The following review contains moderate spoilers for both the novel and film versions of The Hunger Games.
As of this writing, Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games series has made her the best-selling Kindle author of all time. That’s quite an accomplishment. But even before that happened, it was inevitable that the Hunger Games phenomenon would become a film. After all, with the end of both Harry Potter and Twilight on the horizon, studios were looking for their next big book-to-movie hit.
Well, they found it, and on March 23, The Hunger Games was released to American audiences.
The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen, a girl from the coal-mining District 12 of a future America where technology isn’t ubiquitous and there are definite haves and have-nots. Katniss and her friend Gale hunt outside the District’s no-longer-electrified electric fence to supplement their limited food supply, as both have families to support — Gale has several siblings, while Katniss has her mother and younger sister Primrose.
As the film begins, the 74th Annual Hunger Games is about to begin — every year, two children from each district, aged 12 through 18, are selected at random to compete in a fight to the death. The tributes, as they are called, are wined, dined, trained, clothed, and then dropped into a massive arena where they must kill each other. Only one tribute survives. Katniss goes to the Reaping — where the tributes are chosen — and, when Prim is selected, Katniss volunteers to go in her place (which is allowed, but has never happened in District 12). Along with Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son, Katniss goes to the Capitol to begin her training.
Once the preliminaries are complete, Katniss is dropped into the arena, where she must fight for her life. After seeing twelve tributes die in the first few minutes, she realizes the only way to survive is to use her skills to stay ahead of the others — including Peeta, who has joined up with the tributes from Districts 1 and 2 to take her out, since she’s one of the biggest threats in the arena.
But it’s not just the other tributes who have it out for Katniss, and in the end, she has to decide just what it’s worth to her to try and win the Hunger Games.
My only major problem with the film was some of the cinematography and direction. I realize the director, Gary Ross (who wrote and directed Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, and also wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games), was trying to get the audience to experience things in a close-up confusing fashion so that they’d be feeling what Katniss felt, but I didn’t feel it worked. It was mostly annoying.
Otherwise, I thought the film was a pretty good adaptation of the novel (which I have also read). A few things were taken out, and the District 12 scenes were heavily abridged, but I didn’t miss them. That is, except for the Gale-Katniss friendship, which there just wasn’t enough time for. The whole Team Peeta/Team Gale thing was pushed by marketers trying to capitalize on the Twilight craze, but the film was really all about Katniss and, to a lesser extent, Peeta. All the moviegoing audience knew about Gale was that he was Katniss’s friend and probably had a crush on her. The subtext of their relationship, which was explored in the novel, just couldn’t be squeezed into the film.
The casting of the film was really stolen by Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the emcee of the Hunger Games. With his blue hair and flamboyant suits, and the way Tucci was able to make all his smiles convey different emotions, I have to say he was a surprisingly good choice. Donald Sutherland played President Snow, and all I can say about him is that as he ages he looks more and more like his son. Woody Harrelson was Haymitch Abernathy, the only surviving District 12 resident to ever win the Hunger Games, and the film made him substantially more likable than in the book. I guess I was okay with that. Wes Bentley (American Beauty) was Seneca Crane, the designer of the arena, and Elizabeth Banks (Zach and Miri Make a Porno) was Effie Trinket, the heavily made-up representative from District 12 who always seemed just a little too on-edge. Finally, Liam Hemsworth (brother of Chris Hemsworth, who played both Thor and George Kirk) was suitably dark and brooding as Gale; as with Taylor Lautner in the first Twilight film, we didn’t get a lot of Gale, but he becomes important later.
As for the tributes, Josh Hutcherson (Zathura) played Peeta and Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class and The Bill Engvall Show) starred in the film as Katniss. Mostly I found Peeta too short and Katniss too exotic, although they both acted fine. If either had a flaw, it was Lawrence, who had to play a standoffish and angry young woman while still being a sympathetic character to the audience. In a book, writers can use internal monologues to get the job done, but in a film it’s all in the way the actor acts. I’m sure Lawrence did the best she could, but something about her irked me just a bit.
The other tributes included Amandia Stenberg as Rue (who got very short shrift in the film), Alexander Ludwig as Cato, and Jacqueline Emerson as “Fox Face”, the District Five tribute who survived mostly on cunning.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’s stylist and her first real ally in the Capitol. He really did an excellent job with the role.
The film was scored by James Newton Howard, and it was adequate. Not a soundtrack I’m going to buy. I heard echoes of Firefly in a few scenes, but for the most part it was a pretty average soundtrack. The real shining technical moments of the film occurred in the Capitol character and set design. In the novel, Collins tried to make the Capitol as ostentatious and showy as possible, and the scenery reflected that, as did the costuming. It was almost too much, but I think that was the point — to underscore the differences between the Capitol and District 12.
Speaking of the Capitol, one thing I do want to mention is the Tribute parade. When I read the novel, I thought it was more like a Mardi Gras or Disney Main Street parade, with a lot of people. In the film, though, it was just the tributes, in pairs, carried on Ben Hur-like chariots. The minimalism of it did not help with the iconic “catching fire” scene, which wasn’t nearly as showy as I think the audience deserved. I was actually kind of disappointed that Peeta and Katniss weren’t as fiery as they were in the book. Plus, Cinna didn’t have enough screen time to explain why District 12 was on fire.
Once we got to the Games, though, things moved very well, with good pacing and enough action to make up for any slowness in the beginning of the film. The audience I saw the movie with was surprised and sickened by the massacre at the Cornucopia, and the scenes with the tributes from District 11* were excellently done, as was Katniss’s fight with the girl tribute from District 2.
Overall, I thought The Hunger Games was a pretty good book — not a great one, but an enjoyable read. The film gave me about the same feeling — it had its issues, but in the end it was a good movie with a little something for everyone. I didn’t care for the final scene — it didn’t give us quite the sequel hook we needed, nor the closure of the President Snow storyline that we should have had — but otherwise I’d say the movie did justice to the novel, and really, that’s all we can ask for these days.
Note to Parents: Although it’s only rated PG-13, this is a very violent film. Teenagers are seen killing, reveling in the kill, and also being seriously injured. The violence isn’t always graphic, but it is intense. I think most teens could handle the film, and I’m sure most pre-teens and tweens have already seen worse. Of course, you should use your own best judgment when it comes to your children.
* I can’t be any more specific without totally spoiling the movie.