dir: Gary Ross
For readers of the book the only question is whether Jennifer Lawrence is a credible Katniss Everdeen. For people who haven’t read the books, it would surprise me if they care at all, and surprises me even more that they went in such droves to watch this film, which they have. It’s the biggest film of the year, thus far, which is pretty surprising in itself, and also gratifying.
In my mind at least, the success of The Hunger Games trilogy has always been a statement of quality against that other titan of the teen – young adult genre, being the Twilight series of abominations. Katniss is the anti-Bella Swan, in that she’s a decent and enjoyable female character to follow, who has agency and makes tough decisions concerning her fate and the fates of others. In contrast, Bella is a blank who has two hot supernatural boys fight over her.
There’s no need to fight over her, boys, she’s definitely not worth it.
But Katniss, Katniss Everdeen… It was like Suzanne Collins was saying ‘this kinda thing can be done right’. And so even if the story comes across as a melange of Battle Royale, Running Man, Predator, Nineteen-Eighty-Four and every reality television cliche of the last ten years, it's still the product of a worthy endeavour.
Let me say up front that I loved the books, have read them all, so I'm fairly conversant with the source material. In the interests of being a semi-responsible reviewer, I will set aside that so I can try to talk about it purely as a film.
Nah, can't do it. It's impossible. I can’t pretend to not know what’s coming, or what’s left out.
Right off the bat I’ll say that it’s a reasonable adaptation of a book that’s not that complex. The problem in adapting it is that the book’s narrated in the first person, and a lot of that narration colours what Katniss does and why. Without that insight into why she’s doing things, it’s hard to differentiate (for those who don’t know) between what she seems to be doing, and what she’s actually doing. Some of this was communicated non-verbally, to good effect, but a lot of the time it looks like Katniss is behaving wildly out of character.
It took me a long while to warm to Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She doesn’t match the Katniss I carry around in my head from the books, though that’s not to say she doesn’t do a good job. She does the best she can, and after the halfway point, it no longer matters.
The film is equally split, exactly on the hour, into the pre-Hunger Games section and the Games themselves, so there’s a fairly long set up. Some people I’ve spoken to prefer the first half, but I have to say that it didn’t really click with me until the second half.
The story is set in some distant Cowardly New World that Aldous Huxley himself would spit on in terror if he ever beheld it. The United States we love and cherish is no more. It is now called Panem, and is loosely modelled on both an Orwellian depiction of a totalitarian state and the worst elements of the Roman Empire. There’s the Capital, where everyone dresses like Nicki Minaj (if you don’t know who that is, she generally looks like a combination between a sugary dessert and a child’s toy), and there are twelve districts where the majority of the population live in misery and starvation.
Because of an attempted rebellion 74 or so years previous that obviously failed, each year the districts are reminded of their subjection, of their lack of control over their own destinies, by being compelled to send a boy and a girl to the Capital in order to take part in the Games. No tiddly-winks for these kiddies. No spin-the-bottle. No doctors-and-nurses behind the bike shed. There’s just brutal murder until there’s only one left standing.
It's still confronting, even in this sanitised form. It's an ugly, brutal, despotic concept, perhaps so distant from contemporary society that instead of seeming ludicrous it might seem like a dark path not yet taken. Kids killing kids, who are doing so as part of a reality television program in order to keep the population cowed and subservient, is a horribly affecting idea, but it's hardly prescient. It still horrifies me, though.
Although when I think about some of the kids killing kids in the townships of Johannesburg or the favelas of Brazil, or the children in the Lord's Army in Uganda, and maybe it's not that distant or far-fetched.
Katniss's path isn't about transcending the desperation of her circumstances in order to become the killer (or the dead teen) that her masters desire, or to become more like the vicious kids from the more affluent districts who train all their lives to kill other kids in the Games. She has survival skills, fostered by using them to support herself and her family in the bleak coal-mining district she comes from. She's only there because her twelve-year-old sister Primrose was picked in the annual lottery, and she volunteers as a Tribute in her place. So the point of the Games for her is already resolved. The rest is about not becoming a monster.
She is not alone in the arena, because there's a boy from her district called Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who might not have her skills, but he's more aware of the grand architecture around them and of the PR type battle that they really need to wage if they're to survive... past a certain point. I didn’t think he was up to it at first, but he gradually became more endearing.
