The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)
Terence Malick’s desecration of James Jones’ greatest novel, The Thin Red Line, sits at #4 on my list of the one hundred worst movies of all time. While the catalog of faults there are to be found with the film is approximately the length of the average encyclopedia, there’s one glaring problem with the thing that always stands out in my head: it ends halfway through the book. Well, almost. That truncated speech George Clooney shows up to give five minutes before the end of the movie? That is the exact halfway point of the novel. They compressed the entire second half of a six-hundred-plus page novel into five minutes of screen time. Now, given that, what do you expect I’m going to say about The Hunger Games? I grant you, the compression wasn’t that drastic, but you’re talking about a movie that runs over two hours (and, it should be noted—this may be considered a spoiler alert, but I don’t give a damn—the last eight minutes of the movie are credits. Eight minutes of end credits.), and Katniss and Peeta don’t find that cave until there’s less than forty minutes of movie left (and eight minutes of that are end credits)? Doubleyou-tee-eff, Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins?
For this paragraph, you can simply cut and paste everything I wrote in my review of the novel re: how similar it is to Battle Royale, though the movie highlighted a key point in the difference between the two I hadn’t really considered before: one of the reasons Takami Koshoun’s book is so successful at what it does is the razor-sharp satire. The film adaptation of it, while not nearly as successful as the book, takes the satire and jacks it up a few notches, to the point where portions of the movie are flat-out comedy. (That first scene in the abandoned classroom? That’s an exercise in tension in the book. In the movie, it’s comedy gold—it’s the movie’s best scene.) Collins’ novel certainly has satirical qualities, but she traded most of the satire to go the dystopian-fiction route. This is neither a surprise, in today’s YA literary culture, nor necessarily a bad thing; I thought it worked well in the novel. In this adaptation, by comparison, all of the satire has been leached out. This thing is serious as a heart attack. Even Haymitch is clean and well-coiffed throughout, which is kinda ridiculous if you’re the town drunk. And the dead-flat seriousness serves to highlight the superiority of BR. This is SENSITIVE DYSTOPIAN FICTION DAMMIT, PAY ATTENTION. Oh, for the love of pete. Give it a rest. If you don’t know people are watching this movie for the sheer joy of watching teenagers beat on one another, you’ve kind of missed the entire point.
I’m blaming that one solely on Collins, because Ross, once he got behind the camera and started directing this silly thing, obviously did not forget that, and as a result the movie’s main strengths are its action sequences. This is not necessarily a surprise (Seabiscuit, anyone?). That first scene at the Cornucopia… but I’m getting ahead of myself.
NOTE: the plot summary may be construed to contain spoilers based on how the novel unfolds, but they were things mentioned up front in the movie (I am assuming the script was written based on “everyone who’s going to go see this already read the book, so…”); if you have done neither, you may want to do one or the other before reading and/or skip the next paragraph.
Plot: Panem is a post-apocalyptic America that, since an uprising almost seventy-five years ago, has been separated into twelve districts. The higher the number, the poorer the district. Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone‘s Jennifer Lawrence) lives with the remains of her family in District 12 (in modern-day America, this is the rural Appalachians), whose main function in Panem is the mining of coal. Katniss’ father was a coal miner; he died in an industrial accident years before the opening of the film, which sent her mother (Tombstone‘s Paula Malcomson) spiralling into a depression from which she has never emerged, leaving Katniss and her younger sister Primrose (Beyond the Blackboard‘s Willow Shields, whom I believe has the distinction of being the first actor I have ever named in a review to have been born in the 2000s) to care for her. Katniss makes her living as a hunter beyond the bounds of the District. It’s forbidden, and if she and her hunting partner Gale (Knowing‘s Liam Hemsworth) ever get caught they’ll be in dutch, but no one who actually lives there cares; Katniss is well-known for being willing to barter her excess meat, and in fact the town’s mayor is one of her best customers. All of which is minor details, really, as Panem, every year, holds the Hunger Games, a countrywide battle royale to which each district sends one male and one female according to a lottery with a complex system of entries. To make a long story short (the movie sure did), Primrose is chosen, and Katniss volunteers in her place. Peeta Mellark (Bridge to Terabithia‘s Josh Hutcherson) (and I don’t have a copy of the book close to hand, but I swear that last name was spelled “Malark” in the book) is her male counterpart, and the two of them are whisked off to District One, the capital city. (In the book, it is obvious this is in the Rocky Mountains; I always assumed it was Denver, for some reason.) They’re being coached, somewhat, by Haymitch (Now You See Me‘s Woody Harrelson), the last person from District 12 to win the Hunger Games, and now the town roustabout. He doesn’t often come up with good advice, but the two of them learn quickly that when he does, it’s very wise to heed. For soon, they and twenty-two other teenagers are going to be sent into a coliseum, and only one can emerge alive.
…and thus, back to the action sequences. The entire second half of the movie, really, is one long action sequence with a few lulls, but there are a few pieces that really stick out. The opening sequence at the Cornucopia I mentioned up top may actually be the best scene in the movie, though Ross, unsurprisingly, glosses and soft-focuses a good deal of the violence therein; The Hunger Games was mandated as PG-13 rather than the hard-R of Battle Royale (or, more amusingly, 2010’s Tomorrow, When the War Began—which is also based on a teen dystopian-fiction novel). There’s a riot, which IMDB’s trivia section notes was shot by “second unit director Steven Soderbergh”, and when’s the last time you heard that phrase?, that punctuates things nicely as well. Granted, you will get more out of these scenes if you’ve read the book, especially the climax. I’m tempted to offer the hypothesis that if you haven’t read the book, in fact, the climax will seem a bit on the senseless side—they removed a lot of the context from the second half of the novel that gives the climax the punch it has in print.
As for the acting, well, I just gave you the tip of the iceberg, though what a tip it is; Jennifer Lawrence can seemingly do anything. (I mean, she made The House at the End of the Street almost bearable.) And she holds her own against a case that also includes Donald Sutherland, Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Alexander Ludwig, Stanley Tucci, and Jacqueline Emerson, among others. (You don’t know that last name yet. You will.) To be succinct, which I haven’t done too well in this review so far, everyone does the best with what they were given, really. The problem is, what they were given is so much less than it could have been. **
Long-form (4:11!) teaser trailer. Now, I haven’t had TV since November 2011, and I had seen trailers for The Hunger Games at least a dozen times by the time it was released. But just in case you still haven’t seen one…