After nine months, over 43,000 words and three video interviews, I’ve finally seen The Hunger Games.
I’ve been an avid fan of Suzanne Collins’ series ever since I first picked up The Hunger Games years ago, but throughout my time as a film critic, I’ve seen quite a few books that I love get the big screen treatment. But The Hunger Games is different, definitely because I’m particularly fond of the source material, but also because of this Countdown. You just can’t write about a book/movie so often without having the material transcend simply being a source of entertainment and becoming a true part of your life. Does that make me a biased film critic? Yes and no.
On Shockya.com you can find my review of the film from the stance of an impartial critic. There’s no mention of the source material, the film’s adaptive qualities or gushing about my favorite characters. It’s a straight assessment of the movie. However, there’s also no ignoring the hardcore fan inside of me, so I bring you a second review, a review from the diehard Hunger Games enthusiast within me.
Warning: For those who haven't read the books, spoilers lie ahead. Also, for those who have read the books, but don't want to know anything about the film version, do not read this - obviously.
From Book to Film
Adapting a book for the big screening is incredibly difficult. We’ve seen successful efforts like the Harry Potter series and Shutter Island amongst others, but then there are films like The Informers and Twelve that absolutely butcher source material I once loved. Well, I’m thrilled to report that not only does The Hunger Games come nowhere close to being grouped with the latter, but superseding the former.
There is a lot to cover in that first book and Gary Ross and co. manage to get just about every single point across fluidly. The film kicks off with some text explaining the origin of the games and then that story somewhat comes to life when we see two Capitol citizens discussing the event – Caesar Flickerman and Seneca Crane. From then on, the steps towards hitting the arena are simply so well crafted, it’s impossible not to digest the pertinent information.
Just about every detail of the Hunger Games makes it into the 142 minutes, which is quite the feat. For newcomers, some of the material might feel a bit rushed, but still entirely digestible. And then, for those well versed in the happenings in Panem, The Hunger Games still plays to an effective beat. You’d think knowing what happens would kill a film’s chance at building suspense, however, The Hunger Games’ script is opportunely structured so as to never leave the folks that are in-the-know waiting to move onto the next scene.
The Katniss inner monologue is nowhere to be found in the feature film, but the script does a superb job at putting her in the forefront and then Ross takes it from there, using a shaky cam technique to make us feel as though we’re right there next to Katniss, something that’s particularly effective in the Cornucopia and, perhaps on a more minor note, this one particular shot when Katniss and Peeta first board the train to the Capitol.
Speaking of Peeta; damn, Josh Hutcherson. He’s everything the character is in the book and more. It’s one thing to imagine Peeta’s charm and kindness, but seeing Hutcherson bring those qualities to life is even more winning and persuasive. Then there’s the romance, which evokes a wonderful duality all the way through. At first, there’s the resentment that comes from being forced to live what could be the final days of their lives together and also needing each other to survive, and then, by the end, there’s still a rift between that fight for their lives and honest affection.
Perhaps this is just evidence of a subpar imagination, but Elizabeth Banks’ portrayal of Effie is above and beyond. She comes across almost like a set piece, with zero emotion of her own, solely focused on her duties as a Capitol representative and also hinting at her frustration with being stuck with one of the districts least likely to win. As for Haymitch, while there’s still a gap between what I imagined him to look like and the living, breathing person he turned out to be, Woody Harrelson has no trouble commanding the character and making Haymitch his own. However, just like in the book, my only qualm with the character is the lack of transition between his drunken and seemingly uncaring side and the one that truly cares about his tributes’ survival.
Turns out, Seneca Crane is just as cool as his beard. Wes Bentley is clearly having some fun with the character, turning Seneca into a bit of a conductor completely enraptured by his performance – the Games. However, then we get some quieter moments between Seneca and President Snow, and it’s through the time they spend in Snow’s rose garden that we see Seneca’s wheels turning. As for Snow, the role is beefed up a bit, but still quite small. Then again, a small role can have a big presence and while Donald Sutherland may not get much screen time, President Snow’s authority ripples through the large majority of the film.
