The latest craze in young adult fiction has finally made its way to the big screen, via director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) starring Jennifer Lawrence, the next big actress to hit the Hollywood scene with a splash. She made a name for herself when she was nominated for an Oscar for her role in Winter’s Bone. Her counterpart in the film is Josh Hutcherson, a new teen heartthrob of sorts (I just learned that from my teenage sisters), whose main claim to fame is the Journey to the Center of the Earth 3D movie and its sequel. Hutcherson plays her eventual love interest Peeta. Lawrence plays the main character Katniss Everdeen, in a take on names that is more distracting than original. I understand some of the names are plucked from the Roman culture it is meant to reflect unto our own. It’s one of the many elements of the film that is a borrowed concept, and like many functions of Young Adult fiction, the borrowing will become more apparent as the story goes on. It is here that seems to be the dividing line for most people. Either you’ll relish in author Suzanne Collins‘ dystopian vision of the future, or you’ll be continually unimpressed, having seen similar concepts done better in other fiction. Most of the former seems to be people that either A) Haven’t read/seen much dystopian fiction, or B) People who love fiction set in dystopian societies so much they’ll read anything in the genre.
Factor in the fact that the marketing, and the love triangle, managed to catch the coat tails of the Twilight craze to become an arguably even more popular cultural reference in its own right. I won’t spend too much time on the plot description, as its been in every review put out this past week, and if you’re reading this, it’s probably to further decide whether or not to see the film. In a nutshell, Katniss (Lawrence) is thrust into the middle of ‘The Hunger Games’, a form of entertainment/punishment from the dystopian government city ‘The Capitol’ run by Donald Sutherland, I guess playing himself at this point. Children from each district the government controls children are selected from a drawing where their names are put in each time they are desperate enough to accept food from the government. Katniss and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) ponder what will happen if one of them is selected, and reflect on their oppressed existence. When the day comes, and Katniss’ little sister Primrose is selected, Katniss can’t let her go and volunteers to take her place, the first volunteer for The Hunger Games.
Once selected, Peeta and Katniss are whisked away to The Capitol in a fancy magnetic train, seeing the size of the city. The opening act, set in Katniss’ home of District 12, takes a long time to set up that they’re poor and life sucks where they live. It’s filled with a lot of handheld, in-your-face camerawork, often for shots that should have been sweeping crane shots. I still can’t tell if this was a budget limitation, or a stylistic choice by Gary Ross, but it’s one that is jarring, and especially odd because once in The Capitol, the camerawork smooths out. I guess it was supposed to be more indicative of the rough and dirty style of District 12, but instead it distracts from simple images being processed by the audience. Once in The Capitol, the kids are shown off for prospective sponsors, dressed by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) who only seems to appear in the movie as a service to fans. The character is a fun character, with a few important words of wisdom for Katniss’ self-confidence, but the character could have been an extra and the overall story wouldn’t have lost anything. The same can be said for Effie (Elizabeth Banks) who is never called by name, and serves as nothing more than a barometer for how different the kids are from their Capitol chaperons. Even Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) is given little to do, offering advice and acting as Katniss’ sole sponsor it seemed.
A lot of aspects of the film suffered from the fact that their explanations were lost in the trimming of the script to a reasonable length, like the items from sponsors. So much importance is placed on the kids getting sponsors, yet we only see Katniss get help from Haymitch twice, and the other kids only get a ‘health pack’ at the same time. Why was so much time spent explaining and detailing sponsors, only for them to do nothing the rest of the game? It came off as a contrived plot device to make everything move toward the ending. Another aspect that gets left in the dust, for one reason or another, is the love triangle. Liam Hemsworth has maybe 4 minutes of actual screentime, his relationship with Katniss seems casual at best, even though their dialogue would hint toward a higher importance. That is quickly forgotten about when the relationship between Katniss and Peeta blossoms, seemingly out of nowhere, and for no other reason than they feel they have no other choice. A plot device will later come into play that wouldn’t have been possible without their relationship existing, so maybe that’s why it’s there. It feels forced and unrealistic, borne of desperation rather than any actual feeling.
While I’m still on things that were missing, I have to mention GameMaker Seneca (Wes Bentley), and yes, everyone loves his facial hair, but the character is nothing but a poor excuse for a plot device. Even then, he doesn’t serve his purpose, as major aspects of the game are left unexplained. I understand there are probably lengthy explanations in the books on how they can create fire out of nowhere, and genetically altered dogs, but to just accept that these things exist, and only come out when they are the only solution to a plot hole, it leaves the viewer probing for an explanation that never comes. Which is baffling, considering there are superfluous scenes littering the bloated first hour of the film, meanwhile, in the heat of the moment, major plot points go unexplained when the film is supposed to be firing on all cylinders.
One of the other aspects that bothered me about the film was the fact that everything had such a small scope. The budget was relatively large, so outside of the CGI budget, I’m not quite sure what money was spent on. Most of the games themselves take place on what looks to be a few small acres of wooded area, and since the characters basically chase each other in circles, its a wonder what all the money went toward. There is a fair amount of CGI in the film, the depiction of The Capitol is detailed, but briefly seen. Since the characters are basically captives, they spend all their time inside one indoor location, robbing the film of any scope or worldbuilding that would help sell the concept. Perhaps they will return to the city and show more of it in later films, but here, we are given no glimpse into The Capitol’s authority, except in a small scale clash. The film feels like a TV show done for a cable network, where the characters only see a background glimpse of the vast world they inhabit. Perhaps that was also a stylistic choice by the director to add to their feeling of isolation, but I have a feeling it was more a problem of cost control, unfortunately. Too many things go uncovered, and even though the book series is popular, the makers of the film have to count on the fact that no one has read the books, the new medium should be treated as a fresh audience altogether, and too often for this film, it’s not.
The film hits enough of the right notes to stay consistently entertaining, despite the numerous plot holes and underwhelming action. One of my bigger complaints is the reversion to the handheld style to hide the violence. A scene of slaughter is shot so shakily, and cut so quickly, that you have no clue what is happening until a corpse is shown on the ground. To me, that begs the question ‘Why show it at all’ if you’re only going to clearly show the aftermath. A reveal of the aftermath would have more emotional impact than the frenetic explosions of indecipherable violence. The weight of the moment should provide the majority of the shock, not the expedience of the editing or the factual outcome. I see the appeal, like when I saw the first Twilight film, and it’s entertaining enough for me to understand the crossover appeal to adult audiences, but ultimately I feel it missed a lot of opportunities to be an even better movie, and a better adaptation of the book. Hopefully some problems can be rectified for the sequels, although the opening weekend numbers go to show that what Ross and company have pulled off is, for the moment, more than good enough in the eyes of Lionsgate. And no matter what anyone tells you, there are more similarities to Battle Royale than anything else, with so many important aspects shared by the two films, it’s impossible not to compare them. In doing so, all The Hunger Games comes off as is a watered down, young adult fiction telling of the same themes of media saturation,