The Hunger Games Movie Review

M: Anyone who has read us consistently knows that all three of us are big fans of The Hunger Games book, and have been eagerly anticipating the movie.

E: Huge fans.  I found the series when the third in the trilogy (Mockingjay) came out and devoured them all.  Then I gave them to Mrs. M for her birthday, and M read them instead.

M: Not instead, just first.  Mrs M devoured them at almost the same time.  Get it straight.

E: Fine, whatever.  We spread the love to Mr E., our parents, C, her roommates, talked about it with Mr. E’s brother and nieces, with friends old and new…  Seriously, if you haven’t read the books, do it!  Do it now!

M: E and I, together with a bunch of friends, went and saw it on opening weekend.  C, unfortunately, could not make the several hour trip up to watch it with us.  We had a great time, and to avoid burying the lead, we all greatly enjoyed the movie.  That doesn’t mean we didn’t have our issues, which we’ll get into, but the important thing is that the issues that we did have are more nit-picky, and come from wanting the movie to be as good as the book, which is pretty much impossible.

E: It’s funny. We saw the Lord of the Rings movies with a similarly massive crowd, all fans of the books, and what always happens afterward is just what happened this time: first, we say we loved the movie, we jump up and down in a little excitement,  then we spend about 3 hours discussing what they changed, and what they left out that we loved, and what we wish they did differently. So that’s what we’re going to do now; we’re going to quibble.  Hey, it’s what we do.

M: Since you went to Lord of the Rings, let me first say that I think Fellowship is a better movie than Hunger Games.  Not that that’s saying much, I think the LOTR movies are a seminal work, and perhaps only my lifelong love of the wonder of Star Wars and what it did for my imagination keeps them from being my favorite movies of all time.  So with that caveat, I think that while Hunger Games was really good, it doesn’t quite rise to that level of film experience.  Now, if director Gary Ross had gone all out and made it 3 hours like Peter Jackson did with Fellowship?  Well, that might have made the difference…

E: Yeah, I think that’s fair. Especially the bit about needing the extra time, which is huge.  But to be fair again, both trilogies were hard to adapt for very different reasons.  With LOTR, technology only just made those films achievable.  It’s funny to think about that now, but they never could have had Nazgul or Gollum or oliphants that looked good before 2001.  For THG, the challenge, if I can be technical for a minute …

M: … you can ….

E: … is that the book is written in first person – from the perspective of the main character – and so much of the drama and emotional impact comes from being inside Katniss Everdeen’s head, from knowing what she knows, from her smarts and her skill and her savvy and also her confusion.  To make a movie out of the book, if you’re not going to have constant voice over narration, you have to find a completely different way to get to all those things.

M: We knew that that would be a huge challenge going in.

E: Absolutely.  The screenwriters – director Gary Ross and novelist Suzanne Collins – used some interesting techniques to get us there, largely showing us the world of the Capitol while the Games are going on.  We see the commentators (interviewer Caesar Flickerman and “voice of the Games” Claudius Templesmith) commentating, the Gamesmakers (notably Head Gamesmaker Seneca Crane) shaping the action, President Snow pondering it, and even mentor Haymitch Abernathy surprising with backstage machinations.

M: I liked what they did with that, especially with Crane and Snow.  Snow doesn’t factor much in the first book, but is the chief villain of the second and third, so setting him up more in this was an excellent choice.

E: Well, I might quibble with your wording there, but that’d be spoilage.  Readers of the series will probably know what I mean.

M:  I’m not sure I know what you mean, but if you’re referring to the role of other villains in the third book, then I do.  Back on point, I thought that using the announcers or gamemakers to explain things like the tracker jackers, the fire and the mutts worked very well.  Despite my initial wish that they go with the ever-present Ryan Seacrest for the role of Flickerman, I thought that Tucci was perfect in the role.

E: Did you really want that?  Flickerman’s supposed to be emotional; Seacrest is glib.   Tucci delivered the right combination of seeming moved in the moment and being outside it all.

M: Seacrest seems like such an embodiment of quintessential citizen of the Capitol that it seemed like the ideal fit in my mind.

E: Ooooh, OUCH!

M: But I like I said, Tucci was perfect.  And the stage where they had large panels behind him showing his different reactions before he interviewed the tributes was so spot on.  I loved that.

E: Speaking of performances, let’s talk about some of the other side characters.

