Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games Movie Review

It's a bit hard to describe the disappointment I felt watching this movie (though it's considerably less than it would have been a month ago when I was deep in the throes of Hunger Games obsession) however I shall make the attempt in the hopes that my keen, unforgiving eye prevents some unsuspecting soul from seeing this sub par movie and damning the books without reading them.

D-  If this were Entertainment Weekly or some glossy, multi-contributor website that gave grades, this is the grade we would bestow upon the recently released film version of the bestselling novel The Hunger Games. I'll hold off for a second on the detailed account, but let me explain the grade. Despite some actors with chops, a devoted make-up and set-design team, and a large budget, this movie was a failure. In a story whose main plot is a battle to the death, the complete disappearance of any tension was staggeringly obvious. The shaky reality-show-type camera work destroyed not only a viewer's concentration, but what I imagine were painstakingly choreographed fight scenes, the actions of which were impossible to follow. And despite their best intentions, a choppy, clunky, uninspired script that kept and changed the most random elements from the original material, destroyed any suspension of disbelief that us true blue fans went in with and foiled even the best actor's attempt to deliver an insipid, badly written line.

The first twenty-five minutes were solid. The look and feel of District 12 was spot-on, though I never imagined the Everdeens' home to be two-stories. And making Prim frail and nightmare-ridden, a not entirely canonical decision, enhanced that first view of Katniss' strength and love.  In fact the atmosphere of the opening was so accurate, and so exactly what I had been expecting from all the trailers and marketing, that I instantly decided to stop listing the inaccuracies in my head and just enjoy the movie. (Some of the mistakes were as follows: coal miners marching to work, despite there being no work on Reaping day, Katniss not pausing to listen to the dead electrical fence, the complete lack of Capitol hovercraft hanging out in their off-limits woods except for that one notable time which they didn't get into, etc.)

And enjoy it I did. I told myself that the shaky cinematography was just the director's attempt to present a dystopian world, that surely that approach would stop as the story progressed. The absence of Haymitch and his pratfall at the Reaping bothered me a bit, since it didn't seem like a very complicated scene in need of streamlining, but the contained, emotional presence of Katniss was so well acted as to drown at any of these seemingly small complaints.

Unfortunately, nearly all the tension created by the intense drama of family ripped apart, oppressed citizens with their silent solidarity, and impending violent, horrific doom was almost instantly obliterated on their train ride to the Capitol. This is where Haymitch was introduced, and I'm not clear if it was Woody Harrelson's performance or the awkward blocking and dialogue of the scene, but it was a remarkably palpable example of watching actors act. It was thin and obvious and took me out of the story entirely. Haymitch as a semi-drunk, slightly dishevelled, partly antagonistic character was a blow, since the Haymitch I know was a full-on alcoholic mess, puking on the train, reeking of filth and so insulting as to ensure any future camaraderie with him would be one based on shared experience rather than any affection. Yet he goes on in the movie not only to become strangely buddy-buddy and at ease with Katniss, but in a huge, unnecessary liberty with the text they show him as responsible for creating the major rule change to the Games that allowed two Victors instead of one.

If Haymitch isn't there to be a foil to Katniss, to show the clash of their similar personalities, to enhance the strength and ferocity of Katniss and display her intelligence in the arena as she interprets his non-written messages, then he really shouldn't be in the movie at all. He was barely a character in the movie at all, and thus I have no interest in seeing him develop in the next two inevitable installments.

The attitudes of Katniss and Peeta on the train are understandable, though thin and hampered by uninteresting dialogue, not to mention a curious lack of excitement at all the rich delicious energy-building food (this is a girl who hasn't had a full belly her entire life, isn't it?) By the time they reach the Capitol, where the pre-Games events are presented in a series of short, jumpy scenes with abrupt cuts, an imbalance between over-exposition and no exposition at all, interspersed with strangely long silent musings of Katniss looking out a window, I quickly became eager for the Games to begin, where no doubt the primal struggle of life or death would restore the appropriate atmosphere.

But before we get there we have to sit through some badly done interviews (her dress was horribly unoriginal, Peeta came off, unlike in the novel, as neither charming nor funny, Caeser Flickerman was neither helpful nor believable) as well as a distracting focus on the Gamesmaster Seneca Crane and the point of view of those who organize and rationalize the repugnant event. Even Cinna didn't do it for me. The affection between Katniss and Cinna seemed genuine for sure, but far too effusive. His first line is a bald statement of sympathy and in fact rebellion, which is something the subtle, deep, quiet Cinna would never have done. By the end of the trilogy he proved to be one of the most fervent rebels, but this was never shown by him stating it out loud, only through his actions, through his fashion designs which is the only way he knew how to fight. I also lamented his goodbye to Katniss below the arena, where aside from getting a bit mushy and encouraging, he does not in fact remind her of her dignity and to keep her chin up as she enters hell, a memorable brief scene from the book.

Therefore all my hopes that this movie would rescue itself and recover were pinned on the Games itself. And if anything lent itself to cinematic portrayal, it would be a fictional televised event in an outdoor arena where 24 teens and pre-teens fight to the death. At least, you would think so. But they botched it from the get-go.

