There are two types of people that will go to see The Hunger Games: Those that have read the books and those that have not. I fall into the latter category. I’ll pause while hardcore fans of the book series curse me out.
Done? Okay. Look, there are countless reviews out there that compare the film to the book (the majority I have seen are overwhelmingly positive) and point out the differences. However, as someone who until only a few weeks ago would have guessed that something called “The Hunger Games” was some kind of competitive eating competition, I was not able to do this and instead went into the theater as a person just looking to be entertained. I’m sure fans of the series of novels by Suzanne Collins (who also wrote the screenplay along with director Gary Ross and someone named Billy Ray without a Cyrus at the end) went in looking for much more. They already knew the story by heart and had pictures in their minds of how everything should appear and play out on a giant movie screen, unlike someone such as myself, who was not familiar with the source material. I decided to view this as an advantage, for it would allow me to evaluate the film on its own merits. Despite this though, due to all the hype and early borderline-orgasmic critical buzz, I still had some pretty high expectations upon seeing it- a kind of smug mentality of “Okay Hunger Games, impress me.”
I didn’t go in completely blind. I did do some research on the novels as well as spoke to a couple friends who have read the books (giddy anticipation about the movie from them all and they are long past their teenage years) so I was able to get a generalized idea of the world Collins has created. I’m sure most people reading this are already familiar with the plot and therefore I won’t waste too much time summarizing it, but skip if you’d like:
In the not-too-distant future, North America is no more. It has been replaced by the twelve districts of totalitarian Panem. There were thirteen, but District 13 rebelled against the Capitol and was destroyed. Ever since, as punishment for this and to remind all districts of the Capitol’s control, there is an annual “Hunger Games” in which two “tributes,” one boy and one girl aged 12-18 from each District, are selected by a lottery and all are forced to compete against, meaning kill, each other until only one remains. Yup, gone are the days of “Everybody is a winner!” The game is monitored, filmed, and broadcast to all districts, American Idol style complete with a cheesy host and outside assistance from sponsors. So, not only are the games about survival (cue Survivor theme song) but a popularity contest as well (cue Survivor theme song again) .
So basically: Kids killing other kids in a sick game for entertainment and enforcement of control.
And there it is. Yes, in the weeks leading up to the release of The Hunger Games, I also started hearing an awful lot about another movie (also based on a novel) with a similar concept. 2000’s Battle Royale, a Japanese film about a similar competition involving young children offing each other until only one remains. Elitists everywhere began crying “Ripoff!” and “Twilight-ified Battle Royale!” The plots did sound strikingly similar (Suzanne Collins has stated for the record that she had never heard of Battle Royale prior to writing The Hunger Games and has since abstained from reading the novel and seeing the film), enough so to make me want to check it out. So I watched it a few hours before going to see The Hunger Games. I’ll let you know my thoughts on that little experiment later on.
But let’s get back to why we’re here, Happy Hunger Games!
There is much to toast here and it wouldn’t seem right to start anywhere other than with the protagonist of the story, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) herself. Finally, a smart, strong, courageous female heroine for young girls to look up to! Katniss is anything but a self-pitying, mouth-breathing teen who mopes around trying to decide which boy she likes better. And thank God for that! Yes, I’m looking at you Bella Swan (If you haven’t yet, check out my fellow boozer Marielle’s hilariously spot-on Katniss vs. Bella comparison in this week’s Weekend Pregame). Granted, there are two suitors for Katniss to choose between (this is a “young adult” series after all), but that storyline is thankfully kept to a minimum, just enough to add another layer.
It’s pretty safe to assume that Lawrence was chosen for the role largely based on her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, in which she played a similar no-nonsense, poverty-stricken, self-sufficient young woman who is really good at huntin’ in the woods. Her performance is almost a carry-over of that character and it was a smart casting choice. Since the story is told from Katniss’ point of view, the film rests on Lawrence’s shoulders. And she is fantastic and deserves every bit of acclaim she is receiving.
The supporting cast of familiar faces is worth toasting as well. My favorite part of the film was the first half, when Katniss and her male-counterpart from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are sent to the Oz-like Capitol to be pampered and primed for the competition. It’s there that we get many of the lighter, fun, and deliciously twisted (considering these kids are being primped to, ya know, kill) moments featuring their frequently drunk mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson doing his best Woody Harrelson), their chaperone/publicist Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks, clearly having a blast with the part), and their stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, reprising his gentle, handsome guardian angel from Precious).
Lenny Kravitz is the patron saint of troubled teen girls.
There’s also Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the awesomely slimy gameshow host, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) the Head Gamemaker sporting some amazing facial hair, and the tyrannical President Snow (Donald Sutherland-not given much to do in this installment), who oversees all. Each does the most with their small roles, particularly Banks and Harrelson. If there is ever a Hunger Games prequel featuring two hours of Effie and Haymitch shopping for mahogany furniture, I will be first in line for the midnight screening.
And I promise, I’ll read all the books if it happens!
