Reviews In the Nick of Time: Hunger Games

by wjw on March 26, 2012

I actually went to see a movie on its opening weekend! This almost never happens.  I should probably get a check-up.

Hunger Games was, miraculously, a surprisingly faithful adaptation of the book.  (Is it possible that Hollywood has learned that if you adapt a book with millions of rabid followers, and you actually make a film of the book, you will make potloads of money?  As f’rinstance Harry Potter, Twilight, Game of Thrones?  Naaaah, never happen.)

It’s pointless to approach this film, or the book, logically.  The society depicted doesn’t make a lot of sense— you have a vast capital city, afloat in luxury, amazingly advanced technology, and Astoundingly Bad Hair, and it’s supported by the labors of twelve modest-sized towns?  Eeh, I don’t think so.

But then the movie isn’t aimed at your brain, it’s aimed at your viscera.  YA science fiction and fantasy doesn’t do the sort of rigorous worldbuilding that adult fantastic fiction is supposed to do (but usually doesn’t).  Instead YA runs like a speeding freight train straight at your emotions.

Here we have a society where a twelve-year-old girl can be hacked to pieces by a gang of eighteen-year-old males armed with primitive weapons, and it’s put on TV for the purposes of entertainment.  Wrap your logic around that, Mr. Spock.

The plot is a mashup of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur, Battle Royale,  and a gladiator movie.  Each of the twelve outlying districts is required every year to send two teenagers to the capital, where they’re all made to fight each other to the death in a grand melee that can go on for days.   The intention, as the President point out, is to terrify the population, but still leave them with a smidgen of hope.

The capital features neoclassical architecture reminiscent of ancient Rome (or at least Mussolini), and characters with names like Caesar, Cato, Claudius, and Cinna (and that’s just the C’s).  The gladiators enter on chariots.  The name of the country is even Panem, as in Panem et Circenses.

Yeah, I think we get the point.

Our heroine Katniss comes from an Appalachia right out of the Depression photographs of Dorothea Lange, and when she arrives at the capital, her problem (aside from having to be the last person standing out of the twenty-four who start) is that she’s too compulsively honest for the jaded denizens of the capital.  She’s a genuine heroine, but the viewers want her to be a TV action star.  So she has to learn to fake it while fighting for real.

I’m not sure how much of this would come across to someone who hadn’t read the book.  Take, for example, her relationship with her fellow sacrifice, Peeta.  He’s in love with her . . . or so he says (on TV).  She’s not in love with him, but if she convincingly fakes an attachment, the both of them may be rewarded with items that will help them survive.  Jennifer Lawrence is very good at negotiating the ambiguities of her character, but I wonder how much of it would be understandable to someone unfamiliar with the source material.

The one character I wanted to see more of was Haymitch, played by Woody Harrelson.  Haymitch is the last person from District 12 to win the Hunger Games, and it’s his job to mentor each new pair of sacrifices.  He’s an alcoholic, and in the book the source of his pain is clear: every year he meets two new young people, trains them, and then watches them die horribly.  In the movie, he’s mostly an eccentric comic character.

Which brings us to the matter of gore.  The book is filled with graphic descriptions of violence.  The filmmakers, however, wanted to keep their core audience of teens and preteens, and an R rating wasn’t going to do that.  So to keep a PG-13 rating, the film avoids a Battle Royale-style tsunami of blood and viscera.

Not that it still isn’t grim and violent.  But a combination of shaky-cam and fast cutting keeps the entrails at arm’s length, while still getting across the fact that children are being made to kill other children.

And that shaky-cam?  I hate it.  Do not see this film if you’re prone to motion sickness.  The camera shakes so much and so often that it begins to seem like laziness.  What, they can’t afford a steadicam?

And the shakes and fast cuts happen even when they’re unnecessary.  For one thing I failed to catch the clever thing that Katniss did at the end to rescue her not-boyfriend.  I must have blinked and missed it.  Or it was very dark.  Or something.  But I’m sure it was clever, whatever it was.

Hunger Games.  Well-made, well-acted, faithful to the source material.

If you want two hours of grim, PG-13 slaughter, you could do far worse.

Dave Bishop March 26, 2012 at 10:51 am

Sorry, Walter, but you haven’t sold this film to me. I think I might give it a miss.

Sometimes I’m quite glad that I’m not a ‘YA’!

Rebecca March 26, 2012 at 2:14 pm

Interesting. I have been one of the last hold-outs I know against reading these. From this description, I think that was a good decision on my part. Not a fan of dystopias, and heck, I couldn’t handle the internal inconsistencies in Harry Potter. 🙂

Gordon March 26, 2012 at 4:22 pm

I think the thing at the end was that she shot the other guy’s wrist in such a way as to make him let go instead of keep hold of Peeta. But it was confusing.

Ralf The Dog. March 26, 2012 at 9:53 pm

Mr. Williams, I think you may miss the main reason for the districts. Yes, they do make food, fuel and electronics for the Capitol; That is not their primary function. No one can be truly rich unless many around them are truly poor.

What is the point of having so much food, you can’t keep it down if others who are starving, don’t look upon you with admiration and envy (Yes, they do have vomitoriums in the book). The function of the Districts was to keep the Capitol in line by making them feel so much better about themselves.

As to relative size of population and production, from reading the books, the population of the Capitol was so low, they were worried about genetic diversity and if they had a sustainable population. The Capitol may have been a city the size of Manhattan. I would guess, the population was that of Pink Oklahoma.

(For those who don’t know, the, “Welcome to Pink” sign does say the same thing on both sides. The population of Pink is about 12 cows. [They have more cows than people.])

Ralf The Dog. March 26, 2012 at 9:56 pm

Rebecca, the books were good. The movie was not as good, however, I expect it to break many records. It may well be the best popular movie of the year.

wjw March 27, 2012 at 4:10 am

In the book, Peeta drew an X in his own blood on the part of the bad guy that he wanted Katniss to shoot. But, y’know, PG-13 and all that. So they replaced something genuinely clever and revealing of character with something that y0u couldn’t see.

I’ve been involved in a discussion of the film elsewhere, and it was mentioned that Suzanne Collins has no science fiction background. This explains her lack of worldbuilding— she didn’t know she was supposed to do it.

If the folks in the capital were worried about genetic diversity, that argues there were only a couple thousand of them, which would seem well below the threshold where they could keep their high technology going. Who builds and maintains all their fabulous stuff? Who lives in those giant buildings?

Questions we are not meant to ask, I suppose.

Ralf The Dog. March 27, 2012 at 10:48 pm

District 1 built all the cool toys. I am sure the people in the Capitol all had very big apartments. The city also probably had lots of public space. I will say, the concern about post war population size was more about the Capitol and the districts in combination. That said, I was under the impression that the districts were much bigger in the book and the Capitol was much smaller.

It was, a large population in the districts supporting a small population in the Capitol. Those who lived in the Capitol were the 1%.

Even those who worked in the food district were mostly starving. Even if the Capitol had the same population as one of the districts and only 10% of the production was kept in the districts, that would give the Capitol 10.8 times the resources of the tributary districts.

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