The Hunger Games, as a film, feels as though it’s not quite an opposite to The Hunger Games, the Suzanne Collins novel that has sold roughly a billion copies. The latter is not so much a satire (it’s far too dour for that) as it is a simple cultural criticism, lopping off limbs of its targets (reality television, the rich/poor divide, a sense of encroaching fascism, the police/surveillance state) with a degree of broadness and simplicity that one would (perhaps cynically) expect from something categorized as a “young adult novel.” It is a book that is respectable in that it broaches such topics at all, but at the same time, it often strikes a semi-self-congratulatory tone that reads as “Hey, look at me and these Important Issues I wish to speak about!” The result is a novel that’s easy to admire as a page-turner, but falls somewhat short of the kind of critical impact that some of its more eager fans might wish to imbue it with. The film adaptation of said book, though, feels as though it often misses all the points that Collins wishes to make, with results that are, if entertaining, also deeply ironic.
If a rock has been living over you for the past couple of years, have a quick recap: decades prior to the events of the novel, the 12 districts of a near-future America (renamed "Panem") united in rebellion against the powerful central district known only as The Capitol. The Capitol, having been victorious in the war, now forces those districts to send two teenagers to the Capitol every year to fight in a vicious televised bloodsport known as the titular Hunger Games, as well as stripping them of almost all the resources that they produce, so that the citizens of the Capitol can live effectively perfect, stress-free lives. Katniss Everdeen, swept into the Games as a result of volunteering to replace her younger sister in the lottery selection, will be forced to kill or be killed if she wishes to survive to return to her family. So, Battle Royale mixed with a bit of Running Man, among other real-world influences.
That is the long and short of the events, at least; the book itself has some degree of nuance and, again, deserves some credit for tying modern-day concerns into a parable about the far future, as most decent sci-fi does. It’s facile to compare the trilogy of books to Twilight, as many have done, largely because both universes feature a central love triangle that makes for an easy emotional hook. In Twilight, the hook is the book, with the central triad of characters effectively being all the reason anyone could or should have to read the novels or watch the films; in The Hunger Games, you get the sense that Collins inserted the Katniss-Peeta-Gale triad as a lure, something to get younger readers to keep reading through the entire trilogy, in hopes of finding out what happens between the lovelorn triad while hopefully picking up (or at least internalizing) some of the deeper themes of the books.
Of course, it’s easy to be too successful at such things, and as a result it’s also easy to come across audience reactions to The Hunger Games (the book) that seem all but unaware that there’s any social commentary transpiring at all, instead focusing on it as a simple soft sci-fi adventure tale. After watching the film, it’s easy to believe that director Gary Ross might’ve been one of those people. This is a movie that takes its source material as just a narrative, and dutifully relates that narrative while largely muting the social critique of the books; indeed, at times, it seems to play directly into the kinds of media fallacies that Collins’ novel criticizes. It is a blockbuster, and it concerns itself more with entertainment than social commentary: the novel featured an enslaved culture forced to watch its children fight and die, while the film invites us to choose to watch children fight and die in plush multiplexes. And, while you're at it, if you could pick up some hip Hunger Games-branded refrigerator magnets or headphones or replica mockingjay pins, that'd be great, too.
Entertainment is, of course, probably precisely what Lions Gate hired Ross to create, and it shouldn’t be surprising that the film lacks the shocking punch of something like Battle Royale, let alone any of the teeth that someone like Verhoeven might’ve brought to the table had he the job of shepherding this adaptation. That shouldn’t distract from the fact that Ross has done a more-than-able job of adapting a book with a fair amount of events into a coherent 144-minute film, although he proves to be better with mood than content. It’s a film that feels well-shot; the earlier portions of it in District 12, while greatly compressed from the book, are shot with a desaturated, fly-on-the-wall cam, as if we were watching a war documentary. Things get more flashy and assured when the Games themselves begin and the film shifts into more standard action-movie camerawork, with some legitimately trippy poison sequences after Katniss’ encounter with the tracker jackers.
That compression was required, but also feels like it disallows the film from indulging in some of the nuance that the book was capable of relating, and results in a movie that feels more like a sequence of somewhat disconnected events rather than a smooth narrative. A thing happens, then another thing happens, then another thing happens, oftentimes without the time being spent to explain how the events tie together. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is the core around which this rocky river flows, and she does a good, if often grimacing job in the role, but Ross doesn’t often seem concerned with relating the importance of what’s transpiring on the screen, instead assuming (perhaps correctly) that the audience will fill in the gaps from their knowledge of the books.