Also worth noting are the set design, cinematography, costumes, and make-up. The transitions from the gloomy District 12 to the Dr. Seuss-on-an-acid-trip lushness of the Capitol to the dark and hopeless emptiness of the Games’ playing field are extremely well done which each landscape being fully realized and detailed. It’s no surprise in a project helmed by Ross, who so brilliantly used the contrast of colors in the excellent Pleasantville.
Pretty sure this is where Lady Gaga is from.
The story presents some pretty smart and dead-on commentary on issues including war, government, the growing economic divide, and most of all, America’s obsession with celebrity and reality television. I think this may be why I enjoyed the Capitol scenes so much. It’s a funhouse mirror reflection of current day America. The younger audience may care more about whether Katniss chooses Peeta or Gale and not quite grasp that yet, but as an adult, I appreciated the hell out of it. It made me seriously wonder if we’re really that far off from something like the Hunger Games being a reality.
I think it would make a great show on E! (How could I resist that one? It was right there.)
So how do you make a film about children killing children and keep a PG-13 rating? The violence has to be brutal enough to translate the horror of it all to the audience, but it can’t be so graphic that it pushes into R territory. This is the daunting task director Gary Ross was faced with. He decided to go with quick cuts, close-ups of faces, and jerky camerawork.
At times, it worked well, for instance the very first scene of the battle. There is an extended nervous pause while the contestants stand on pedestals and eye each other waiting for the alert to jump off and begin combat. Then, it’s time and the chaos begins. There are a couple of casualties immediately and they are jarring. I gasped (even with the bloodbath of Battle Royale still fresh in my mind).
However, after this initial scene, each subsequent fight to the death was so shaky and blurry that it was more distracting than effective and was often tiring to watch. Personally I can’t come up with a better solution to mask the gore than Blair Witching, but that’s not my job as the viewer.
Something else that I felt could have been better was the CGI, especially the dogs in the finale. I did hear about the book’s depiction of the dogs, and was looking forward to seeing them, but the resulting beasts were pretty generic, resembling something out of Twilight, or actually Ghostbusters.
“What a lovely singing voice you must have!”
*This beer is an optional one. Fans of the books most likely don’t need it as they already know the entire backstories of the characters and are filled in on things the film leaves out. However the portion of the audience who are meeting them for the first time are welcome to join me in cracking open another.
Despite its non-rushed pacing and 142 minute running time, some characters seemed glossed over and one-dimensional. I understand that the reason we don’t get to really know many of the other contestants is because Katniss doesn’t, and the film mostly stays true to the novel’s first person POV. But even her two closest friends, Peeta and adorable little Rue (Amandla Stenberg), left me wanting to know more than what was presented and even left me with questions. Why did Peeta join the alliance of the bad kids? Why wasn’t Katniss angrier with him because of it? How well did Katniss and Peeta know each other before the games? Why did Katniss trust Rue so easily? I’m sure these things are explained in the novel. Maybe they were filmed and left on the cutting room floor to stay just under the two and a half hour mark?
As for the other tributes, again I get it, we only know as much about them as Katniss does. But there are some moments in the film that break away into a third-person narrative (scenes at the Capitol and other Districts, to name a couple), so it’s not completely out of line to point out that just a few moments spent on the other kids would have given their deaths a little more weight. And while I’m on that topic, nearly all the killings shown in any detail are of the mean, bloodthirsty ones. The audience wants to see them get their due, so there’s no real sense of loss. It’s pretty much all good against evil. That seemed to me like another PG-13 cop-out, and it took away from the significance of just how abominable these “games” really are.
Overall I found The Hunger Games to be an entertaining mix of sci-fi, action, and drama, with some laughs and pretty thought-provoking social commentary mixed in. Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss is a heroine that people will actually want to root for. Fans of the book will most likely enjoy it more, but The Hunger Games also works just fine as a standalone movie.
Bonus Drinking Game
Take a Drink: Whenever anyone says “May the odds be ever in your favor.”
Take a Drink: Every time the cannon sounds.
Take a Drink: Every time Haymitch drinks.
Take a Drink: Every time there are flames.
Take a Drink: Every time the Mockingjay pin is shown.
Take a Drink: Whenever Rue makes an adorable face.
Drink a Shot: For every time you yelled “Read the book!” at me while reading this (it’s for your own good).
Pop an Advil: when you have a headache from the shaky, blurry camerawork.
Dear Internets, Please stop forwarding/posting/re-tweeting this joke. Everyone has heard it by now.
So as far as the Battle Royale hoopla goes… Is the concept similar? Yes. Very much. Is it possible that Suzanne Collins didn’t know anything about it? Sure, though personally, after viewing both in a 24 hour period, I can understand why people would question that, I certainly do. But, one can argue that The Hunger Games is also derivative of The Running Man, The Long Walk, The Lottery, Lord of the Flies, and on and on. The point is, it’s an endless debate. And if you don’t believe that, go spend some time on an IMDB message board.
In the end though, they are two very different takes on a similar idea and both are worth checking out. And for those crying foul, Battle Royale is getting some great publicity out of this and no doubt reaching a much larger audience now than ever before. That’s a good thing.