Movie Review: The Hunger Games, PART 2

TGIF again, friends! This was supposed to go up Wednesday, but I guess I had a lot more to say than I thought. Let's go right to the meat of this post because it's another long one.

Last week, I told you all the things I LIKED about The Hunger Games movie. In this PART 2 of my review, I'm going to tell you where the movie disappointed, and why I liked it but have mixed feelings about it.


*SPOILERS* after the movie poster.

Standard disclaimer: I'm actually NOT one of those super nitpicky people who are near impossible to satisfy with book-to-movie adaptations. I get that books and movies are totally different mediums. So you know, I don't mind if they cut or change things to make the movie flow better - as long as it's true to the book's spirit.

That said, I did LIKE the movie. I just thought it could've been a lot better. *Warning* Serious Wall of Text below or just skip to the end for the TL;DR conclusion.


NITPICKY BITS (Let's start with the small, not-so-problematic things, shall we?)
  • Fashion: While I loved the wacky, colorful fashion of the Capitol and the impeccably kooky-yet-chic Effie Trinket, the Tributes (including our MCs) had disappointing costumes. I get that they're supposed to look a little ridiculous, but the book makes a point about the importance of fashion/presentation to survival. As such, I didn't expect the Tributes to look quite so clownish.
Did we walk in on an 80s prom?
  • Katniss' outfits were particularly disappointing. They didn't speak to the elegant yet bold -and most importantly, iconic- designs that made Cinna such an asset to her in the Games and beyond.
In Alz's head: District 12 on fire!
Movie: District 12 sort-of-on-fire!
Too much twirling is awkward. Katniss, please stop!
  • Boy With the Bread flashback: I think from a non-reader perspective, it's unclear what's going on. It's not exactly clear in the scene that Katniss is, you know, starving and that Peeta's gesture of kindness was not just kind but also LIFE SAVING. The teasery piece-meal presentation only added to the confusion.

Explanations of some plot points were vague, and I think that was because the filmmakers over-relied on fan knowledge. We subconsciously brought a lot of HG background with us to the film.
  • Sponsorship: It's explained in a roundabout way; we're given pieces of information to string together, and it's not emphasized enough to make it seem as important as it is. The silver parachutes aren't mentioned before the first one comes floating down to Katniss in the Arena.
    • Not emphasizing sponsorship took away from big themes of the book - how dehumanized the Tributes are, how the lines between real life and entertainment have been blurred. You kind of lose WHY it's so important for Katniss and Peeta to play along in this twisted Capitol game, WHY their star-crossed love is important as a strategy, WHY she has to make an impression, and WHY the Careers resent her so much for getting hype and attention. It's not just jealousy.
  • Effie Trinket: I don't think it's actually stated in the movie what Effie's role is. All we know is that she's the Capitol's mouthpiece at the Reaping & then she just...hangs around?

Some of the supporting players had glossed over character development, partly due to time restraints, but I felt like some of this could have been clarified with just an extra line or two.
  • Haymitch enters the movie as a grumpy drunk, unwilling to give Peeta and Katniss the time of day, but the next day, he's gruffly being all mentor-like & less drunk! There's no real transformation because the movie alters the scene where he explicitly acknowledges their spirit & agrees to stop drinking in order to train them. This important line is gone.
  • Cinna: Book!Katniss takes a quick liking to Cinna, but their relationship in the movie feels rushed. Cinna immediately separates himself from other Capitol citizens by offering Katniss sympathy instead of false congratulations, but the line in the book (left out in the movie) about how he chose District 12 said something more about the core of his character.
  • Peeta: I loved Josh's Peeta, but he is less complex in the movie. They chose to emphasize his goodness & kindness because Katniss needs a trustworthy ally, so I get the rationale behind this. However, I missed the nuances of book!Peeta, who was also clever and charismatic and KNEW how to work it. He was more ambiguous because he was so good at playing the crowd. Like Katniss, I question Peeta's motives when he shows up in the Arena with the Careers, whereas in the movie, because there is less emphasis on Peeta's cleverness and cunning, his joining up with the Careers seems more out of left field. And again, this takes away from the real/not real theme of the books, and the interesting nuances of Katniss and Peeta's relationship.

SARAH ENNI has an excellent post here about the lessening of complexity in movie!Peeta (and it includes commentary on movie!Gale too!).

I think the movie is faithful more to the PLOT and character of Katniss than it is to the themes of the book. The Hunger Games is at least partly about the conflating of entertainment with life, and it makes social commentary about violence and desensitization, consumerism, and class division.

