In Which I Finally Get Around to Watching The Hunger Games

It’s the middle of August and I’m just now bothering to tune in to one of the biggest pop culture events of the year. Before I start, let me rundown everything – and I mean everything – I know about The Hunger Games before going in:

The Hunger Games

- It’s based on a book, the first in a trilogy, about a post-apocalyptic America where there are “districts” instead of states, and each district is supposed to manufacture something specific, like coal or steel or young adult books.

- The hero’s name is Katniss. Everyone has stupid names like that. I think somebody might be named Wiffletoots, or maybe Skufflepuffleblern. I won’t be surprised if somebody shows up called Jjjjjjjjjjjj.

- Katniss is really good with a bow and arrow. I know this because my daughter was Katniss for Halloween last year and all she needed for the costume as a bow and arrow.

- There’s a game Katniss plays that’s part The Lottery, part Battle Royale, and part The Running Man (minus Jesse Ventura, sadly), and somehow this keeps Future America from falling apart.

- Donald Sutherland is both the president and the villain, like if Herbert Hoover played Richard Dawson, a phrase that makes more sense in my head than typed out like that.

- I think somebody wears a big wig or something. Something about dressing funky, maybe? I don’t know.

(142 minutes later…)

Hey, that was a pretty darn good movie. Who knew?

- The names are stupid, but not as stupid as I had expected. Maybe because it took me an hour before I realized it was “Peeta” and not “Peter.”

- The bits about what each district does and how evil the president is don’t show up here. I must’ve heard my daughter (a fan of the books) discuss something about one of the sequel novels.

- I was wrong, kinda, about the post-apocalyptic thing. Or maybe I wasn’t. I liked how the movie (and, I can assume, the book) doesn’t explain how civilization got to this point, beyond the basics needed to understand how the Hunger Games work. Heck, it can even be argued this isn’t our future but some other Earth, an alternate whatever where this is just how things are. Because it doesn’t matter. All that counts is the current circumstance. Most fantasy series find it necessary to present the reader/viewer with a mountain of excess backstory; The Hunger Games doesn’t, and that’s a good thing.

- I also really, really dug the movie’s view of this possible future, contrasting an almost punk rock aesthetic of the upper class with the dismal rural poverty of the working class. Seeing THX-1138-y design in what looked to be the middle of West Virginia genuinely thrilled me. It’s something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before, and I’m always happy to see something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.

- The film never apologizes for its sci-fi elements, and instead embraces them, delivering some deliciously out-there visuals. The face paint, the beards, the blue hair, it’s all so excessive and delirious – and, incredibly, it was all accepted by mainstream America. Thirty years ago, a movie like this would’ve been a cult favorite at best, but today, it’s a box office smash. (Place this alongside an oddball silent indie import winning Best Picture, and I suddenly have faith in the future of pop culture.)

- The running time could’ve used some trimming, and I would’ve preferred a tighter epilogue. Both are symptoms of the influence of Harry Potter and Twilight, with their fans demanding a greater faithfulness to the source material, and with studios demanding more open-ended finales to ensure a franchise, neither of which help a movie stand on its own.

- (Spoilers this note) Despite this excess, I felt a couple scenes were too rushed. The main culprit is the segment where Katniss volunteers to save her sister. This sort of just happens, in a rush, with director Gary Ross not building the proper tension. It plays with an obligatory-ness that undermines the potential emotional heft. (Solid performances all around help make up for this, especially in the follow-up scene.) Also rushed was Rue’s death – not that it was sudden (the suddenness has a certain impact that stuns), but that it comes too soon after the character is introduced. Her relationship with Katniss could’ve been stretched more. (End spoilers)

- The movie’s refusal to glamorize the violence – even during its more thrilling moments (including the closing fight a short drop away from a hungry pack of panther-dogs, which is a glorious bit of pulp adventure) – is quite welcome. The temptation to turn Katniss into an action hero is mostly avoided; while she does kill, there’s a reluctance there that helps us take more kindly to her character.

- “May the odds be ever in your favor” is a clumsy phrase. I’m not sure if Suzanne Collins was looking for a fancy-schmancy way to say “good luck” or if she intentionally chose a wording that makes those who say it (the well-to-do) look ridiculous. Maybe she just wanted a corny catchphrase.

- Great soundtrack, in terms of both score and songs. Most impressive, though, is how well James Newton Howard uses silence instead of music to punctuate a scene.

- Stanley Tucci remains awesome.

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One thought on “In Which I Finally Get Around to Watching The Hunger Games

  1. Herr Wozzeck says:

    As someone who read all three books of the original trilogy, I can tell you that this film adaptation stands as one of the best adaptations of the book’s material we could’ve asked for. Yeah, certain scenes were rushed and Gary Ross can’t direct an action scene to save his life (seriously, all that damn shaky-cam gets on your nerves after a while), but the whole movie looked exactly how I pictured the world of the books would look like as I was reading it.

    That said, I feel like there are some things that should be said for The Hunger Games as a book relating to a movie since I know the books so well. So… If you don’t mind the rambling, I think I’ll take a minute or two to go off on all things related to the Hunger Games books. (Oh, yeah, and there’ll be spoilers for anyone who hasn’t read the books/seen the movie that has come out, so… yeah.)