The stuff with Gale (Chris Hemsworth), Katniss’s best friend growing up, and with whom she shares survivalist skills and a long history of looking after each other and their respective families, was just tediously done, without enough reason for us to care. It’s not going to do anyone any favours if they build it up into a thoroughly retarded Edward – Jacob type shemozzle. No one wins in that contest.
Katniss is just trying to survive long enough so as to not lose her soul, but let's not forget there are a whole bunch of arseholes out there trying to kill her, and it's not just the kids in the arena. Like the producer gods from The Truman Show, the powers behind the Games, with cameras catching every scintilla of the action, take whatever steps they want in order to keep it entertaining, so that not too much time passes in between child slaughterings.
The producers of this film, however, want everything kept PG-13, so when the action gets actioned, it's some of the most spastic and deliberately obfuscatory camerawork I've ever scene. Apart from not liking shaky cam stuff in general, I can't fault them here. Kids killing kids is too disturbing. The only ways to handle it are to do it discretely, or almost impressionistically, like here, or completely over the top (like in the Japanese example), to give us some allowable distance.
There's a certain death in the arena, of a kid, like Katniss, who doesn't want to kill but doesn't want to die either. Her death got to me, as it's meant to, compared to all the other ones. What follows from there, with Katniss's action triggering an uprising in one of the districts, I knew the flick would do all right, and hopefully carry the momentum forward through the next films.
Perhaps the ending, or the logic behind the course of action Katniss takes towards the end of the Games doesn't make as much sense here as it does in the books, but there's not that much room or time for deep psychology here. It doesn't help matters, really, though we knew there had to be an 'out', it seems more arbitrary in the flick than in the book. It seemed like a lucky ‘out’ here, whereas in the book it seemed like far more of a hearty “Fuck You!” to the evil totalitarian Capital inflicting this evil bullshit upon the people from the various districts, which explained why certain decisions are made.
Another strange omission from my perspective is the general lack of fucked-upedness on the part of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). Though he's good in the role, the one in the book is a complete drunken fuck-up, for good reasons perhaps, but it's mostly elided in the flick, perhaps because of needing to maintain that crucial PG-13. If he isn't more of a reprobate in the next flick, he's not going to make any sense as a character, and his existence will be superfluous.
Apart from admiring the character of Katniss so much, the reason why I like the story so much is because the powers that be in these novels are so vile, so crafty, and so contemporary, never letting opportunities go to waste whenever there’s a chance to remind the people in the Districts just how worthless their lives are and how easily they can be snuffed out.
And the people in the Capital are depicted so visually vilely, like the 1 Percenters that they are, like decadent syphilis-riddled aristocrats from Versailles, mixed with the techno-fetishist aspects that are already familiar today. All they needed was iPhones with which to be tweeting endlessly, and it would have been a perfect mirror. Effie Trinket, Caesar Flickerman and Seneca Crane (played by Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci and Wes Bentley) are the perfect physical embodiments of this creepy decadence based upon the misery of the lower orders. They definitely look the part. Tucci is especially unctuous, looking like a cross between a toothy car salesman / senator and a blue poodle, as the host of the program covering the Games. He is pure hosting evil, ludicrous and goofy but you can’t take your disbelieving eyes off him.
It had me, by the end. Despite knowing how it all turns out, my heart was in my mouth towards the end, and I was sold on Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She's not the most expressive actress out there, and nor does she need to be, but she needs to be able to get across a lot of conflicted thinking and cross-purposes stuff to do the character credit down the track. She's stronger, as she should be, the more the flick goes on, and it's a lot to put on the shoulders of a young lady, but I think she's up to it.
I am looking forward to the next two. I still can't see how they're going to film the third installment, Mockingjay, without fucking it up, because that ending will destroy the souls of teenagers and adults across the world if it stays true to the novel. Still, it ranks, thus far, up there with the better adaptations of this kind of material.
If it's comparable to the Harry Potter flicks, I'd put it on a par with the third one. If I compared it to the Twilight flicks? Well, none of those flicks or those idiotic characters are worthy of licking the coal dust off of Katniss's boots, truth be told, so it's not a fair fight, is it? Not by a long shot.
7 times whenever anyone says ‘may the odds be ever in your favour’ what they really mean is ‘the House always wins, and you’re fucked’ out of 10
“Face the probability of your imminent death, and know that there's absolutely nothing I can do to help you.” – supportive words – The Hunger Games