discuss the violence of the film.
Annoying Critics are Annoying
As for outlandish criticisms, first, is the one I saw here and there about Jennifer Lawrence’s stoic performance. Fortunately, most reviews recognized her incredible job portraying the quiet and smoldering girl who, in the novels, gave us the benefit of reading her thoughts, being the 1st-person narrator. In fact, now that I think of it, nearly every review glowed about her performance–it was only a couple that criticized it, so I really shouldn’t address it. But I’m compelled, because of how taken I was. Yes, Katniss wore a predominantly a guarded expression, but it was appropriate for a character who, from a young age, had to become virtually the head of her household, raising her sister while their mother was virtually catatonic in depression after the death of her husband and the girls’ father. She had to be tough and guarded.
But, that made all the many, many instances of subtle emotional breaks and expressions, all the more effective. When she smiled at Peeta sitting at the window; when she looked upon the video wall with amazement, and then disgust; when she smiled, impressed, by Rue’s antics; when she scoffs at Haymitch’s message in the soup canister; and so forth. Not to mention the few places in which she breaks down into true, body-wracking emotion, that is so much the more emotional because of her in-control nature. You truly get a sense of the toll the “games” take on her when she allows her walls to crack. One of the moments in which Jennifer’s performance was so pitch-perfect, so sincere, that my heart felt crushed and breaking, was when she’s spending the last moments with Cinna below the area, before she goes up. (That’s not spoilery, is it?) The look of near-panic and barely working self-control in her eyes, the way her body shakes, made me feel exactly how she, the character felt, and I wept for her while at the same time feeling like I, myself, was about to walk into my own death.
Okay, the violence. I’ve decided that any reviewer who says, “Not violent enough! Just watch the ‘original’: the Japanese ‘Battle Royale,'” is a moron and I’m completely ignoring everything they have to say from that point. Are there similarities between the government forcing kids to kill kids in “Battle Royale” and “Hunger Games”? Duh. But that’s where the similarities completely end. And if one want’s to discount a later work that has an element, even a major element, from a previous work, well, better discount most of modern literature back through Shakespeare and further. The fact that “Hunger Games” is essentially a blend of the Greek tale of Theseus and the story of slave-turned-rebel, Spartacus–both stories featuring child tributes and gladiatorial killing, the cynical comparison to “Battle Royale” is rendered moot.
Furthermore, I’ve seen “Battle Royale,” and despite the patina of social commentary that’s loosely applied, that film is a splatter-gore violence exploitation film. As I watched it, initially apprehensive and disturbed, I was quickly made to feel virtually no emotion about that film at all as it was essentially a ridiculous, blood-soaked cartoon. (Now, I’ve not read the book, which, for all I know, is indeed closer to the sincere commentary that “Hunger Games” is.) The “Hunger Games” novel is significantly more violent than the movie depicted, but it can get away with it as the text and the narrative can easily render the texual violence disturbing and horrific, whereas in a film, there’s a fine line between that and glorification. If “Hunger Games” the film was any more bloody than it was, it would have tipped into the ridiculous. As it is, the director did a perfect job representing the horror of kids slaughtering kids without needing to up the gore.
Well, I’m not sure I can go on much further talking about the film without being spoilery, so, be warned: from this point there be spoilers! Not just for the first book and film, but probably the entire trilogy.
Back to the subject… What also helped turn what could have very easily been a glorification of the violence into something deeply disturbing and terribly sad, was the film, from the first moment we see District 12 and meet Prim and Katniss, presented what was to happen in exactly the right and realistic mood. Showing us how the people of District 12 fear and loathe the day, how everything that happens is darkened by the knowledge that something terrible is going to happen, including the way Greasy Sae gives Katniss the mockingjay pin free, and looks at her with sadness. The way Effie’s bubbly excitement is counterpointed by the districts utter silence and participation only from duress.
Ironic Celebration of Marketing Violence
I should comment that, up until the moment I saw the film, one of my greatest fears was exactly how it would approach the games–with the same sense of recognition of the immoral inhumanity of it? Or the action and excitement of the entire movie marketing campaign? For these last few weeks, as the marketing for the film ramped up to fever pitch, the selling of stuff whether fast food or companion books or whatever, has been accompanied with the impression that the Hunger Games of the story are a real neato-cool event that’s as exciting and to be anticipated. And that’s seriously bothered me. Granted, you’re not going to sell as much useless crap if you’re marketing it with the actual themes of the book/film: a critique on the grotesque love of reality TV and the adoration of violence. Doesn’t make for a big selling tone.
Fortunately, the film itself was very much in sync with the cultural criticisms of the books, and the Hunger Games and what happens in them are depicted as something horrible, not exciting and grand (to any decent person, at least. Which brings me to….)
On a tangent, one thing I am so glad of, is in my part of the world where I see films in the theater, I’ve never had to encounter rowdy teenager, people talking on phones during the film, people who cheer or laugh or jeer inappropriately–all things I read about other people experiencing. And, in this case, I’ve read about people seeing the film with an audience that cheered and clapped at the various death scenes, ironically emulating the very behavior that the books/film decries. In my packed theater, the “action” and killings were accompanied with a silence from the audience matching the silence of District 12 when Effie asks them to applaud for Katniss and her volunteering. This give me some hope for humanity.
Anyway, some of the bigger changes in the film from the book. There were a couple, but they were mostly necessary. In the film, we don’t get much about the Everdeen family’s situation and the death of the father and Katniss’s and her mom’s reaction to it… but it is referenced in a trackerjacker-induced delirium flashback which was handled nicely. Because of what happens to Katniss at the end of the 3rd book, Mockingjay, I’m really hoping that, for that to pack as much of an emotional punch as it has in the books, they do build a little more in the next film on her mother’s complete shutdown and Katniss’s resulting near-hatred of her for it. That’s a very important part of the book’s themes and overarching narrative, and character development.