I felt like in the filmmakers' efforts to stick to the plot and please fans, they sort of let these themes fall by the wayside. As I mentioned before, the flattening out of Peeta's character coupled with the de-emphasis of Sponsorship took away from the theme of real vs. "real." Yes, instead we have the 3rd person POV of the Gamemakers' manipulating the Arena and sports commentating from Caesar Flickerman, but that's an overt, obvious parallel to draw on the reality TV front. BUT one of the most powerful aspects of the reality TV theme in the book was how insidious and manipulative it was - that the Tributes themselves are forced out of necessity to participate in this kind of crowd-pandering. In some respects, the deft calculation Peeta shows when crafting his and Katniss' public personas is as chilling as Katniss' split-second ability to shoot-to-kill to survive.

I can't help but think maybe Gary Ross' directing style wasn't the best for a movie that is more weighted on the action side than on the contemplative, character-building side that Gary Ross is so good at. As I said in my PART 1 post, the best scenes in the movie were character/emotion-driven scenes. The scenes I had the most problems with were the action sequences, and not just because of the often annoying and (in this movie) uninspired use of the dreaded Shaky Camera Effect. Sorry dudes, but Shaky Camera does not automatically equate action, grittiness, OR drama. It's like shorthand in that it's a little bit LAZY.

There was also the interesting choice to straddle the line of placing us in Katniss' POV (Gary Ross' rationale for the Shaky Cam) and placing us in the position of Capitol citizen. Because let's face it, if we're going to watch the movie & buy the merch, we're more Capitol than we are downtrodden District people. And I liked that the film tried to remind us of our place, but I don't think the real, uncomfortable impact of that place is felt because of a curious downplaying of extremes by the movie & a serious flaw in tone.

For example, a directing choice that seriously threw off the tone for me was the decision to emphasize the simple beauty of the forests and how Katniss finds her peace there and then draw that same tone into the forests of the Arena. This dampened the feeling of danger in the Arena! My impression from the book of the Arena forest was that it is familiar territory to Katniss but still terrifying because it's a death trap. She knew not to trust her surroundings, and I was scared for her. You don't really get that sense in the movie.

No, girl friend. That's probably poisonous.

All my criticisms culminate into this, the MAJOR REASON why I came out of the movie with mixed feelings. The TONE was never quite where I wanted it to be to truly capture the spirit of the books.
  • Lack of urgency: I think most of you will agree when I say that one of the biggest strengths and appeal of the book is that it is THRILLING. Once Katniss is whisked off to the Capitol, the prose is relentless and ruthless. There is a sense of URGENCY in the plot, and we're left holding our breath, worrying over Katniss and Peeta's safety. By the end of the Games in the book, the desperation and tension is palpable, which is why the last minute rule-change is so suspenseful. For a split second, Katniss is actually worried that she might have to kill Peeta and that he might try to kill her, and that mood is what makes us get why it's Such a Big Deal when she pulls out those berries. This lack of urgency also has little to do with the fact that I went into the movie knowing what would happen because things can still be gripping and tense even when you know what comes next.
  • Violence/Action: Part of the reason the movie didn't feel urgent to me was because the action wasn't very thrillingly shot (again, Shaky Cam does not good action make), and it's not exactly that the movie wasn't violent enough; it wasn't visceral enough. The opening scene at the Cornucopia is the closest Gary Ross ever comes to the mix of fear, adrenaline, and discomfort that the premise of the Hunger Games is meant to inspire. I know that this is PG-13, but the violence doesn't have to be graphic to leave an impression. Suzanne Collins did it with her prose, which was roughly PG-13 level in Book 1, and the PG-13 Harry Potter films did it too.
      And I think that's a real pity because the violence in HG is kind of a big point. The violence and voyeurism is what brings out the pertinent themes of the series. It's the instrument with which we're made to see how wrong aspects of our society can go.
    • Lack of Extremes: PG-13 violence aside, did anyone else notice how clean Katniss was in the Arena, despite dodging fireballs, running through wilderness, and getting smacked around and cut up? And Peeta's grave injury turned out to be Not-So-Grave thanks to Magic Healing Serum. In the book, this injury not only almost kills him, it continues to hinder him & has a lasting impact on his life. When that hovercraft comes to take them out of the Arena, our heroine and hero look like what they endured was just a scuffle.

