I saw the first Hunger Games movie 3 days ago. Last summer, I read the whole series in one ferocious gulp and enjoyed its pacing, premise, and political commentary. I wasn’t sure how the movie would translate all of this to the screen, but the reviews I read, like this one at Slate, gave me high hopes as I settled into my theatre seat.
I left the theatre feeling ambivalent. It wasn’t awful, but it wasn’t as good as I had hoped it would be.
First off, the positive stuff: Peeta and Katniss were well-cast (though I admit I thought Katniss didn’t look nearly scrawny enough) and the production design was spot on. Things looked bare and stark in District 12 and bright and shiny in the Capitol. Some additional touches not included in the book were gold, like Haymitch observing a Capitol family (a father gives his son a fake sword and watches with glee as the little moppet runs around pretending to stab his sister) and the Capitol using blood/DNA tests to identify all the children in District 12’s Reaping.
Two performances, in particular, stand out – Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, and Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Effie was delightfully bobbleheaded, and I loved the little side moment where we caught her fervently lip-syncing the words to President Snow’s propaganda video aired at all of the Reapings. She’s oblivious to the hardship around her, and it’s great. On top of that, Jennifer Lawrence really sold me on Katniss’ relationship to Prim, and her near-maternal protectiveness of her little sister. Peeta was a little less memorable, but I liked that the movie played up his on-stage antics with Caesar Flickerman – Peeta’s naturally charming, and in the book both Katniss and Haymitch know that this works to their advantage.
However, these things are more than balanced by the problems both technical and story-related that my friends and I noticed.
On the technical side, the camerawork was awful. Imagine The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield getting together to have little shaky-fisted, nausea-inducing babies, and that will give you a good approximation of the quality of the camerawork here.
Things were blurry when they didn’t need to be, and key action setpieces were hard to decipher. I never got a sense of lethality or physicality from the Tributes in the arena; instead, I often found myself wondering how that combination of on-camera movements could lead to that stab wound or arrow piercing. To add insult to injury, all of the nighttime scenes were underexposed, so that action setpieces like the riot in District 11 or the final fight atop the Cornucopia were nearly invisible.
I recognize that this was partially motivated by the studio’s quest for a PG13 rating, but it’s worthwhile to note that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom – where people eat monkey brains out of skulls and a man’s heart gets torn out of his chest while he’s still alive – is rated PG. Are people really going to need nausea-inducing film cuts in order to avoid being scarred by one teenager stabbing another in the back? Worse stuff shows up on the evening news.
On the story side, I was unimpressed with the movie’s handling of Gale and the incipient love triangle between him, Katniss, and Peeta. Whenever the film cut to him reacting to an on-screen kiss between the other two, people in the audience started laughing.
This points to the greatest flaw in the whole movie: The lack of a political/tactical undercurrent to Katniss and Peeta’s actions within the arena. Absent is the canny Haymitch, sick and tired of sending his District’s children off to die, that I remember from the novels. In the book, he drank to anesthetize himself and knew the ins and outs of Capitol culture. Now, he’s just an asshole who knows how to do a little glad-handing. Almost no running time is spent discussing the status of the Peeta-Katniss relationship as a gambit for survival, and Haymitch’s value as a strategic advisor before the games is minimized. Even the onstage revelation with Caesar Flickerman of Peeta’s love for Katniss is downplayed.
I’m dismayed that other sites have rarely commented on the calculated nature of the romantic relationships in the series. Most dismiss the love triangle as a necessity to appeal to adolescent girls – as a convention established by the Twilight series (which, no, I have not read). Few seem to appreciate how subversive it is. Romance is one thing, but using it as a shield against political retribution is another. In fact, one of the only articles I’ve read that discusses this is another one from Slate.
The Hunger Games books were all about the value of images, and the way that those images are used to suppress or foment change. They were all about cunning. Katniss knows she has to be cunning, and every single action of hers throughout the series – gorging on Capitol food before the Games to gain weight, cultivating her on-screen romance with Peeta, participating in District 13’s propaganda campaign – is based on a finely-honed sense of survival. That sense of cunning isn’t in the movie. Instead, its images are curiously empty.
What were your thoughts on the movie? What do you think were its strengths and weaknesses in comparison to the book?