Willow Shields - what a find! Again, not the biggest part in the movie, but Shields takes the scenes she’s given and gets you to conjure up tear after tear. Just wait until you see the Reaping in full. The only performance in The Hunger Games that isn’t convincing is Gale. Admittedly, I’ve been wary of Liam Hemsworth’s casting right from the start, perhaps leading me to put him under a microscope more so than the others, but regardless, it still felt as though Hemsworth was merely reading lines while his co-stars inhabited their characters.
While most of the tributes do a fine job, you know what’s coming – a swift exit. Of the ones that remain, I pictured the pack of Careers to be far more malicious and menacing than how they come across in the film. Yes, they’re still out for blood, but there’s quite a bit of giggling and even cuddling. Then again, both Alexander Ludwig and Isabelle Fuhrman do get their grand finales and boy does the duo seize the opportunity. Clove’s death was always one of my favorite scenes in the book and the same is true here.
Strong and silent, Dayo Okeniyi brings Thresh to life seamlessly. Even with so little dialogue and screen time, when his face appears in the arena sky after his death, the theater I was in let out a big, ‘awww,’ including myself. I would have liked to have spent more time with Katniss and Rue, but regardless, Amandla Stenberg is another top notch casting choice, giving Rue the power to win you over with a mere look. Then there’s Jacqueline Emerson’s Fox Face who also makes a pristine transition from book to screen. She’s nearly mute the entire movie, but you’re always aware of her presence.
Don’t Worry; They’re There, Too
He gets just one shot, but Prim’s cat Buttercup does make his appearance. As for Greasy Sae, while her name is never mentioned, we do see Katniss make a trade at The Hob with an older woman who just so happens to be an old woman dishing out soup. We’ve known this for quite a bit now, but of course, Madge is nowhere to be found in the feature film version of The Hunger Games and it definitely was a smart omission as the passing of the Mockingjay between the sisters is notably effective.
While Flavius, Venia and Octavia are all present and accounted for, they might as well have been named Capitol Stylist 1, 2 and 3 because their characters get zero time in the spotlight and don’t come anywhere close to making an impression. Latarsha Rose’s Portia is much more prominent, but even she’s reduced to being just another face in the room. And this doesn’t make their inclusion a bad thing. If anything, from the fan perspective, it comes across as a satisfying nod to the source material.
Speaking of background performers, the Capitol Avoxes do make it into the film, but are quite literally props. In fact, we barely even see them lift a finger let alone move the entire film. While I always loved that moment of realization between Katniss and the Avox girl just before the Games, at this point, the movie version is already overloaded with details so skipping the trip down memory lane is fitting.
The Real Gamemaker – Gary Ross
Few professional filmmakers resort to the single, single, two-shot coverage for a one-on-one conversation, but not only does Gary Ross offer up a unique shooting style, he goes above and beyond and into notably fresh feeling territory. This is evident right from the start, most memorably when Effie takes the stage for the Reaping. We’re not given a wide shot and a close-up on the D12 escort; we get views of Effie from every angle imaginable, giving an added zest to her already compelling speech.
Ross also artfully handles subtext in ways that don’t drown newcomers in too many details, but still give the longtime fans all the bullet points they hope the film hits. For instance, there’s a stellar moment in the Everdeen house when it’s Katniss who manages to comfort Prim, not her mother.
Ross doesn’t hold back in the least when it comes to forcing the audience to soak up every costume and set detail possible while in District 12, dishing out shots of shoes trekking through wet mud and the grime on the local coal miners. By the time the film hits the Capitol, District 12 is home to the audience just as it is to Katniss and Peeta, making the Capitol reveals all the more awe-inspiring. While that sense of wonderment stays strong throughout, as we creep closer to the Games, the film sheds an eerier and eerier light on the city, serving as the perfect transition.
In the arena, Ross goes shaky cam to the max and it works – for the most part. There are a few instances where Ross seems to lose control, leaving his audience without a firm grasp on what to focus on within the action, but generally, the somewhat maniacal coverage serves the material well, especially in the Cornucopia. It’s also easy to lose your bearings while Katniss desperately tries to escape the fireballs in the woods, but again, it winds up enhancing the moment. We’ve got no clue where Katniss winds up, making her all the more vulnerable.