Details about District 12, the relation of the Districts to the capital, Katniss’ background in jungle survival, and the notion of gift-giving in the arena are all given short shrift. When Katniss is wounded, we see Haymitch talking to a group of Capitol citizens, and later on a parachute of medicine floats down from the sky to aid Katniss' burn. Without knowledge of the books, it seems impossible that even an attentive audience member would grasp what's transpiring. The relationship between Rue and Katniss is also disappointingly cut down to just a couple of minutes of screen time. It’s easy to imagine, or hope, that there’ll be some kind of extended cut of the film that would flesh out some of these areas and make the film flow a bit better; as it is, when a riot breaks out in one of the Districts, it’s difficult to understand the importance of the event, or the impact it might have on the Capitol, if you’re judging solely from the context of the film. As a result, it often feels like it's more of a Cliff's Notes to the novel than something that's capable of standing alone.
It’s also interesting to think of The Hunger Games as an adaptation of a text that includes criticism of our culture’s obsession with moving pictures into a moving picture itself. In other hands, the source material might have been able to survive such a transition with its social criticism intact, but here, it feels as though the visual relation of the Games is too surface-level, too standard. Part of that is the hands-off PG-13 rating; Ross pushes it, slightly, but all too often cuts away from the more vicious scenes and simply makes his fights into bloodless, off-screen affairs: we hear someone getting knocked into a wall, and then see them fall to the ground, neck broken, suddenly lifeless. It’s mildly disturbing, so far as it goes, but it fails to be truly unsettling in the way that it feels like it should be, in the way that it would be if it was pushed further into the territory of something like Robocop or, well, Battle Royale.
It’s easy to interpret that as a call for gore and bloodshed, but it’s really not: all I’m saying is that The Hunger Games fails to present itself as anything more than a fable-istic entertainment, which is obviously somewhat antithetical to the spirit of its source. We are asked to watch children kill each other, but not given enough context, or time, to consider the reactions that we should have to that spectacle aside from "hey, this is wrong." “Spectacle” is perhaps the right word for the film: Stanley Tucci does a wonderful job as the repugnant Caesar Flickerman, flamboyant and incredibly insincere host of the Games, but to a degree the film seems to indulge in the pageantry of the event rather than giving the audience a reason to distance themselves from it. We are given enough clues that we should feel separated from the preening, effete citizens of The Capitol, but the film seems to happily glide past one of the major points of the novel on which it's based: namely that we, the audience, are the citizens of the Capitol.
What's more, the distance between audience and observed isn't particularly reinforced by the visuals of the film. When the supposedly emaciated and beset citizens of District 12 are represented by the faces of Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson, and Lawrence, all strong, hale, beautiful young people who seem to look perfect even when fighting their way through hordes of bloodthirsty teens, it feels like less a repudiation of the extremes of reality television than a desire to simply be reality television. The recounting of the deaths of the tributes strikes a note of disturbance, but Ross largely ignores the implications of the fact that Katniss knows she’s being watched and acts, or more accurately “performs,” accordingly. This is one of the key aspects of the book and its de-emphasis results in a film that feels as if it’s missing the point that it itself is trying to make.
Perhaps I’m criticizing The Hunger Games for not being more than it is, but as a criticism itself, it asks to be more than it is, and falls short of that goal, instead existing simply as what it is: a very competent and at times thrilling action-adventure. As a novelist, Collins could use language to impart her criticism of media; as a piece of media itself, The Hunger Games doesn’t ever seem to know what to do to relate those criticisms in a cogent fashion. It could’ve pressed itself beyond its limitations and gone to places that would result in actual audience discomfort, but instead, Ross seems to care more about satisfying fans of the novels than relating the novel’s ideas. He succeeds, but the irony is enough to make one literally laugh out loud. As an ancestor of Katniss once asked, "are you not entertained?"
Trailer 3: The Hunger Games
After reading these books, I'm curious as to how they're going to faithfully adapt the gorier portions into a PG-13 movie, but I guess we'll find out in March. They're certainly not showing much in these trailers.
Trailer 2: The Hunger Games
Running Man with kids? This movie is basically everything I've ever wanted.
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