Also, for the sake of both time and economy of characters, they had to remove everything about the Dictrict 12 mayor, his family, and Marge–whom gives Katniss the mockingjay pin. I understand why they did that, and am okay with it. Except, I do hope they take the opportunity to build up our affection for the people of District 12 (the mayor and his daughter being significant in the books) in order for their deaths and the destruction of District 12 to be that much more crushing. And, most importantly, add the Katniss’s sense of debt for their deaths that is the foundation for her breakdown at the end of the trilogy (ultimately triggered, naturally, by the death of her sister).
Moving away from the film review and more on a discussion of the books for a moment, I really want to address that theme of the books: debt. The writing of the Hunger Games books isn’t the best in the world. The author does beat the reader over the head a bit too often with her themes and lessons. But, what she does subtly, is done so well, that the reader (well, I) can do nothing but bask in the beauty of the moment when it culminates. Throughout the book, Katniss is constantly counting debts–whenever someone saves her life, that’s another debt she owes them, whenever someone dies because of her, that’s a debt she owes. She’s constantly aware of the piling of these debts. To a point, it almost becomes annoying. I found myself in the middle of Mockingjay wondering if anything is going to be made of the near-obsessive debt counting. And, no, there is never any actual dialog or narrative or even 1st-person thought, after the climax, about the debts she owes. That word is completely dropped. However, it’s the very basis of what causes Katniss to finally completely breakdown, shut down, spiral into depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, after Prim dies in front of her. The ultimate debt she owes, to her. The death of District 12 and those thousands of people, the ruining of Peeta’s mind, the death of the people who followed her into battle, and Prim. The debt crushes her. And the way it is left to the reader to make the connection between the debt and her crumbling, makes the reader feel the pain more acutely–if one makes the connection. It’s certainly bad enough to have her sister die in front of her, needlessly, after Katniss volunteered her own life at the beginning of book one for her, which started nearly 2 years of pain and destruction that might not have happened (to her and District 12, at least) if she hadn’t. That would justify rage and depression. But what ends up happening to Katniss can only be the debt coming due in her mind.
Ah, yes, back on track. Another (necessary but heavily missed) change that was made was the gloss-over of Peeta giving Katniss the bread when Katniss, years earlier, was at the very end of her rope, and the brink of complete loss and desperation (and, incidentally, beginning her obsession with counting debt). It’s brought up in the film, and very well, too. Carefully edging closer and closer in flashes of memory, to the ultimate act of generosity that gave the younger Katniss hope, the film instilled an appropriate sense that this was a very important moment in their lives. Mostly in Katniss’s. But the book, naturally, went so much further in describing just how terrible her despair at that moment was, that wasn’t quite as major as I would have liked to have seen it depicted.
Also, an important detail that would have been difficult to properly portray in the film, was her finding the lone flower in the mud, signalling to her the coming of spring and that she, and her family, were going to have a chance of making it after her father’s death. That flower changed her. And, if I recall, it happened to be the same type of flower that she collected to honor Rue with–making that scene all the more heart-breaking in the novel. But, again, very difficult to film without too much exposition.
After Katniss’s reaction to Rue’s death, followed by her honoring her with a wreath of flowers, and then sending District 11 a salute, we see the emotional reaction in District 11 results in a riot. In the books, we don’t find out about any kind of growing rebellion until book two. But, I think skipping forward a bit and showing the reaction in the first film is important. In books, we don’t find out until book two, but even then we’re told that uprising were already beginning during the 74th Games. So, timewise, it’s perfectly appropriate to show it. (Although, I don’t believe 11 started getting into the act until later–I believe it was 4 that started revolting. Anyway…) It helps the round out the film as a stand-alone whole by adding depth to the political strife and turmoil Panem exists in. But mostly, the film needed it. The audience at that point had just witnessed a terrible and unfair death, a very sad and heartbreaking death, and a highly emotional reaction by the heroine–the audience is emotionally suffering at that moment. The portrayal of the angry mob destroying and rioting, helped us channel those emotions outward, just as the characters’ were reacting to the event, and helped us get out of the pit of despair and be able to continue on with the film in a more up, or, not “positive,” but engaged manner. That’s the hand of a skilled director.
And finally, the death of Seneca, the Gamesmaster. We don’t get that in the book. We only hear about his death and replacement in book two. Since Seneca was actually used more in the film than in the book, out of narrative necessity, his end was also necessary. And, as the one real change from whole cloth in the film, I’m impressed by how they went about it–giving him the Socratic hemlock, so to speak, in the form of a bowl of the very berries that symbolized his failure and the embarrassment of the Capitol. Brilliant choice!
Well, I’ve written on far too long. But, it feels good to express all of this. The last week I’ve been reading various essays related to The Hunger Games and the film, critical and analytic essays. Here’s one that I found particularly excellent! “Why ‘The Hunger Games’ Isn’t ‘Twilight’ (And Why That’s A Good Thing).” On the one hand, it’s so very annoying to constantly have “The Hunger Games” compared to “Twilight;” however, it’s kind of inevitable. There are so few big-budget films featuring a young, female protagonist, that it’s almost a given they must be compared and contrasted. Hopefully, one day, there’ll be far too many to be able to do that too. But, in the meantime, this article is a wonderful analysis of why “The Hunger Games,” and the books, is far superior in themes and message.
Thanks for reading!