Wow. Gary Ross’s adaptation of The Hunger Games wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. Not a bit.
First off, I suppose that if you haven’t heard of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy of dystopian YA novels then you must have been living under a rock or, even better, hiding out in a cave (see what I did there?). Well, now its first installment has become one of the most anticipated films of 2012, probably just behind Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises. Will it please most of its loyal fans? I think so. But more importantly, does it succeed as a film?
Oh yes, and then some.
If you have followed my Hungered series you know that my relationship with this trilogy is tenuous. I respected the books’ intentions but didn’t care for the overall message. I struggled with the characters and at its worst I thought it reveled in being manipulative, hopeless and cruel. Now that these elements have become visuals the story has undergone some unexpected changes. I would argue that just about every single one has been for the better. Games not only elevates the source material but improves it.
But that’s not all. I’m still dumbfounded by how understated, subtle and human it was. This franchise may be a pop culture phenomenon, the latest in a line of epic tales aimed at teens, but Games succeeds by not being epic at all. It’s lyrical, at times silent and quick, and more concerned with what the story actually is: people in terrible circumstances having to do terrible things.
The results had such an emotional effect on the audience that I could hear people crying during the silences. And there were many moments of silence. Games has more interest in showing rather than telling. There are shots that dwell on the tiniest details, using no dialogue but speaking volumes. The tucking of a shirttail. A butterfly after a bloodbath. Effie (Elizabeth Banks) reciting along with the Capitol’s propaganda film. A chilling three finger salute followed by a riot. It’s loaded material, and to expect any less would have been a disservice for the series’ fans. I think they got exactly what they wanted.
Then there are the changes. Games no longer takes place in Katniss Everdeen’s head, taking us out of the books’ first person narrative. We are given the opportunity to see the bigger picture and in some cases things I thought we would never find out. For example, we see how the games are run as well as the shaky relationship between President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley). There are also scenes that are solely from other characters’ point of view- Peeta’s, Haymitch’s, Crane’s, and in one heart-crushing instance, little Rue’s.
The film also serves as an interesting commentary on violence. I’ve heard criticism that Games held back on the gore, particularly to gain a PG-13 rating. That’s true. The violence is spare, but to expect more is a commentary on what the series is all about. Of course most audiences would expect more. I would say they want more. How does that make contemporary audiences any different from the Capitol’s inhabitants or Romans attending the Colosseum 1500 years ago? There was a moment where the audience applauded a death in this film. That was unexpected and kind of… well, disturbing.
Thing is, disturbing is the core feeling of the Games series, especially since its events are sanctioned by a government and its citizens simply put up with it. All the more disturbing is how its world isn’t that different from how we live today. The Capitol is as neon as New York and flamboyant as Tokyo. In comparison District 12 is reminiscent of Appalachia or the Ozarks (coincidentally, the setting of Winter’s Bone (2010), the film that launched Jennifer Lawrence’s career). Even the way children are corralled like cattle and raffled off to their deaths reminds me of a draft. This just reminds me of why Games sucker punched its audience so hard in the first place. This kind of shit kind of exists already. Games just elevates it.
Anchoring this insanity are actors that are relative newcomers. In fact, Dustin Rowles of Pajiba humorously pointed this out in the article: “The Hunger Games Cast is a Veritable Whose Who of Who the F**k is That?” Well, I’m sure that’s over. After this weekend these performers will probably become household names. That kind of goes without saying. Just wait and see.
Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss was just as good as I expected, mostly because she had already conquered this kind of character in Bone (see this article for a breakdown and comparisons). She inhabited Katniss in a way that seemed effortless, giving her resilience and just the right amount of vulnerability. She never goes over the top and is completely believable. Josh Hutcherson also succeeded as Peeta, one of the only Games characters I liked in the end. Thing is, I cringe to think of what this guy will have to endure for the next two movies. He already looks like a wounded puppy and the rest of the plot consists of watching him get repeatedly stomped on like a bug.
The only clunker was Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, who isn’t given much to do anyway. In my opinion Gale is such an unlikable character he is already doomed to be hated, but the filmmakers could have chosen someone with more charisma to keep the audience guessing or hoping. Hemsworth isn’t up to the task. Besides, Lauren had already ruined his performance by pointing out that his mouth is open in every shot of the trailer. “He’s a mouthbreather!” she insisted. “He’s like buuuuuh… (slow, heavy breathing).” The movie kind of confirmed this, and whenever he showed up onscreen the audience laughed. After the screening I overheard someone muttering, “Fuck you, Gale.”
As for the rest of the cast they got nothing but love. The inclusion of Sutherland goes without saying. He’s just getting started. The casting of Bentley as Crane was welcome and- I’m assuming- somewhat of a comeback. I was also pleasantly surprised to see Toby Jones as Claudius Templesmith and Paula Malcolmson as Katniss’s mother (I was like, “Deadwood, hell yeah!”). These kind of decisions make me curious about who the filmmakers will cast in the subsequent films.
Then there are the characters who held expectations. I’d say that Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks excelled in their roles. The exchanges between Haymitch and Effie were so great I wished there would get married and hate each other forever. They could have their own sitcom. On the other hand some have already criticized Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna. I thought he fulfilled his purpose: being the calm in the eye of the storm. He also proved he’s the only dude who can rock gold eyeliner and be masculine at the same time. Lastly, Stanley Tucci’s teeth were amazing as he nailed the role of Caesar Flickerman. I’m not kidding. Those teeth were incredible, especially when you’re on drugs.
But I digress. In conclusion I have to thank the filmmakers of The Hunger Games. They not only remained true to the book but added things that actually worked. Also, they seemed to have overheard my requests: no sparkling Peeta in the woods and no muttations with “human eyes.” Actually, they did the wolf/human hybrids right and proved once again just how much Twilight‘s CG sucks. Kudos.
But most of all, I have to praise them for making something that was unexpectedly beautiful and quiet at times, in some ways the antithesis of a popcorn film. Games is food for thought. It’s refreshing and sad. It’s difficult and relevant. I respect it as a film and wasn’t let down. I also know that it is going to take boatloads of our money but I don’t mind. It’s saying something about society and human nature. Hopefully people will talk about it, think about it and form their own opinions.
However, it’s hard to forget what is coming. During one of its last scenes Haymitch tells Katniss, “You showed them up,” referring to her defiance of the Capitol. This reminded me that Games is only the beginning. It’s the setup before the series takes a hairpin turn and implodes, leaving everyone’s psyches and bodies ruined.
For now I’m trying to keep those thoughts at bay and just enjoy what I’ve seen so far.