    No worries! Just a knuckle-scrape & ripped pants!
    In fact, the biggest contrast of extremes we're shown on screen is the Capitol vs. District 12, and even that is strangely toned down.I guess I wanted the contrast to be more visually stark.
    • District 12: My friends imagined District 12 to be dirt poor. They imagined gray skies and ramshackle buildings, tired people with soot sunk into their skins. I imagined something industrial-rural, dark and gritty.
    Coal mining town of Zhenchuanbu, China.  Photo/ Michael Yamashita

      Instead, the District 12 we're given is poor but in a rural Dorthea Lange way that is still oddly picturesque. Where's the coal dust settled over everything as described in the book? Did anyone else think the District was both cleaner and more lush than it was in the books?

    • The Capitol: It's sleek and chic and almost sterile, but in the books, its defining feature was DECADENCE, and I didn't quite get that from the movie. The Capitol is pretty and fancy in an Apple Store kind of way, whereas I always thought it was more opulent in a so-rich-it's-rotten-underneath kind of way. Like over-ripe fruit or overly preserved food.
    I already touched on violence, but it also falls under the "lack of extremes" section. It felt like every time Gary Ross approached the level of realness needed for the violence to make an impact (i.e. the Cornucopia), he remembered his PG-13 aim and pulled back. Things did not feel truly dangerous in this movie because so many of the edges of the HG book had been smoothed over and packaged.

    And this brings me briefly back to the interesting decision to cast the audience as sitting both in Katniss' POV and in the POV of a Capitol citizen. Maggie Stiefvater wrote a thought-provoking review of the HG movie's audience, praising the filmmakers for showing us that as much as we might dislike it, we are members of the Capitol. Stiefvater points specifically to the point where Thresh saves Katniss from Clove, resulting in applause from the movie audience. This same thing happened at the screening my friends went to.

    I understand Stiefvater's point, but I have to disagree that this type of response is indicative of deliberate film-making that comments on the meta-theme of us being people who would enjoy watching kids killing kids. I see the applause as a failing by the filmmakers to actually make us think and be uncomfortable with the idea that we might be members of the Capitol. The audience has to be at least somewhat AWARE of the point being made to make it relevant, and the toning down of the extremes and lack of urgency in the film took away focus from the themes that would have allowed a movie audience to make the connection that they're enjoying kids killing kids and maybe that should make them uncomfortable. From the outside perspective of reviewing an audience, yes, a point is being made about the movie-going audience, but it would have been more powerful for the movie to make the audience themselves aware of the social commentary as it is happening.

    For example, in the book, I was glad it was Clove who died over Katniss, but I recognized that she was a victim in the Games too. The movie could have really pushed this point home, so that we're manipulated to maybe want to applaud Clove's end but that we recognize how twisted that desire is. We should recognize in that moment that though we want to be Katniss, we're not because we aren't in the Arena; we're the audience- the Capitol- and that should make us uncomfortable.

    But the movie doesn't do that because it's toned down. That's why I keep coming back to the point that it wasn't visceral enough. The movie shied away, I think, from really digging down deep into the tough realities presented in the world of the Hunger Games. It's like The Hunger Games Lite or Diet Hunger Games.

    As a friend said, what makes the Hunger Games story so good is the fact that this brave, desperate girl from nowhere, DARES to defy the powerful Capitol and the entire system that oppresses her.

    THAT is the moment of triumph in the book; we don't need the manipulated moment of Clove's defeat to give us a place to applaud. Katniss rises to the occasion, despite the crap odds and the harsh realities around her. But she doesn't shine quite so brightly in the movie because the darkness around her isn't quite as dark. (But Jennifer Lawrence was still stellar.)

    The movie is good and respects its source material, but it lacks the urgency of the book. Reading the book was an adrenaline rush; watching the movie was not. It also smoothed over a lot of the thematic and character complexities of the book, and therefore doesn't quite capture its spirit (though it comes very close sometimes). All in all, the movie is a fun companion piece to The Hunger Games, but seriously, just READ IT.

    Your reward for sticking all the way through this on a Friday.

    This scene in the movie is nearly as flawless as this gif.

    Agree? Disagree? Lay it on me in the comments, and happy weekend! Next week, a return to schneizeleffort! :)


    linda said...

    YAY YAY YAY I'm so excited to get your thoughts on the movie! I know I said the movie was awesome on Twitter but it was more like "omg I finally watched the movie with my friends and it was such a great experience and I didn't hate the movie and overall it was better than I expected" but I wasn't thinking that much at the moment so I just said it was awesome, haha. :)

    I think what I missed most in the movie is, like you said, the nuances in Katniss and Peeta's characters and relationship. Totally agree with Sarah Enni on how they dumbed down Peeta, and some of my favorite parts of the book - Katniss and Peeta bonding & feasting in the cave, Katniss almost killing Peeta when it's just the two of them and feeling ashamed about doubting him after all they went through, Katniss screaming for Peeta when he's deathly ill & being treated, acting so-in-love for the audience and President Snow, and the bittersweet ending when Peeta realizes it's all been an act (can you tell I'm Team Peeta yet :P) - they were either disappointing or entirely cut out. I feel like they left out a lot of the performance & deception & cleverness & mixed motives parts of both Peeta and Katniss' characters, and that's something I really missed from the book. Great point about real/not real!