M: I have to say, I was impressed by both Lenny Kravitz and Elizabeth Banks.  Kravitz was so restrained and believable as the one person who Katniss would totally trust in the Capitol.  Banks, on the other hand, was unrecognizable, both in physical appearance and in character.  If you didn’t know she was in it and didn’t see the credits I don’t know if anyone would have known it was her, and isn’t that what you want in an actor or actress?

E: That’s certainly true, Banks is unrecognizable.  I’m not sure she was quite as silly as I thought of Effie as being – she is after all the chirpy, self-absorbed cruise director on your voyage to hell – but she had some entertaining moments.  I know Gary Ross offered the part to Kravitz based on his work as a supportive nurse in Precious, and I think it was an excellent call.  He carries this undeniable, effortless cool that you’d look for in a stylist, but also an emotional weight.  He’s not flighty or shallow; he’s fundamentally different from the other Capitol folks.

M: Oh, and I saw an interview with Donald Sutherland talking about Snow, and he was wearing an eye patch during the interview.  I know it would have totally diverged from the book, but it looked sooooo creepy and out of place, and that was just in an interview, that it almost made me want him to have worn it in the movie.

E: I don’t know about the eye patch, but I can get behind him interpretation on screen (even if he looks nothing like book Snow).  I liked that they kept showing him in his rose garden.  Very cool.

M: Yes, especially knowing what we know from the later books.

E: What did you think of Woody Harrelson as Haymitch?  I’m not sure I love how much less of a mess he’s written as (we don’t get to see him fall off the stage!) but I did think Woody got the sharp intelligence quite well.  As I read the book – we’ve debated this in the past – I pictured Haymitch as not even so much Steve Fry as Gregory House with more of a beer gut.  He’s that brutally wounded, that brilliant, that acerbic, that desirous of making those around him feel his pain.  Woody didn’t quite give us that, but I feel like they wrote the character differently for the film.

M: I don’t know if they wrote him differently, or just didn’t give him the same level of time and attention.  I don’t think that was the fault of casting, I liked Woody in the role.  I just wish they would have showed the extremes that the book takes him to, the falling off the stage, vomiting, Peeta carrying him to the shower, the harshness against them, but then after he realizes he can work with them, the harshness in their defense.

E: Right – but perhaps they thought they didn’t have enough time to show that transformation from mess to functional?  In this version, he’s functional from the start – he’s in shape, well dressed, etc…

M: Probably.  I still think they would have been better off trying.  One of the hardest things, though, was how much we learn about Haymitch in the book from Katniss’ thinking through his motives while she’s in the arena.  Which, of course, ties in to the overall issue of translating a book where so much of it is inside the head of a character that is alone in a forest for huge chunks of time.  I don’t know how you do that without either introducing new characters to be with her (which would totally piss off fans of the book), having voice overs (which really wouldn’t have fit), or having her just talk to herself.  Eeeesh!

E: Yeah.  It’s seriously problematic – although they did a good job with the little notes in the parachutes; “you call that a kiss, sweetheart?”.  In the book, she knows he’s thinking it; in the movie, they have to literally spell it out.  And that’s in part why the adaptation is slightly less successful; LOTR is straight epic storytelling, but while THG had an epic theme, its power is actually internal.

M: To be fair, its power is not just internal.  Much of the power comes in the strength and resiliency of Katniss, which comes through brilliantly in the film.

E: Okay, fine, her strength comes out through her actions.  Maybe what I mean is that so much of her emotional arc is internal.  But Jennifer Lawrence is pretty extraordinary – as those of us who saw Winter’s Bone knew she would be.

M: True enough.  As you know, I was worried.  Not because of her ability, but primarily about her being too old.  I have to say, I didn’t even think of that once watching the movie.  She just WAS Katniss.

E: Yes, exactly.

M: Seeing her tying herself into trees, placing balm on the burns, cutting the branch with the tracker jacker nest, and in the end, never giving in and in the end pulling out the nightlock berries.  Much of it, also, comes in the sacrifices that both she and Peeta make.  The emotion of the part of the movie in Dictrict 12, especially when Katniss take’s Prim’s place and then says her goodbyes, is so well done that I heard people around us sniffling.  And Peeta’s sacrifices for her in the arena (which aren’t as powerful in the movie, as his first leg wound heals much better and he doesn’t lose his other leg in the end, but are still moving) are very powerful on screen.

E:  And yes, when she’s dodging fireballs, and climbing that tree to escape the career pack – well, there’s really no reason she should have made it out of those situations. Most people wouldn’t have.  You almost get a better idea of that (of how scary that would have been) in the movie than you did in the book.

