Yes, I know this review is late to the party.
The dystopian future is one of the most important little sub-genres that fiction can offer. Not only can stories about future dystopias be filled with imaginative settings; the best ones are able to reveal a truth about our society and ask us whether we wish to accept it or not better than any other form of science-fiction. The most perfect example, and also one of my favorite books of all time, is George Orwell’s brilliant 1984, which not only revealed a truth about where the society of 1948 could eventually head towards, but also predicted many things that eventually started happening today, lending itself a prescience that no other work of fiction can really top.
Since 1984 we’ve seen plenty other dystopic visions in literature, film, television, etc.; and the most recent big break-out in dystopic fiction since 1984 was Suzanne Collins’ book The Hunger Games, the first in a trilogy of novels set in Panem: A post-second-Civil-War North America divided into 12 Districts and a ruling Capitol that maintains peace and keeps away rebellion but at the cost of a strict totalitarian rule. To keep each of the Districts in line, they annually broadcast “The Hunger Games”, a gladiatorial death match designed to sedate the masses under their doctrine just as much as entertain them. Each of the 12 Districts sacrifices two tributes, a boy and a girl, and all 24 of them are forced into killing each other to provide a catharsis for any rebellious natures within the citizens of Panem and in turn remove those rebellious natures entirely. To put it in broader terms: Think Battle Royale meets The Running Man meets Rollerball with just a hint of Orwell’s original inspiration.
I’ve read the first book and it is a very solid, well-paced piece of young adult fiction that proves that not every fangirl-targeted property has to be as awful as Twilight. But, like most properties with large fanbases, adapting something like this into a movie is always met with intense scrutiny since the fans will lunge at you like wolves if a single detail is different from the source material. And while I enjoyed the book, I was skeptical as to whether director Gary Ross (who previously directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) could make a solid adaptation that appeals to fans while still standing on its own.
After finally having seen it however, I can assuredly say that while The Hunger Games is no Blade Runner, it’s a really well-done film that does stand on its own as very good movie and a strong start for what could be an interesting trilogy of movies.
The movie opens with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence of Winter’s Bone) scrounging her way through life in District 12, one of the poorest districts in Panem. When her sister Prim is picked from a random selection as tribute for the current year’s Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers herself into the games so her sister could be safe. This leads her and another boy from District 12 named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) on a journey that leads them into the strange world of The Capitol of Panem and deeper into their own human natures as they too are forced to fight to the death.
The thing that makes The Hunger Games work as well as it does as a film is that the dystopic elements are handled in a much better way than the books. Because a film can quickly convey information visually we get a strong sense of Panem; the sharp contrast between the gaudy, ridiculous looking Capitol and the poorer Districts surrounding it; the purpose of the Capitol’s authoritarian control; etc. I was actually more absorbed in the film’s dystopia than I was in the book, because even though Collins does use very descriptive writing in her novels, the visual information that Gary Ross uses is more effective, and detailed enough to give you a strong sense of what Panem is.
The other thing that makes this film work: The performances. Many readers know that I’m not the biggest fan of Winter’s Bone, the film that skyrocketed Jennifer Lawrence into super stardom. I also wasn’t a fan of another film that Lawrence had a main character role in: X-Men First Class. The Hunger Games, however, is the first time I really got the appeal of Jennifer Lawrence. She’s really perfectly suited for this sort of role: Defies gender expectations, stubborn for all the right reasons, sweats with strong-will, but still allows for a shred of vulnerability to ground her and keep her human. And Lawrence sells it in every scene she’s in. Considering 97% of the movie is from her perspective, and there are a lot of scenes of her just wandering the woods, a lesser actor could’ve killed the experience and made the movie a drag to sit through. She keeps you invested in everything that is going on, and gives you a reason to care about the traumatizing effects of the dystopian society she lives in.
Many of the other supporting actors fare strongly too. Woody Harrelson gets to chew the scenery a lot as Haymitch, a drunkard mentor figure who gives Katniss and Peeta sound advice for surviving the Hunger Games since he’s the only person from District 12 who actually made it to the end of the Games. Elizabeth Banks gets to be as silly as she could as the garish Effie. Stanley Tucci is marvelously hammy as talk-show host and Games-commentator Caesar. Even a tiny role such as Cinna is played incredibly well by Lenny Kravitz, as he infuses a lot of personality into his character in such a short amount of time.
The only supporting character that doesn’t really work is Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. Not because he’s bad, mind you, but because I never really found him all too useful in the story. He’s merely there as an obstacle for Katniss in the first half of the Games, and then as a romantic interest in the second half that feels shoe-horned in just so Collins can have a “Team Peeta/Team Gale” thing going on for her target demographic. I haven’t read the other two books in the series, so I don’t know if he gets more to do as the series progresses, but it also doesn’t help that Hutcherson doesn’t really give too much depth in his portrayal of Peeta.