    And yeah the shaky cam was awful. I wasn't impressed by the costumes either but I'm not as nitpicky about fashion & settings (but yeah, I agree they weren't great).

    I was sad they left out the bread from District 11! The riots were good but the bread was something that left an impression on me from the book.

    Totally making my friend read Hunger Games now after I dragged him into watching the movie with me! (He's reading it in Chinese, lol.) I keep asking "which part are you on now?" and saying "isn't it way better than the movie?!" lol.

    Julie Dao said...

    Damn, girl! This is an awesome and very thorough review. I nodded along to many of your points. Yesterday I read an article saying that Gary Ross is stepping down as director of Catching Fire... apparently he was under a time crunch from the other studio that wants J-Law to start filming X-Men in January or something. I wonder who will direct it now and whether it'll be better (in terms of addressing the points you laid out) with another director?

    Connie Keller said...

    Like you I really did enjoy the movie, but I also pretty much agree with everything you've said here.

    And that's why I'm telling everyone I know to read the book before you see the movie--too much is left unexplained.

    Anonymous said...

    What a great review! Incredibly complete and very detailed!

    Great job!

    jonyangorg said...

    I'm with you on the costumes. I was way disappointed by the garishness without any excitement. And that little excuse for girl on fire during the ride in. Sigh.

    Also, the Capitol was way too minimalistic and definitely not opulent. Agreed and agreed!

    Golden Eagle said...

    Thanks for the detailed review!

    Katy Upperman said...

    So many amazing points here! While I enjoyed the movie over all, I do agree with much of what you said. The tributes' costumes WERE underwhelming, and yes, there was a lack of tension and urgency during much of the Games. My biggest disappointment was the ending, how Peeta was just fine, and how the movie glosses out his separation from Katniss once they're lifted from the arena. And yeah... more than once I wondered how in the world someone who hasn't read the books would possibly get EVERYTHING simply by watching the movie.

    Great review, lady!

    Lydia Kang said...

    I haven't seen the HG yet but I've been hearing a lot of stuff about it, including stuff you've mentioned. I'm wondering how I'll feel about it now. Probably won't matter, I'll be thinking of those cats the whole time now, LOL!

    Kristan said...

    "I think the movie is faithful more to the PLOT and character of Katniss than it is to the themes of the book."

    Yes. That. That's exactly what I said in my review too.

    Great posts!

    Barbara Ann Wright said...

    I have to agree. I was left liking it, but also saying Eh at the same time, like it shouldn't go down in history.

    Anonymous said...

    I haven't seen the movie or read the book, but I enjoy reading reviews on this blog.

    ali cross said...

    This is so weird - I SWEAR I commented yesterday. Boo. Anyway. I thought your take on the movie was spot on. Just how I felt too. I often had to lean over and explain the sponsors/Peeta/whatever to my hubby because it didn't make sense without the book-knowledge. I also wish we'd gotten a greater sense of the danger Katniss finds herself in POST games.

    Sherrie Petersen said...

    Wow -- I'm in awe of this post! I love Josh Hutcherson, but I still don't connect with him as Peeta, mainly because of the reasons you outlined here. Book Peeta is so much more intelligent and in the movie there's never any doubt from Katniss about whether she should trust him. I loved that nuance in the book and it was part of why I've always been Team Gale. You knew where that guy stood. Always.

    I think the movie is a great adaptation if you've read the book and know the motivations for why characters are doing certain things. And I'm kind of glad that the movie makers did make it with readers in mind because seriously, that like NEVER happens!

    stylewish1 said...

    love your review and i agree with you on most things! i felt the movie was alright,it was good,sure,but i do agree they left out a lot of really good details,and the boy with the bread scene which is one of my favorites in the book didn't live up to my expectations in the movie u.u and i agree,it was life changing for katniss and they didn't emphasize that. also,the town like you said wasn't what i expected.
    the sponsorship and haymitch becoming sober bc of their fighting spirits was also something i agree should have been incorporated into the movie,and that lovely detail you wrote about where cinna said he chose district 12 was fantastic,and i wish they would have added that also.
    imo,the movie didn't do full justice to the book,the book was amazing and i couldn't stop raving about it.

    fantastic review! really enjoyed reading it(: