When I initially read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, I had my doubts that the violence promised in the early pages would be delivered in the ways described. When I found out there would be a movie dealing with the same theme, I became even more skeptical. Collins’ book brought something dark and new to a market flooded with predestined heroes dispatching foes with various forms of magic, where the violence occurs just off screen or through more sanitary means that do not involve blood. From the first sprays and splatters at the mouth of the cornucopia on the arena floor, I knew this was a serious writer who was quite capable of exploring the complex issues of children and violence and the media’s role in it.
The questions raised within the novel move far beyond the blood sport that serves as the story’s base. It’s easy to question the proliferation of violence in the media; it’s another thing entirely to question the viewer’s role in it. The opinions held toward the games among the deeply segregated districts serves as a litmus for where you might find yourself on this spectrum. Though our natural inclination toward the entire ordeal might be outright disgust, as held unwaveringly by our hero from District 12, we might find ourselves mixing in with the brightly colored crowd from the Capitol at times, especially when the aspect of romance becomes involved.
The pageantry leading up to the games seems so odd on its own because of the knowledge that these children will be dead soon, but when it becomes clear that Katniss must appeal to this crowd through feigned romance with Peeta in order to survive, the most interesting aspect of the book begins. How does melodramatic romance connect to extreme violence, and what does this say about our own celebration of it? Does one necessarily lead to the other? Even Katniss becomes confused in the midst of it. She reaches a point during the games where she can’t determine whether her actions toward Peeta are real or fake. She doesn’t know if she’s just going through the motions of what’s expected, or if beginning those motions has led her to a genuine love.
These ambiguities serve as the most stimulating parts of the book. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t have the luxury to delve into these more delicate matters. While I didn’t see it as a failure on the film’s part, I did miss it. The driving force of tension in the book is the sheer uncertainty of self, and that’s easier to do when Katniss serves as the narrator. Because the movie doesn’t take that perspective, various aspects of the story must appear in clearer forms. And honestly, I don’t think the movie would have worked with constant narration from Katniss. Instead, the film relies on dialogue to show how stubborn Katniss can be, and it uses Hamich much more than the book does to explain what Katniss is failing to understand.
The first book in particular paints Hamich as a hopeless drunkard, but this is partly because we’re stuck in Katniss’ mind. Since the film’s perspective of Hamich is broader, we see much more clearly what Katniss only starts to realize in the second book: Hamich is a champion of the games for a reason, and he knows how to throw his weight around both in and out of the arena. In the movie, we see him making deals and campaigning for sponsors in order to make sure Katniss receives the items necessary for her survival. In the book, we are stuck with the occasional appearance of the silver parachutes and Katniss’ speculation as to why Hamich had bothered to send them to her at some times and not others.
In the movie, the romance is clearly a ruse from the beginning, and even though there is an attempt to blur the line between how Katniss and Peeta act and how they feel, it comes off as caring for a friend in a time of desperation. The triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale is clearly established, but I’m not sure how that will play out onscreen in the next movie.
In order to earn a PG-13 rating so that the core audience could even attend the showing, the movie cut away from the goriest parts of the games, but it managed to capture the Lord of the Flies feeling of outright animosity held by the career players of the games when the alliances are formed. These weren’t the only horrors that went missing. The muttations eyes weren’t even mentioned, and this is one detail that truly speaks to the sickness of the game makers. I don’t know why it wasn’t in the movie, but it wouldn’t have taken much. The characters are chased by several large dogs, their running style reminiscent of the demon hounds from Ghostbusters, but there’s no closeup on the eyes, and neither Katniss nor Peeta gets a line of astonishment to express their shock at the lengths of perverseness to which the Capitol is willing to go. It’s also not clear that the shiny, black shell they climb onto is a cornucopia and not some hollowed-out spaceship or the shell of a robotic scorpion. That may have been a detail more easily departed from.
The acting was done well, with the roles of Hamich and Caesar Flickerman standing out. Stanley Tuchi plays Flickerman and manages to make him into a fairly likeable creep. He comes off as a shallow person at the center of the spectacle of the games, but like many in the Capitol, he doesn’t seem to know any better. The blue ponytail and extreme fake teeth definitely help. Woody Harrelson adds much needed depth to Hamich, but again, part of this is probably due to being free of Katniss’ narrow vision of a very complex character. He presents Hamich as a rough but extremely humane character, whose drinking seems understood if not quite justified.
The younger members of the cast do well, but I couldn’t help wondering if Jennifer Lawerence had been typecast. Moments from her performance in Winter’s Bone resonated strongly here, especially in the beginning. The challenges provided by the games rescue her from that, but I’m not sure that she manages to show that Katniss is still a girl in many ways. It’s difficult to see what maturity she lacks in the confusion of performing on a national stage, something that’s much easier to make clear through Katniss narrating the book. We also don’t get any indication that her mother is an accomplished healer, the closest thing the entire district has to a doctor.
Overall, the adaptation was successful in many ways and clearly communicated the themes of the book. The movie wasn’t able to go into nearly as much detail, but it was enjoyable, and it managed to capture the most desirable visual moments from the book, Katniss’ fiery outfits, the excessive ornamentation in the Capitol, and most importantly, the arena itself. My only complaint is that the contrast of the Capitol with District 12 was almost too much, and some moments looked very much like you could see the green screen if you squinted hard enough. The costumes and dazzlingly facial hair almost make up for it though. The movie is definitely worth seeing if you enjoy the books.