But while we’re on the topic of what doesn’t work in the movie: While I do think that the way Gary Ross visually conveys information is very good, there are a few things that the movie doesn’t really make all that clear. For starters, it’s never really explained what the winner gets from completing the Hunger Games. Well, aside from the obvious “You get to live another day, dummy!”, the film doesn’t really explain the other benefits of winning since it’s too busy displaying the falsities of the dystopia; which is all well and good, but they could’ve at least had a 20 second piece of dialogue quickly explaining it. Another thing that isn’t really made clear is that there’s a certain “rule change” in the middle of the Games that I won’t spoil, but they don’t really get into how this is supposed to be such a big deal, and it feels more like a contrivance than anything else (Keep in mind that this particular problem also applies to the book as well).
I’ve heard a lot of people say that they had a big problem with the shaky-cam cinematography of the film. Speaking as someone who generally hates shaky-cam action, there are certain instances where it can work and The Hunger Games uses it to effectively capture the chaos and panic of being put into Katniss’s shoes during the Games themselves. And even though the camera does shake a lot and there’s plenty of quick cutting, I was still able to follow the action enough so that I can understand who was fighting who, what each person was doing, and get a good framework of the situation as a whole. Unlike a turd like Battle: Los Angeles, which uses shaky camerawork in the cheapest, laziest way possible, there’s a real purpose for it in The Hunger Games and it really captures the immediacy and intensity of the scenarios.
Another interesting thing to note is the violence of the film. I was honestly stunned that this got a PG-13 because this is a very brutal film. Okay, it isn’t quite up to the levels of Battle Royale (Which, as many of you should already know, is absolutely insane), but there are some shocking deaths to behold, especially coming from a film that is supposed to be PG-13. The fact that it is children going through these brutal demises, of course, makes it all the more unsettling. When the Games actually do begin, they begin in a freaking bloodbath as blood is spattered across walls, people are pounded into submission, beaten senseless, stabbed, maimed, and that is only the beginning. The most shocking moment to me came when a young boy’s neck was snapped. I read it in the book, and didn’t know if they would actually have it in the movie, but seeing it all unfold on screen, it all feels more brutal, more raw, and shocking in its own way.
But even in spite of the brutality on display, Gary Ross still handles all the death scenes in a way that is as tasteful as he possibly could. If anything, his restraint actually lends the movie a greater impact than Battle Royale in a way. Seeing 20 kids getting chopped and shot to bits in Battle Royale is shocking, but also entertaining in such an over-the-top way. The Hunger Games meanwhile is able to let the imagination of the viewer flex its muscles, making the deaths have more of an impact when they do happen.
The main flaw of the movie for me, however, was the pacing. The book had some excellent pacing as it slowly built up the games leaving you waiting to see what the big deal is, and when it finally starts it doesn’t let up on the suspense. The film follows this exact structure, but certain things don’t work as well on the screen as they do on the page. This movie is just too d*mn long. This is a problem that just about every book-to-film adaptation has that’s based on a property with a large fanbase: The makers of the film become too afraid to change or remove anything from the original source material since their target demographic that they want to reach out to that will guarantee box office success is the scrutinizing fans who will screw you over if you leave out a single thing.
I don’t mind slow build-up so long as there’s a point. The book works well with it because it’s able to describe things in as much detail as possible with a lot of descriptive writing. In the film, because conveying information visually works much more quickly than in written format, we already get the idea quickly. We don’t need to see every single bit of training and interviewing before the games to get a sense of the rules of the Games, the rules of the dystopian society, and the character’s motivations. A single frame is worth a thousand words, and not that many movies remember this. To say that this movie is too long is like saying that The Limits of Control is only “kind of pretentious”. I’m pretty sure that a half hour of this film could’ve been put on the cutting room and not a thing would change except it would be a leaner, tighter film.
Despite it’s imperfections, however, I do think that this is a very good film. Hell it would be a “great” film if not for those little quibbles I have with the pacing and other things mentioned earlier. I even prefer this version of the story to the book’s version, which has a lot of bad humor and a cheesy romance angle that is thankfully underplayed in the film. It’s the right sort of adaptation, removing a lot of the things that didn’t work while keeping the stuff that did.
The best dystopias are a reflection of the current state of our society and I honestly can’t think of a more timely dystopia than the Panem of The Hunger Games. We live in a world not only dominated by reality TV, but also hampered by financial and economic crises. The Hunger Games with its 12 poor districts and sprawling, lavish Capitol not only captures the dehumanization that reality TV brings, and also reflects the 99% rebelling against the 1% dichotomy that is oh so prevalent in our American society. It also helps that it’s exciting and thrilling as well.
Final Verdict: Strong performances and great direction from Gary Ross elevate The Hunger Games as more than just a good adaptation of the source material; it’s a very good film in general. The world is richly drawn, the characters nuanced, the mood surprisingly subtle for a good chunk of the first half while still being exciting and captivating in the second half, and the dystopic elements resonate more truly in this film version than it did in the book. Despite being overlong, not having the most consistent pacing, and a couple weak supporting characters, this is well worth checking out even if you’ve never read the book.
That is all. If you liked this review, you can read more on this site as well as follow me on the Twitter machine @Enigma6667 so you won’t ever have to miss a single review from me as well as read more of my general ramblings on film, games, television, and other such things.
See ya next time. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m not gonna bother volunteering when my sister’s eventually chosen in the reaping. She’s always been the bad apple of the family.