Welcome to Hunger Games week on the blog. In honor of the film’s release, I’ll be posting about The Hunger Games and related matters in every major post this week – Media Mondays, Writing Wednesdays, and Fangirl Fridays. Today’s post is all about the movie itself – how it held up compared to the original book, how well it stands up on its own, and my assorted and sundry thoughts. For the first few paragraphs, I’ll do my best to avoid spoilers, but later on I’ll be discussing specific details.
For those of you who haven’t yet read the book, here’s a summary: Years from now, in the wake of climate shifts and major turmoil, North America has been reinvented as Panem, a highly stratified and oppressive society ruled from a city known simply as the Capitol. Nearly a century prior to the events of the book, the thirteen geographic districts that lie outside the Capitol rose up in rebellion. In the course of the war, District 13 was wiped off the map, and the Capitol successfully cracked down on all the rest. As punishment for the rebellion, the Capitol demands tributes from each district every year – one boy and one girl, selected at random (though others can volunteer to take their places) – who are taken into the Capitol itself for parades and pageantry before they are at last thrown into a vast arena where they must fight to the death in a massive televised event. The last tribute standing wins a lifetime of wealth and comfort, and their home district receives extra food and supplies for the following year. These are the Hunger Games.
The book – and its sequels – follow Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl from District 12, which is chiefly responsible for Panem’s coal supplies. In the seventy-fourth year of the Hunger Games, Katniss’s sister Primrose is, by sheer chance, selected as tribute, and Katniss immediately volunteers to save Prim from the Games. What follows is quite possibly one of the harrowing young adult novels I’ve ever read, and a frightening and frequently heartbreaking portrayal of a dystopian future. The story and the world it inhabits are deepened by frequent references to Greco-Roman mythology and history: from the very concept of the tributes (which brings the legend of Theseus to mind) to the frequent use of Roman names, the influence of Roman culture on the nation of Panem (the name itself not only a corruption, presumably, of “Pan-America,” but also a sly reference to the Latin phrase panem et circenses, commonly translated today as “bread and circuses“) is crystal clear. The influence is even more pronounced in the world of the film – but I’ll get to that.
I have to admit that I was extremely nervous when the film was first announced, and more so when I saw the initial photos of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen – heavily airbrushed and altered, until Lawrence was barely recognizable as herself, let alone poor, unfortunate Katniss – published in Entertainment Weekly. The various subsequent interviews with the cast and crew, coupled with the initial trailers, laid many of those fears to rest. The first few minutes of the film destroyed those fears completely. Jennifer Lawrence embodies Katniss, and the rest of the cast is at least serviceable, if not always superb. (Young Amandla Stenberg is the perfect Rue. Liam Hemsworth is a great Gale, even if we don’t see much of him and the brief glimpses we do get are somewhat overwrought. Elizabeth Banks feels a bit underused as Effie Trinket. And if I keep going, I’ll be at this all day.) District 12 and the Capitol are captured vividly. The film hits many of the major points of the book, and in some places, surpasses it.
That said, it is very, very difficult for a film to capture a novel in its entirety – between limited budgets, limited running times, and the need to draw in and entertain complete newcomers as well as existing fans, the transition from page to screen can be very rough indeed. The Hunger Games does show some signs of this strain. The core of my concerns with the film can be summed up in Mightygodking‘s one-sentence review. The book benefits from the fact that it’s written in the first person. We remain firmly ensconced in Katniss’s head. We see what she’s thinking at all times. The film doesn’t give us that internal monologue, and so, at times, Katniss is inscrutable, and her poor acting and awkward moments come off as failures on Jennifer Lawrence’s part when – in fact – she stays completely true to the character.
As a fan of the books, I enjoyed the film immensely, but I must also concede that it’s an incomplete adaptation in places, and my knowledge of the book may be filling in some serious gaps in the story as conveyed in the movie. I would still recommend the film to viewers who have not yet read the original books – but I would also heartily recommend that they read the books as soon as possible.
Let’s look at a few of the specifics. WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW.
First, let’s look at one of the central elements of the books: the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta Mellark (her fellow District 12 tribute) and Gale Hawthorne (Katniss’s best friend and partner in hunting and gathering outside District 12’s boundary). Other reviewers have noted that these relationships fall a bit flat and feel a bit hollow, and I have to concede the point – with a caveat: the fact of the matter is that this love triangle isn’t really developed in the first book. It takes Katniss a long time to come to terms with her feelings for both young men – to recognize that she has those feelings at all. In the first book, she is driven first by her need to survive the Games and return to her family; later, she develops some sympathy toward Peeta, and when the organizers of the Games announce a change in the rules which will allow them both to survive, she becomes determined to save his life as well. While it’s virtually impossible not to read between the lines and take note of Katniss’s growing romantic feelings toward Peeta, they’re really not a huge part of the events of The Hunger Games itself. And, frankly, while the love triangle is certainly important, it’s not really the main thrust of any of the books.
The movie makes some missteps here. First, and most notably, a lot of weight is placed on the love triangle, and it doesn’t come off well. Every time Katniss grows close to Peeta, we flash back to District 12, where Gale is staring moodily at the television, watching them getting cozy in the midst of the Games. The audience at the showing I attended laughed every time this happened, no matter what else was going on or what had just occurred. It caused some serious mood dissonance and really took me out of the world of the film.
Second, as I noted earlier, we don’t really get to see into Katniss’s head here. Jennifer Lawrence is playing the character as she was in the books. Fans of the books will undoubtedly pick up on this. Newcomers will not. They’ll see a Katniss who’s acting awkward and cold and strange for no apparent reason. The film does not convey her inner conflict, her true feelings, her innermost thoughts at all. And in that, it fails, and the failure is most notable whenever the love triangle comes into play.
Katniss’s relationship with Peeta – and the way that relationship develops over the course of the Games, and more importantly the things Katniss does to promote that relationship to the Games’ audience – is a vitally important plot point. It had to be included, one way or another. But by shoehorning in Gale’s reactions, by failing to show us what’s actually going on, the film fell short. It was a pretty damn great literal adaptation, but we needed more than a literal adaptation. We needed to see the spirit of the books captured on film. And the movie hasn’t done that – not entirely.
The greatest failure of the movie, however, is this: it fails to convey just how dire the situation in Panem is, and what precisely the Games mean. The movie doesn’t explain that the districts, through their tributes, are literally competing for their survival (or at least a better chance at survival in the coming year) – the true reason for the name “Hunger Games”. The movie spends so much time in the Capitol, with all its garish colors and ostentatious glory, that we don’t even really see how bad the situation in District 12 is, let alone the situation in the rest of Panem. The film shows us the Capitol’s pageantry and cruelty in spades, but it doesn’t go far enough. The moments and the conversations that lay out the history and the present status of Panem simply aren’t there.
That said, there were some absolutely fantastic moments in the film. The death of the youngest tribute, Rue, who had by that time teamed up with Katniss in the arena, is particularly moving. I have to confess that I didn’t really cry at that scene when I read it in the original book. I got a little sniffly, but for some reason my imagination failed to capture the full poignancy of the scene. When it happened in the movie, I broke down sobbing. When, in the movie, the image of Rue lying in a meadow, dead and covered in the flowers Katniss has gathered, prompted open rebellion in District 11 (Rue’s home district, and Panem’s agricultural center), I just started crying even harder. This is a scene we don’t see in the book – District 11 doesn’t rebel at Rue’s death, at least not right away. Instead, they send Katniss a gift (something that sponsors outside the arena can do, but at great cost): a loaf of bread that she recognizes as coming from District 11 because of an earlier, seemingly irrelevant scene in the book. Because that scene, too, was removed from the movie, the riot is a far more effective turn of events…and, honestly, it heightens Katniss’s isolation from her world. She has no idea what she’s done, what effect her actions have had. She doesn’t realize that she is the tipping point for a possible revolution, that Panem’s President and the people who run her society are genuinely afraid of her. And that’s precisely as it should be.
And, while we lose Katniss’s voice, we gain new and truly fascinating perspectives. In a significant subplot, we follow Seneca Crane, the man in charge of the Hunger Games, as he discusses them, organizes them, alters them, and deals with the demands of his audience as well as the demands of those in power, personified in Panem’s President Snow. At the end, Seneca fails to contain the force he has unleashed. He has failed to counter Katniss’s final gambit, the move that breaks the Games themselves. And at the very end of his story, we see him escorted into a room, locked in, and left alone with a dish full of poisonous berries. It’s a perfect moment. It recalls the death of Socrates, and thus, a moment that was only mentioned in passing in the books – and not even in The Hunger Games itself – is given new weight and tied in perfectly with Panem’s Greco-Roman-themed society.
In conclusion, I would recommend the film. I don’t think it’s completely impossible for a newcomer to follow: to the contrary, I think a newcomer could follow it quite well. The changes from the book are largely necessary, and serve to streamline the story. It’s a good movie, any way you slice it. Hopefully it will bring a lot of new fans to the books. And, as I said, as one of the series’ existing fans, I loved the movie. It brought many of the book’s most compelling moments to life, and it offered some very nice bonuses to loyal fans. But it wasn’t perfect. It wasn’t complete. See the movie – but make sure you read the books. Trust me. They’re worth it.