The Hunger Games
Reviewed by Eliza DoLots
If this isn’t the best adaptation of a book to movie ever, well…there’s a great movie I’ve missed somewhere along the way. Or maybe there was a great adaptation of a book I didn’t want to read. Or maybe after a decade plus of Harry Potter movies, I forgot that screen adaptations can be this good. Whatever the truth, this is an excellent screen adaptation.
As almost everyone on the planet must know by now, The Hunger Games is the first book in a three book series aimed at the teen market. Like many such books (the Potter series, Twilight, etc.) it has been embraced—if slightly less obsessively—by adults.
The series is set in post-apocalyptic North America. The wealthy are congregated in a small area called The Capitol and the rest of the nation, divided into specialized districts, provides for their comfort. At least once in the past (75 years before the story is set) one district attempted a rebellion and was, apparently, destroyed. To prevent such a thing from happening again, the citizens of The Capitol use their technology and power to terrorize the citizens of the districts. The main method of inducing terror is an annual sacrifice of children of the districts for the purpose of entertaining the citizens of The Capitol. A boy and girl from each district, between the ages of 12 and 18, are selected at random. The “tributes” are paraded before TV cameras, dressed up like super stars and transformed into celebrities. They are then pitted against each other in a televised fight to the death. Only one will survive. Tributes are selected—on national TV—in a ceremony called The Reaping. The sole victor wins a lifetime of luxury and a year of increased food and comfort for his/her district. It is permissible for another child to volunteer to take the place of the child selected.
This is how Katniss Everdeen, the resilient, resourceful heroine of the series, gets into the Games: her younger sister’s name is chosen and she steps forward to volunteer.
The book is a first person narrative. Her angry, somewhat angsty inner monologue resonates well with the reader—no doubt particularly so with those in their teens. But, first person is a difficult approach for a movie. The filmmakers have wisely gone with a more traditional narrative structure. The result is a deeper, broader telling of the story. Since we are not restricted to Katniss’ experiences, we can better see the real horror of The Capitol.
For all her hardened cynicism, book Katniss still seems to believe in The Games. She seems convinced that while there is manipulation of the situation, it is, at its heart, an honest competition amongst the tributes. By stepping out of Katniss’ experiences, we are able to watch the production of the televised broadcast. This reveals a manipulation far beyond what Katniss imagines, presenting us with adults gleefully plotting the televised death of a child for entertainment.
In the book, Katniss is somewhat blind to the greater workings of The Capitol. She appreciates, and even befriends, those who help prepare her for her role. She sees the kindness and silliness of the Capitol citizens while missing the extreme machinations which control her life. Because of that, the readers are also a bit blind until the story reaches a point where Katniss sees for herself what is happening. The movie removes that blindfold and shows the viewer things Katniss will not see for quite some time. Because of that, the movie has managed to get much further in the story than the book did.
As the third book does not lend itself easily to being adapted for screen, this early advancing of the plot serves the movie series well. Much of what seemed strange or difficult in the third book is already being addressed. I’m confident the second movie will continue this trend and hopefully give us a third movie that is more coherent and focused than the third book.
One thing we do lose by switching out of the first person is Katniss’ misunderstanding of the other characters. In the book she is often completely wrong about what is motivating them, creating conflicts that need to be resolved. In the movie the characters seem a bit more open and easy to read. Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss, gives the best performance of the younger actors. Her terror just before being sent into the arena is palpable in a way I did not get from the book.
Woody Harrelson, as a former Hunger Games victor and mentor to the tributes, gives the standout performance of the movie. His Haymitch is significantly more likeable than the book. His drunkenness is not highlighted to the same degree and his realization that Katniss might have a chance of winning comes much earlier. All this is good because it gives Harrelson the opportunity to portray Haymitch as intelligent and thoughtful from almost the beginning.
There is minimal CGI in this movie, especially when compared to the Potter and Twilight movies. I find that a plus because bad CGI (and, inevitably, there’s one bit of really bad CGI) takes me out of the movie. Just about every Potter movie has that moment when I think “oh, look at that blurry place where Voldemort’s nose used to be.” The Hunger Games avoids that pitfall. The weakest CGI happens to be characters that are shown to be computer generated in the movie. By that I mean, they are computer created creatures put into the arena to terrorize and kill the tributes. The fact that they look computer generated fits very nicely with the story.
That’s just one of many very smart changes made in transitioning the story to the screen. Another is the elevation of “the interviewer” who introduces the tributes to the citizens of The Capitol. Caesar Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci) becomes the host of the Games in the movie. In that position he can provide us much of the information Katniss gave us in the book.
The movie of The Hunger Games has done exactly what a screen adaptation should do. It tells the entire story in a way more appropriate for the medium of film. It does not require that anyone have read the book to follow the story. No one will be left wondering what something was or why something happened (unlike most of the Potter movies which often required a trip to the internet to fill in the blanks for those who had not read the books). More than that, it highlights the aspects of the book which are most intriguing to the older members of the audience, taking it firmly out of the realm of “kid movie.”
Certainly this is not a story for everyone, but for those who appreciate a believable post-apocalyptic tale—one in which some semblance of our technological evolution survives and that forces us to ask questions about who we have fight our wars—its a well done, engaging movie.
Galen's review of the movie.
Galen's review of the book trilogy.
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