M: Hmmm, I’m not so sure.  I thought that those scenes were some of Collins’ best pieces of writing.  Oddly, I feel like one of the main parts that they came up lacking (only in comparison to the book, mind you) was in her relationship with Peeta.

E: Oddly?  That’s exactly the problem with the movie; not enough time in the cave.  That’s essential.  What she does, the way she can’t sort out all the reasons why she does it…

M: Oddly for me, since I’m a guy.  I was poking fun at myself there, sis.

E: Oh, whatever, because guys don’t like love stories?  Right.

M: It’s not that we don’t like them….  oh, forget it.  Anyway, having re-read the book now just after seeing the movie, I feel like them missing on that was more of a time constraints.  I would have loved to have seen the scene in the cave where Peeta tells her about the first time he saw her.  That one scene, which was not entirely inside her head (though her reaction to it is hugely important) would have made a difference.

E: Well, they did that a little bit – the Valley Song, her hair in two braids.  But oh, I wanted so much more of these conversations than what we got!  Now, I can see why the writers chose to use Jennifer and Josh in the scene with the bread, instead of younger actors, but to me it takes away some of the poignancy, her almost lifelong sense of obligation.  But of course we didn’t get that at all – the stuff about the Seam, about owing.

M: Very true, the scenes in District 12 were really good, but we definitely didn’t get the same feel for it as we did in the book, but how could we?

E: I thought the segment of the movie in District 12 was a pitch perfect both to the District and to the whole of world of the books.  There’s always  something to quibble about (like, why don’t we get her memories of Peeta, her reaction to him right away?) but not blame the movie for.  They established such a terrific tone.  Even if, er, I thought I wasn’t going to be able to watch the movie with all the shakey hand cam.

M: It was a bit much at the start, but worked well in the bloodbath.  Now, fine, I’m going back to this.  I did not expect to come out of this movie (or much of any movie) saying “it needed to spend more time on the love story”, but, well, it needed to spend more time on the love story.

E: Wow, I can’t even distract you with the cinematography?

M: You can’t, because to me the relationship between Katniss and Peeta was the heart of the book.  The time in the cave, which upon rereading was not as long as it felt like in my memory actually, was hugely important to the story.  It told us who Peeta really was.

E: Right. Because Katniss, mistrustful as she’s become through years of suffering and self-reliance, thinks his initial declaration of love is a game strategy. I saw Gary Ross on Charlie Rose this week, and he suggested that the sort of miracle of the story is that in the midst of all this insanity, Katniss actually opens up, which is really a fundamental change in the way she’s approached life.  Which is true, but I think perhaps they overemphasized that transformation to the point of losing some of the book’s fascinating ambiguity.  Or, I don’t know.  Can you say something is overemphasized when the script is co-written by the book’s author?  Because she would know where the emphasis should be better than us.

M: Given what George Lucas has done decades after the fact to the Star Wars movies?  Absolutely.

E: Snort.

M: That aside, I think it’s more than just Peeta’s initial declaration that she takes as strategy.  She takes EVERYTHING as strategy, as having some ulterior motive.  Re-reading it really reminded me how right from his name being drawn at the Reaping we get to hear her thoughts, and how she has emotions for him.  But the whole time she’s suppressing them, shutting herself off, because she may have to kill him.  But like Ross said, one of the major changes in her is that in the end, she can’t kill him.  She finds a way not to.

E: That’s actually another problem with the choices made to adapt the book; because it’s Haymitch explaining to Katniss that she needs a strategy, we miss out on her cleverness, her understanding of the audience at home in District 12 as well as the Capitol – and we pretty much know that’s Peeta’s for real from the start.

M: I don’t know about that, I think there was some doubt.  Back to the cave…

E: Man, we just can’t get you out of that cave!

M: Har har.  I’d be out of it if that wasn’t the biggest part the movie missed on, and if it wasn’t so important.  Anyway, that part of the book made Katniss at first act the part, which was fun, but then develop real – if confused – feelings for Peeta.  Along with the relationship with Rue, it provided the element of humanity that kept you from feeling like it was just a hunt and a bloodbath and something awful.  Without that it really is just a bunch of kids killing each other.  They brought some of that to the movie, but not enough.

E:  Agreed.  I wish there was a little more Rue, too – more about how revolutionary it was for them to talk about their lives on camera.  I’m surprisingly okay with them cutting the part about District 11 giving Katniss the bread; I like the riot there a lot as an alternative, even if it’s not canonical.