    – All three books are told in first person from Katniss’ perspective, so it’s arguable that the bits that don’t take place in the arena contribute to the film’s obscenely long running time. To be honest, though, I think it was actually a good decision on Gary Ross’ part to cut away from Katniss for a few minutes of screentime to concentrate on what happens outside of the arena, since it actually showed the stuff that goes on behind the scenes and got us more invested in the games.

    -Despite the fact that this is a really faithful adaptation of the books (seriously, they pretty much nailed the aesthetic of Katniss’ world, and they managed to fit every major event that goes on in the book), there was actually some material that was changed/cut out. In order of severity:

    1) There are two really big changes in the movie. The first is that the relationship between Katniss and Peeta ends on a totally different note in the movie than it does in the book. It’s another long story, though this one is easier to sum up: in the books, Katniss generally doesn’t like to form extremely close connections with people. Thus, the first book of the trilogy plays Katniss’ part of that relationship as “she’s acting most of this”, though I’m a little reluctant to put it that way since it oversimplifies the dynamic Katniss and Peeta’s relationship has in the books (the first two books of the trilogy actually imply that Katniss does feel some genuine attraction to Peeta, but any attraction she feels gets swept up and tossed out in her constant rationalizing about how she doesn’t want to get too close to anyone, and so she doesn’t allow herself to admit to (or act on) her attraction to Peeta) That actually puts a pretty huge dent in Peeta’s opinion of Katniss once the games themselves are done with, since his feelings for her are totally genuine and he feels used. It might not seem like such a big change on the surface, but trust me, it’s a big change to involve, and the filmmakers will have to address this change somewhere within the first ten minutes of the film for Catching Fire or else the first third of that movie will feel like Katniss, Peeta, and Haymitch making a huge deal about nothing. (And trust me, the Catching Fire movie is coming: they’ve been announcing the casting for the new characters on Facebook for some time now. Most of the major characters haven’t really been filled yet, but they’re getting there. For now, though: Phillip Seymour Hoffman as Seneca Crane replacement Plutarch Heavensbee? Yes, please!)

    2) The second big change is that there is a subplot from the book that ended up getting cut out of the movie because of a running time concern. It still made me sad since it was a really interesting subplot, but I can see why it was cut since it wouldn’t have gotten any development after the point that Katniss enters the games proper. It’s a complicated story, so I’ll put it in the shortest terms possible: the criminals in Panem (that’s what the nation is called in the books) are punished by having their tongues cut out, they then get put into indentured servitude in the Capitol (you may have noticed some of the servants running around in that huge apartment that Katniss and Peeta inhabited before the games: those are the criminals, and in the book they were called “Avox” (pl. “Avoxes”)), Katniss knows a “criminal” who got punished because she saw said “criminal” trying to flee, and when this “criminal” ends up serving Katniss, Peeta, and their entourage before the games Katniss feels guilty because she feels she could have helped the “criminal” in her time of need. This subplot doesn’t really go anywhere after the Games start, though, so… yeah.

    3) There are other minor changes that don’t really have an effect on the series overall: perhaps the most notable of these changes is that the character of Madge is completely cut from the movie. Madge, by the way, is the daughter of the mayor of District 12, and the person who gave Katniss her mockingjay pin in the book.

    4) The other minor change? They actually had to greatly tone down the violence in the interest of maintaining the PG-13 rating and not alienating the film’s target audience. Suzanne Collins does not hold back in her description of violence in the book, which suits the material since (as Jennifer Lawrence mentioned in one of her interviews promoting the movie) you can’t dress something like ‘kids killing kids’ up. Seriously, some of the injuries that the characters sustain in the books are described in much more gruesome detail than you’d expect from a series of novels aimed at teenage girls.

    – Your daughter is in fact talking about material from the sequel books in relation to President Snow’s role in the proceedings. President Snow is actually barely in the book of The Hunger Games, but his role gets upgraded in Catching Fire. Let’s just say that Donald Sutherland is going to get a lot more to do during the course of that movie (and Mockingjay when they get around to it), and I’ll leave it at that.

    -In terms of Panem’s history… the books don’t really explain how Panem got to the whole “13 districts” thing, either. The only time they tend to bring up Panem’s history in the books is in relation to District 13, and unfortunately I can’t really talk about that bit of history here since it potentially involves major spoilers for the ending of Catching Fire and even more major spoilers for the entire premise of Mockingjay.

    -I’m not too sure about why Suzanne went with “may the odds be ever in your favor”, to be honest. I do have to admit, though, it does read better than it sounds, so that might be it. (It also does nicely set up a few phrases in the books, so…)

    – “Somehow this keeps Future America from falling apart”. They didn’t really talk about it much in the movie thanks to running time concerns, but all three books make it a point to talk about how the games are used as a tool of oppression. (Which, if I understand it correctly, is something that Battle Royale also does, so the comparisons that people continuously make between Hunger Games and Battle Royale are actually not too far-fetched.)

    So yeah… that’s about all on the books.

    BTW… if you ever feel like reading the books before Catching Fire comes out, here are my thoughts on the books:

    The Hunger Games is good, and a very solid story in its own right. Catching Fire is my personal favorite of the whole trilogy, as it explores some really interesting ideas and has some really crazy things happen in it. Mockingjay is a bit of a mixed bag: on the one hand, it also explores some really interesting ideas, but on the other hand it suffers from small amounts of shaky plotting.

    *phew*

    Jesus… I just went on a long-ass tangent about the books. I am such a dork, and yet I am totally okay with that.

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