The Hunger Games (2012) – Full Review with Spoilers
April 10, 2012
The Hunger Games (2012) – Full Review with Spoilers
“I keep wishing I could think of a way to…to show the Capitol that they don’t own me. That I’m more than just a piece in their Games.”
Synopsis: “In a post-apocalyptic future, the nation of Panem is controlled by a highly advanced metropolis called ‘The Capitol.’ As a symbol of their absolute power, two teenage ‘Tributes’ (one boy and one girl) are chosen from each of the twelve Districts to fight in the annual Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death. When Katniss Everdeen volunteers to save her younger sister from the Games, her chances of survival seem slim. But Katniss has a secret – she knows how to survive.”
This review has spoilers. If you haven’t seen the movie (or are planning on reading the book), please see my ‘spoiler-free review’.
The Hunger Games has our attention. Despite numerous attempts to apply a ‘teen-pop-movie’ stamp and shove it into a box next to Harry Potter or Twilight, The Hunger Games refuses to be branded. This is greatly due to the success of Suzanne Collins’ book series, which has a surprisingly mature message despite its simple prose. I thoroughly enjoyed Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy and was quite pleased with the film adaptation.
Overall, the movie is quite good. The casting was great, especially Jennifer Lawrence. I was extremely impressed with Gary Ross’ directing and sound-editing. Several of the biggest moments in the film are practically silent, with little to no dialog and no music to support what’s going on. This is an incredibly bold move. As an audience member, I’m used to a soundtrack guiding my emotion through a scene and magnifying its impact. But here, the absence of sound is jarring, especially during the fight scenes. There is no narrative voice telling us what to think, no orchestral mediator helping us process the carnage, we’re simply thrust into the chaos with Katniss and allowed to experience the same terror.
As I mentioned in my previous review, The Hunger Games film takes on the role of “show” over “tell.” Instead of featuring long conversations about the poverty and oppression in the Districts in comparison to the vast wealth and privilege in The Capitol, the film simply lets us observe the difference. There’s no monologue comparing the Games to the Roman Colosseum, or comments on the animalistic viciousness the teens resort to, it simply unfolds before us and asks us to make intelligent conclusions. Those who haven’t read the books will probably find its lack of comments bizarre and perhaps even a ‘missed opportunity at saying something profound.’ But as a fan of the book, I was moved by its silence; the jarring chaos and striking images carry their own weight.
What didn’t work?
‘It was too short.’ This is the typical response of every book-to-movie fan, but another 10-20 minutes would’ve helped the film immensely. After talking with people who hadn’t read the book first, it seems that The Hunger Games film is tailored for fans of the book instead of the average movie-goer. A number of points go virtually unexplained, leaving questions like “what happened to the USA? Why is it Panem now?” Or “where is Katniss going when she cuts through the fence? To another District?” Or even “if The Capitol is bad, why don’t they all just revolt?” – While these don’t seem terribly important to enjoying the movie, failing to nail down the finer points of The Capitol’s oppression erodes the incredible importance of Katniss and Peeta’s act of defiance with the berries. Especially when some of these gaps could have been filled with a single line of dialog.
1. Katniss’ survival skills are so unique because she’s been hunting illegally.
Self-reliance is one of the major themes throughout The Hunger Games. When The Capitol forces the Districts to depend on food shipments, Katniss saves her family from starvation by hunting. Missing the fact that A: hunting of any kind is illegal, and B: Katniss is highly skilled at it, fails to establish what makes Katniss so unique: her equipped defiance. Katniss isn’t just uniquely equipped to survive in the Games, she’s a symbol of independence, self-reliance, and hope. “The Girl on Fire.” – While the film hinted at this, failing to clearly establish hunting as illegal and Katniss’ resolve to do it anyway detracts from the power of her defiance.
2. “Let’s blow up the supplies for the fun of it!”
(…actually, its so the Careers will starve to death.)
As I just established, Katniss was (essentially) the only Tribute who knew how to live off the land in the arena. The Career’s knew how to fight, but not how to survive. Destroying their pile of supplies meant starvation. This was never acknowledged in the film, leaving the audience to wonder why Katniss would risk her life (and Rue’s) by trying to blow up their pile of food. A simple line over a meal of roasted squirrel would do it: “we could survive for months out here, but the Career’s wouldn’t last a week without their supplies.” Omitting this detail when it could’ve been solved so easily strikes me as obtuse.
3. Katniss and Peeta bond in the cave.
This is the big one. I didn’t notice it at first, but my wife pointed out that this is one of the key moments in the entire series. Katniss and Peeta’s experience in the cave is not just important for the ending of book one, but begins a very distinct and mature shift in Katniss’ character development. Up until this point, Katniss is uninterested in teaming up with Peeta or anyone else who cannot assist her in winning. Her only goal is winning the Games so she can return home and take care of her sister, Prim. But when Katniss sees Peeta bleeding to death in the cave, she decides to care for him, even though this is extremely difficult for her. In short: She accepts Peeta as one of her own, even though protecting him jeopardizes her own survival.
This is an incredibly important point of development because Katniss is the quintessential ‘self-sufficient-American-Hero”. She is intelligent, dangerous, and completely independent. Yet in the arena of death, she learns to care for someone other than herself. Its an important step in her coming of age story and matures her character in a very interesting way.
The film failed to do this on multiple levels. A: It didn’t establish any foreshadowing that Peeta was seriously injured. B: Peeta’s wound didn’t look so bad and they made no mention of infection or ‘blood poisoning’ (we’re used to seeing our movie heroes take unrealistically gruesome wounds and keep going without a problem.) C: They didn’t have enough time in the cave and Katniss’ desperate banging on the hovercraft door was cut. – Most of these could have been resolved with one or two lines of dialog, though it could’ve greatly benefited from an additional 5-10 minutes.
4. The Cost of War.
The Hunger Games trilogy is not easy on its characters. They suffer wounds, scars, severe emotional trauma, and in Peeta’s case, amputation. After the Games, Peeta is given an artificial leg and never walks normally again. This was a shocking and completely unexpected twist. Hunger Games reminds us that there is a high cost to violence and warfare, even when its done for noble reasons. Leaving Peeta intact and virtually unscathed lessened the impact of this idea, weakening the bond that Katniss and Peeta share because of their traumatic experience.
Themes: Violence, Dystopian Oppression, Independence, etc.
The Hunger Games covers a lot of territory: violence, severe poverty, oppression, dystopian societies, government, justice, revolution, freedom, reality-television, coming of age, grief, PTSD, and the cost of war. I can’t possibly tackle all of that in one film review. (I am open to writing a book review if you want one.) If you’d like to read more on themes in Hunger Games: check wikipedia. If you’d like more on Katniss as the archetypal “American Adam,” here’s a great article at the NY Times.
A lot of people comment on the violence: “kids killing each other? That sounds sick.” I respond “that’s exactly the point.” – Similar to Lord of the Flies or Rollerball, Suzanne Collins is making a statement about humanity’s potential for bloodlust and evil. The Romans once oppressed the masses but appeased their appetites by entertaining them with “bread and circuses,” leading crowds to cheer on gladiatorial matches and voting on whether a combatant should live or die. While our reality-tv generation isn’t there (yet), we jeer as real people argue, fight, and destroy each others lives and reputations on national television. All in the name of entertainment. – On a related note, Suzanne Collins named her fictional nation ‘Panem,’ after the Roman phrase panem et circenses (bread and circuses). She is making a very deliberate comparison to ancient Rome and sounding the warning bell that this could happen again.
The Hunger Games made the transition from page to screen incredibly well. The cast, visuals, editing, and sound (or the intentional lack thereof) is top notch. There’s been some bizarre media-buzz about miscasting but don’t pay any attention to that. Normally, I’d overlook a film’s edits and omissions, but its mind-boggling that so many holes could’ve been addressed with a single line of dialog. I am hopeful for a Hunger Games: Directors Cut that includes an extra 15-20 minutes and fills in some of the bumps.