M: Yes, we both, and all with us, felt that that was a good trade off.

E: By which he means that the massive group we saw the movie with all agreed.

M: For me, though, there was a significant trade off that I didn’t like.  When the announcement came down that a pair from the same district could win as a team, Katniss in the book yells out Peeta’s name without thinking, then clasps her hand over her mouth realizing she’s giving away her position.  It was such a great, natural, can’t-help-herself reaction that revealed that she did have feelings developing for him.  Instead in the movie we got a small whisper of his name.  To go back to the LOTR analogies, it certainly wasn’t a gaffe on the level of “The ring will go to Gondor”, but it was such a miss, and so unnecessary!

E: I can’t understand what the point of that change was.  Another big line I missed was when Peeta told Katniss – after she returned triumphant from the feast – that she wouldn’t be doing him any favors dying for him, because he can’t live without her.

M: For me that fell under all the things in the cave that they didn’t go into, but yeah, it definitely would have made a difference if it was in there.  The other major miss, to me, had to do with Peeta not being injured and bleeding out at the end of the games. When I read the book, the scene of Katniss banging on the glass divider, screaming out Peeta’s name, both when it happened and when the victory clip show ended with it, struck me as a potentially iconic “movie moment”, just an image that leaped off the page into my head.  Not everything I read comes across in images to me, but that did completely, vividly and powerfully.  And they left it out of the movie!  How do you leave a potentially iconic moment out of the movie?!?!?

E: Oh, I agree.  It’s so cinematic in the book!  I guess they didn’t think that Peeta could outrun the mutts with his leg still injured, so they decided to heal it completely – and then they must not have wanted to go there.

M: Actually, his leg wasn’t fully healed from the wound Cato gave him, but the wound that caused him to lose his leg and be taken away from her like that was inflicted by one of the mutts.  He was slowed by the initial injury and got clawed while climbing onto the cornucopia (which IS golden and not futuristic in the book, by the way!).

E: That’s reassuring that I wasn’t wrong in picturing it that way.

M: I’d forgotten that sequence, and exactly how he ended up losing his leg, until the re-read.

E:  I miss, too, the very complicated moment after the announcement where Templesmith takes back the “two can win” codicil and Katniss, thinking Peeta’s going to attack her, pulls out her bow.

M: I agree, that scene played out too quickly in the movie.  The stand off, Peeta telling her that they need their winner, which gets her gears moving… that should have been in there.  And they should have put the berries in their mouths like they did in the book.

E: Absolutely. That moment wasn’t as tense as it should have been; especially since we’ve been let in on Seneca Crane decision process, we should really be feeling why he made the choice.  Now, I know I speak for us both when I say how much I loved Seneca being led to the room with the nightshade berries.  Evil genius, that.  I knew the moment we saw the bowl what would be in it.  But why don’t you let our friends in on how you feel about the way the film softened the book’s sucker-punch ending?

M: Mixed, really.  The ending of the movie was much closer to how I WANTED the book to end.  Not even primarily the removal of Katniss telling Peeta that it was at least partly an act for her, though that was important and I prefer the world where she doesn’t tell him.  No, I wanted the book to end with her coming home to Prim, and the movie gets you at least to the point of them seeing each other, which to me is better.  Maybe it comes from having a little sister, but I wanted to read, and see, that reunion.

E: Oh, I like that.  That’s certainly the real happy ending, isn’t it?  I guess Collins didn’t want us to leave this world happy.

M: Apparently not, no.  But for me reading it, Prim was the impetus for her going to the games in the first place, that was what pushed her, drove her, what she wanted to go back to.  Not Gale, not Peeta, not her mother, not revolution….  Prim.  As you know MOCKINGJAY SPOILERS, but that’s a discussion for a different day.

E: It certainly is.  There’s endless fodder for conversation about how they’re going to adapt the other two books, and whether they’ll soften the edges of those bleak books, too. Now, much as I’ve been quibbling, I really need to see the movie again to properly assess it, I think.

M: Me too.  We will likely be going soon with your older niece, who inhaled the book while we’ve been putting this review together.  I feel like the way they obscured the violence in the film, with the use of shaky (Blair Witch) camera work, and with quick cuts, made it accessible enough for a mature-ish almost 12 year old.  Maybe we’ll take it up again after our second viewings.

E: Maybe we will.  I never really feel like I can see an adaptation for itself on the first viewing, anyway.