While the Capitol looks fantastic, it’s the Hunger Games HQ that stands out as one of the most memorable visual effects accomplishments, which likely has to do with the fact that the design team simply matched my expectations as far as the city goes, but shocked me with something entirely new with the Hunger Games-making hub.
As for the obligatory fire, I’m sad to say I wasn’t as wowed by Katniss and Peeta’s opening ceremony outfits as I’d hoped. The fire looks a bit, well, fake. Katniss’ interview outfit, on the other hand, has a touch of subtlety to it, making it feel far more authentic. Fire goes two for three when we hit the woods in the arena, Katniss making a daring escape from what really looks to be actual balls of flame being hurled in her direction.
It’s a relief to note that those infamous tracker jackers simply appear to be your average wasp and not some desperate CGI-fueled attempt at making them seem more deadly. Best of all, this restraint leaves room for the oncoming mutts, which, of course, have no choice but going CGI to the max.
The Promotional Campaign’s Effect on the Film
Lionsgate hit the ground running with The Hunger Games’ marketing campaign, instigating a frenzy over the teaser trailer that debuted at the MTV Video Music Awards and then delivering a steady stream of material thereafter. Really, ever since August of 2011, the Hunger Games promotion never stopped. You’d think that a campaign that extensive would spoil some of the film, right? Not in the least.
I have to have watched every TV spot and trailer dozens of times and even though the Reaping scene is in every single one of them, the moment takes on a whole new life form in the film – a far more powerful one. There’s no music, just Effie’s booming voice and a crowd packed full of kids terrified for their lives. The same can be said for almost all of the clips. In the context of the pre-Games events, watching Katniss nail the apple in the mouth of the Gamemakers’ pig with an arrow takes on far more value while the rest wind up being mere snippets of conversations, conversations with much more powerful components.
In one of the studio’s smartest marketing moves, the anticipation for the arena material is sky high as it practically goes unseen in the promotional campaign. Just like the tributes who are expected to fight for their lives in this never-before-seen world, as an audience, we’re left feeling a similar dread and unease about the location.
Perhaps this has something to do with my pension for horror films, but while reading The Hunger Games, I pictured some pretty bloody scenarios. Sure, it made sense for Lionsgate to adhere to a PG-13 rating, but I was still skeptical because that’s not the Hunger Games I’d imagined. Well, not only is there quite a bit of blood, but it turns out, some of the story’s most horrifying moments involve the thought of violence, not the actual act.
I’ve never seen terror in someone’s eyes quite like the moment when Katniss must say goodbye to Cinna. The tears come the moment the scene begins, when Katniss runs in for a hug. While the rest of the scene is quite sad, there’s one tiny reaction from Lawrence that must be the most authentic face of fear because my heart broke into a million pieces – when the countdown to the Games begins and Katniss realizes that this is really happening.
It’s moments like that that justify the material inside the arena, when we see the violence in the flesh. Before you can even wipe the tears from your eyes, Katniss is lifted into the arena, forced to run for her life through the Cornucopia. Of course, we do get a handful of deaths during the opening bloodbath, but Ross keeps the focus on Katniss, mainly sticking with her perspective on the event and, therefore, holding onto that honest emotion that was established prior and creating horror through love for a character rather than blood.
Then again, for those of you who are looking for some brutal beat downs, Ross does push that PG-13 rating to the max. Necks are snapped, tracker jackers attack, gruesome wounds are dressed and more. There’s certainly no shortage of blood and death in The Hunger Games, but what makes it appropriate, worthy and effective is that none of it’s taken lightly.
You can nitpick away all you want, but what it comes down to is how you feel while watching a film as a whole and how you feel when you leave the theater. Not only is The Hunger Games an entertaining movie from beginning to end, but it’s oozing with material that genuinely makes you feel for the characters and that’s a sensation that doesn’t go away when the credits roll. Long time fan or not, The Hunger Games is unforgettable.
While this successful adaptation will undoubtedly result in countless happy customers, as such a big fan of the material and as someone who’s essentially invested part of her life in this film, I’m overwhelmed by this creation. Not only did The Hunger Games justify hours of work and an immense amount of passion, but it makes me proud to be the writer of The Hunger Games Countdown and a fan.
The Hunger Games Countdown runs here on Movies.com every other Wednesday. There is 1 day until the release.