Let’s just get it out of the way: No, I have not read the book. Steph has read all the books, loved them, and has filled me in a little bit about the differences between the book and the movie. But in general, I don’t know anything about the book, and thus will not be referencing it in this review. I will be reviewing this film simply as a film.
That said, I entered into The Hunger Games with mixed expectations. I can’t help but be skeptical of anything with such a strong teen following, particularly in light of the Twilight craze. A few days before seeing the movie, I heard one reviewer refer to “Team Peeta and Team Gale,” which only heightened my skepticism. On the other hand, I love a good survival story, and I was optimistic that some exciting action sequences would make up for any other shortcomings in the plot. In short, I was not expecting a cinematic or narrative masterpiece, but I was eagerly anticipating an action-packed blockbuster.
I’m assuming everyone in the world by now is either familiar with the basic premise and plot of The Hunger Games or is living under a rock, so I will spare you a summary and skip to my immediate reaction: I was devastated. Not by the quality of the movie, but by the story itself. Perhaps this is indicative of my mental and emotional state that particular day, but where I had been excited to watch kids fight to the death, the tragedy of the situation struck me early in the movie, and struck me hard. I had previously read a review that noted with dismay that the director had spinelessly omitted much of the grit and despair from the book, and if that is true, then I truly have no desire to read the book. While the first half of the film, which depicts the dystopian future world of Panem, was enjoyable, and many of the action sequences had me on the edge of my seat, the hour spent watching child after child slaughtered by other children ended up being an grueling and draining endeavor.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to incredibly dark storylines. However, in the case of The Hunger Games, I kept asking myself one question over and over again: What is the point? A premise so designed to push our cultural buttons of revulsion needs to have a darn good reason for doing so. There are two possible justifiable reasons that I can identify that could potentially have saved this film: an allegorical societal warning or an incredibly compelling human story, and The Hunger Games had neither. I’ll address both.
When you tell me that I’m about to see a movie “set in a future dystopian world,” I have certain expectations. My immediate assumption is that there will by some sort of commentary on the world that we currently live in. I feel that this trait has become so ubiquitous to almost be a mandate of the genre, and without such a message, the story felt weak. It is not difficult to think up a hypothetical society that toys with the cultural taboos of the viewers, but there needs to be some sort of reasoning. You can argue that the story warns against the notion of a government becoming too powerful, but I would respond that if that is the case, then this reductio ad absurdum example is relatively ill-conceived. Additionally, when Suzanne Collins herself was questioned about the message behind her story, the author offered some weak sauce about how kids should question whether their government is doing the right thing. Sorry, but this doesn’t quite justify such an extreme storyline.
The other reason a story about kids killing kids could work would be if it aided in the telling of a particularly compelling human story. To be fair, the general story of The Hunger Games held my interest, and the Katniss character was certainly meaty enough to root for, but I think you would be hard pressed to identify much of a genuine character arc. Within the first few minutes of the movie, we see Katniss’ key virtues: she is warm and nurturing to her sister, she is a badass who hunts wild game illegally with a bow and arrow, and she is a generally good and selfless person who sacrifices herself to save her sister. These same traits continue to serve her throughout the story. She never gains any new skills or has any major revelations. I think this is an example of what I will call the Robert Langdon Effect, in which the author is so eager (desperate) to have the audience immediately fall in love with and relate to their protagonist that they forget to include a flaw. Katniss is awesome, but unfortunately she is already awesome at the beginning of the story, leaving her with nowhere to progress.
Given the lack of either a compelling deeper message or a decent character arc, I have to conclude that this movie was missing an element that could have made it great.
So that’s all the negative, but that is not to say that there were not some wonderful elements to the movie. Primarily, the acting was without exception very good, and in some cases excellent. Jennifer Lawrence excels in the lead, and, as noted above, instantly gets the audience on her side. The other children are also all quite good, which is always refreshing. Woody Harrelson is certainly the most relatable adult as the washed-up former Hunger Games champion turned mentor. Elizabeth Banks was compelling as some sort of unidentified government official. Stanley Tucci is (surprise surprise) wonderful as a flamboyantly jovial yet eerie talk show host, equal parts Ryan Seacrest and Joel Grey circa Cabaret. Even non-actor Lenny Kravitz proved me wrong when he delivered a charming and heartwarming costume designer, one of the few warm and nurturing characters in the otherwise cold and stark world.
As I have already noted, many of the action sequences, as well as minor story lines (such as the short-lived alliance and surrogate-sister relationship between Katniss and the young Rue) were quite compelling and either exciting or enjoyable (though seldom both). There is a lot to praise about this movie, but particularly given the hype surrounding both the book and the movie, I was expecting more from the story. (Again, I have not read the book. It could be that everything I’m longing for was simply cut from the book in the film adaptation, but like I said, I am reviewing the movie.) I would have loved to see the author or director do something more in-depth with this premise. All in all, however, the film was fine, provided you don’t think about it too hard.