M: That’s certainly true.  And maybe C will have seen it by then, so she can chime in, too.  Until then, what about you, our readers… any fans of the book, movie, or both out there?  What were your thoughts?

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11 comments on “The Hunger Games Movie Review

  1. formerwriter says:

    What a great review! I loved the first book, and thought this movie was exactly how the first book should have ended– without Peeta knowing that Katniss was acting her love for him to save them both.

    How did everyone feel about the scene with the flowers, and Katniss surrounding Rue’s body with them? I cried and cried during that scene. The filmmakers didn’t have a “recap” film where they omitted this after the Games, and that was a big deal to me as a reader, since it showed the kind of totalitarian control the Capitol got by making sure the districts fell no connection with each other.

    Also, did anyone miss where the mutant dogs had the eyes of the dead tributes? To me that was the scariest part of the ending.

    The fact that the last tribute didn’t beg Katniss to kill him (but instead she just killed him) also bothered me a little.

    I really did like this film, though! Thank you for your great review!

    • M says:

      One of the big discussions that we had after the movie, that we did not mention in the review, was about the mutts and having the eyes of the former contestants! There were mixed feelings in our group, with some people feeling like it missed out on the creepiness, but others being relieved, as it was too creepy for them. One thing that we all agreed on, though, was that the mutts were probably the hardest thing to get a mental image of in the entire book, and while what they did create didn’t really match any of our images, it worked very well.

      As for the end with Cato not begging, they changed that up quite a bit. The mutts dismantling of him was not nearly as drawn out in the movie, and the line he said before Katniss shot his hand, about not knowing that he was dead all along until just then, was a big divergence from the book. I think they did it try to reinforce the control of the Capitol, and how awful they were, but it ended up being more of a redeeming quality to a character that you don’t really want redeemed.

      I loved the part with Rue, and actually could have done with more of it. After re-reading, I forgot that she wove some of the flowers into her hair, that would have been really good to have seen.

      • E says:

        I can see why they sped things up with Cato – it was a whole night, after all, and there’s no way they could do that in a movie version. The real question is whether or not you still get the feeling that it’s Katniss showing mercy; I thought so, but I’d be very curious as to how that came across to someone who hadn’t read the book, since I’m sure my viewing was informed by what I already knew she felt.

        M and I have discussed at length the whole muttations thing. They were super scary, certainly. (I didn’t even catch on my first viewing that they must have been Thresh’s killers, but that makes sense in the compressed timeline, too.) I could never figure out how they’d succeed in giving them the tributes dead eyes, so I guess I see why they didn’t even attempt it. Think how awful and cheesy it might have looked if they failed! The one thing that took me out of the moment a little was that the mutts were supposed to look like wolves, not dogs.

        Thanks for writing in, Formerwriter! I think Collins and Ross did an amazing job with the screenplay, and I’m hopeful that whoever takes it on for Catching Fire can do as well. I’m really sorry it won’t be Ross (though not shocked, given the production schedule and how few movies he’s made throughout his career)!

  2. Jeyna Grace says:

    I use to be a crazy fan, after I read the entire series years ago. Now im just a semi fan. LOL!

  3. Universalmom says:

    Overall, I have to give the director and screenwriters a lot of credit. For the most part, they got around the first person narrative issues. They also kept the violence ominous and believable, but not too graphic (can you imagine, though, what an amazing movie it could have been if they didn’t have to avoid an R rating?)

    Here is my critique though…the movie was 2hrs 22 min long. They could have take 8 more minutes – an eternity of screen time, but not a perceptible change in running time – and given us so much more! This is what I would have added: An interval in which Haymitch was the horrible, disgusting, damaged guy that he was in the book, and then allow him to develop into an ally for Katniss and Peeta. The transformation would have been really powerful! I’d also have made it clearer that Prim and Katniss nearly starved, and that Peeta’s gift of bread saved them. Then, a mere line or two of dialogue could show how simultaneously grateful, resentful, obligated and suspicious Katniss felt. Maybe even a montage of Effie and Haymitch struggling to make Katniss walk in heels, be charming etc…And there would STILL be time left over to be spent in the cave 🙂

  4. Universalmom says:

    Just one more thing…I had heard repeatedly how haunting the musical score was, and I was actually disappointed. I hope they get someone like Michael Giacchino (Star Trek 2009, the first Transformers) next time. One notable exception: Caesar Flickman’s talk show theme! That was badass.

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