Movie Review: The Hunger Games
By Eric Hughes
April 17, 2012

Cheers was already in Season 9 when you were born!

My 60-year-old aunt was privy to The Hunger Games long before just about everybody. At least, I can remember the time she tried selling me the story to get me to read it, and it wasn’t until a good deal later - a year, I think - before I ran into even a second opinion about the book.

You see, she only recently retired from headmaster librarian at a middle school, and as such, part of what made her so sage-like in her profession was the many ways in which she enriched her brain not only for her own sake, but for her clients - the students - too.

She may still hold her position, but the fact of the matter is at the time The Hunger Games was released, she was part of a committee that read droves of young adult books - perhaps a hundred - and then voted on its favorites. The point of the committee, it seems, was to select the year’s best.

I don’t know if The Hunger Games won in the year it was eligible to do so, and it doesn’t seem to matter, really, but out of the many, many books she read in 2008, The Hunger Games happened to be one of only a handful she bothered to tell me about when I, years later, had asked her for some reading suggestions.

What she recalled about the story stoked my interest, but at the time - and it holds true, come to think - I didn’t have much experience with young adult fiction, and I didn’t really know if I wanted to bother with it. Though certainly true of any genre, young adult seems hit or miss. And then, I guess, I kinda forgot about the book.

Cut to about a year later. I’m at a friend’s house, and on her bookshelf are The Hunger Games and its two sequels.

Not soon long after, I ravaged her copies of The Hunger Games, Chasing Fire and Mockingjay, in succession. Bing bang boom. My aunt was right; the series was surprisingly good, and leaps ahead of the last young adult series I had read (Twilight). For the record: I liked Twilight’s story, but I don’t know that I’ll be reading more Stephenie Meyer bunk.

Anyway, as much as I enjoyed The Hunger Games, I’ve found I’ve become less and less interested in Hollywood adaptations of books I happened to love. The gripe that “the movies are never as good as the books” might be exhausted and overused, but I think it so very true. Slumdog Millionaire was definitely better than Q&A, and I’m pretty sure I preferred the Coens’ handling of No Country for Old Men over Cormac McCarthy’s. Of late, I think those might be the only times Hollywood outdid a story’s originator. Maybe.

So no, I wasn’t fanboy excited about The Hunger Games movie, but I will say I was curious. That Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci had signed on for parts seemed about right - while reading The Hunger Games, actually, I went back and forth conjuring images of Stanley or John Malkovich for the Caesar Flickerman scenes - and then Lenny Kravitz had me smiling. Woody Harrelson seemed a young choice for Haymitch, and Donald Sutherland wasn’t who I had in mind for President Snow (Malcolm McDowell), but Woody was a reliable, workable selection and Donald Sutherland would probably make sense.

As you may have noticed, I didn’t have much to think or say about the “kids,” even though their characters are what really drive the story in The Hunger Games. I had no idea who the actor portraying Gale was(and still don't), I was familiar with Josh Hutcherson from The Kids Are All Right, and I hadn’t seen Winter’s Bone so I didn’t know what to make of Jennifer Lawrence. (I still haven’t seen Winter’s Bone).

As promising as The Hunger Games’ “adult” cast might have seemed to me, I can say with a great deal of confidence that having now seen The Hunger Games, Jennifer Lawrence bested any actor, full-grown or otherwise. She embodies and is Katniss Everdeen, and portrayed the young heroine like a subtle firecracker.

Just today I shared a conversation with a friend, and we agreed that the bit of scene where Cinna says goodbye to Katniss - she then hesitates before riding up the platform into the games’ arena - was momentous and beautiful. It was about as flawless as can be, and I have no doubt it’s Lawrence - her body language, and her closemouthed acknowledgement of the horrors that might materialize
upstairs - that got it there.

Cinna (Kravitz) is Katniss’ personal stylist for the games, and I expected him to be a more prominent character than he is in The Hunger Games. From what I remember from the books, at least, I recall him being like a second mentor, after Haymitch, for Katniss. He believes in her, he certainly trusts her, and in the end promises to distinguish her from the other 23 participants in the games.

He makes good on that promise, I think, but at the expense of really not being a major player in the movie. I don’t know that I’d express such disappointment in Cinna’s character were it not for the fact that in the few scenes he does share with Katniss, he’s something of a predatory creepster. He seems to consider Katniss desirable, and from what I remember, that wasn’t suggested in the books. I’d argue if Cinna had appeared more, we would have witnessed hard scenes of him at work on his trade, making Katniss beautiful and proving his worth to the games and, in effect, to the Capitol. This might have expunged such heavy concentration of Lenny Kravitz eye oogling the crap out of Katniss.

But this kind of thing, really, is the medium’s shortfall, and probably the reason why the books are usually better than the movies. Had more content been included, The Hunger Games would have run even longer than 142 minutes. And The Hunger Games is a long 142 minutes.

Authors get away with much anything they please, so long as they keep mindful of their audience, and their readers engaged. George R.R. Martin writes entire Bibles each time he adds to his Song of Ice and Fire series, and yet it is debatable that he succeeds each time. Abbreviate, say, the 800 or so pages of A Game of Thrones into a two-hour (even a three-hour) movie, and it probably wouldn’t work. There’s too much “stuff” in A Game of Thrones for it to have even a believable chance as a theatrical adaptation. HBO had the right idea to adapt the books to series, but I can’t much speak for it because I haven’t seen the show.

But back to The Hunger Games. It’s rooted in a slimmer story (less than 400 pages) than A Game of Thrones, and by the Law of Less Pages to Reform for Film, stood a better chance at making work a two-hour movie.

And yet there’s something mighty stilted about The Hunger Games. It seems much of the time to include things for the sake of Hollywood completing an adaptation, rather than a true sense of it connecting the dots for effectiveness.

Cinna I’ve already considered. The other character that bothered me is Rue. She, even more so than Cinna, was hugely significant for Katniss in the book. Late in the games, she became an important ally for Katniss. And in an epic fight to the death, allies are probably key.

I kid you not, I got up to go to the bathroom about the time Rue proposed the idea to Katniss to exploit the mockingjays to their advantage, and by the time I returned, Rue had just about gotten impaled by a deadly weapon. All so remarkably quick.

Much of the movie was like this for me. I felt rushed, from one scene to the next, so long as cohesive story was had. I mean, reflect on the climax when Katniss and Peeta decide to Romeo and Juliet it by ending the games with dual deaths by poisonous berries. In literally the same beat, they learn the Capitol reversed its decision to endorse two winners, they concoct the berries plan, and then the Capitol contradicts its orders again by permitting two winners. It’s too zippy.

For what it’s worth, Katniss might be in just about every scene of the film, but she doesn’t narrate the thing in the way she first-person’s the book. This frees up its interpreters to embellish some things that weren’t at that point described - i.e. scenes and moments without an
accounted for Katniss - like the games’ control room with its Minority Report-like computing system.

Running point in the control room is lead game tech Seneca Crane, portrayed by Wes Bentley. And if you’re like me, it won’t be until his second (perhaps third) scene that the man behind that striking beard is the same man who played the tormented son of a self-loathing colonel in American Beauty. It was a bit of an “ah-ha” for me, as I don’t know that I’ve seen Wes in the dozen or so years that transpired between the releases of American Beauty and The Hunger Games.

Is it me, or did that whole control room deal feel like a poor man’s take on Christof’s moon lab in The Truman Show?

But I digress. The Hunger Games’ budget seemed lower than it should have been - in a Twilight kind of way - but, in hindsight, the executives could never have imagined that The Hunger Games would take in $150 million-some its opening weekend.

I do think the adaptation fair, and I think I’ll probably see the next one. I just pray for a follow up that doesn’t think it needs to maneuver about so hastily.