In a strange decision by the filmmakers, the music cut away and we had a muted first 30 seconds of the Hunger Games, the most notoriously bloody part of any Games, the kind of filming approach you get when someone has just had a concussion. (And later when they do in fact have both a concussion scene as well as hallucinations and dream scenes, the effect is so similar to their baseline style that it's ridiculous.) This is when things become real in the story, when every kid either runs off to save themselves or enters the bloody murderous melee. And yet it had no effect. They even muted the countdown at the end, and a series of choppy blurry shots showed neither the violence nor the desperate scrambling of Katniss in those first moments that would be the perfect moment to display the primal fear of her situation. Also, what was with the metallic art nouveau Cornucopia they designed? Completely hideous and far too severe. The whole impact of the Cornucopia is that it is gold and majestic, full of wondrous supplies, a ludicrous juxtaposition to its central position in the most terrible scene imaginable. And knowing the story, knowing the significance of the Cornucopia at the end, showed what a total set-design Fail this was.

The Hunger Games itself never recovered from this bungled beginning, and the remainder of the action was neither tense nor scary. Hard to imagine that showing bloody minded feral teens hunting each other in packs could actually fail to be scary, but there you go. Apparently the approach to making this film was to consider the audience to be either too delicate and sensitive to handle the violent horrors of the story, in which case why make the movie at all, or to be too simple minded and obtuse to interpret the inner conflicts of a character fighting for her life without having everything spoken aloud.

Going in I was interested to see not only the Games themselves, but the people of Panem watching and the Gamesmasters controlling the event, which is something we don't get in the novel. But it turns out Suzanne Collins nailed it in her original narrative; you're either in the Games or you're not. The sporadic and sudden shift from being in the arena to watching it, from being in the midst of battle to a Bob Costas like commentary desk thrown in for some unneeded exposition (we need to hear the origins and significance of Tracker Jackers but not Mockingjays?) obliterated whatever pace and suspense the inherent drama of the situation had created. Coupled with weirdly stale taunts from two-dimensional murderous kids, the omission of the desperate physical trials Katniss has to go through in the book (dehydration, exhaustion, severe wounds) and continuously horrible camerawork, I just wanted it to be over. And I read all three books within a 24 hour period, rereading them all within the same week, happily discussing them ad nauseum with fellow fans and nurturing a deep love for Katniss and Peeta, so that's saying something.

Peeta was another major disappointment. I don't think the actor did a great job, but to his credit he had some singularly awful lines. Instead of Peeta the wordsmith, Peeta the charming, Peeta the only character with truly innate goodness in the entire trilogy (besides Prim of course), we were given Peeta the semi-lovesick, Peeta the weak, and Peeta the uninteresting whiny injured boy who pleads for Katniss to stay without any strength or conviction.  Even his public declaration of love, his most powerful scene in the story, was a complete misfire. Compared to the total of five lines and a few silent appearances of Gale, Peeta's presence in the movie made me suddenly and fervently join Team Gale, which is something I never thought I would say.

'Tell me where you found shampoo.'
Even Rue, the surrogate sister, the sweet innocence that Katniss instinctively protects, whose brutal murder marks the turning point for Katniss, wasn't effective. For some reason, though the death scene in the book is a very simple series of events, the writers tweaked it to make it have even less impact. Instead of Katniss failing to get to her in time, she gets there but fails to protect her. And instead of her arrow going through the Marvel boy's throat, and the subsequent inner conflict of her first direct human kill, she shoots him in the chest and never looks at him again. Rue's tears and last few breaths were overshadowed by the bizarre nature of her perfectly styled coiffed clean hair, despite her having lived for a week in trees running from killers. And Katniss's acknowledgement of Rue's District, in lieu of absolutely nothing (they omitted the District 11 gift) was followed by an abrupt cut to a revolutionary riot breaking out in District 11. Perhaps they thought it good foreshadowing for the future movies, but in truth it was not only unnecessary (President Snow referring to Katniss as a "spark" was plenty) it once again took you out of the arena and erased any weight the death scene may have had. Not to mention Katniss sobbing on the ground a few minutes later, something she would never have allowed herself to do on camera, when instead this is the part of the story where she becomes merciless, where she marches stony-faced through the arena willing the others to find her so that she can kill them and take out her anger against the unjust Capitol and her grief at the death of Rue.

So many opportunities missed, so many bad decision made by the filmmakers. If you didn't know the story, you would only guess you'd reached the climax because you've been sitting in the movie theatre for two hours so it's probably wrapping up finally. They provide no head count of the remaining Tributes, no simple line as Katniss and Peeta march to the end such as "It's just us and Cato now", no indication that 21 kids have died and no matter what the Games will be done before dawn.

The muttations add insult to injury. In the book they were pretty well described, werewolf like with an amalgamation of other animals, and most importantly, possessing the eyes of the recently murdered fellow Tributes. They are supposed to be a mixture of blind, wild, feral monsters of fear, and the more emotional, twisted, oppressive power of the Capitol, using the corpses of humans to further its ends. They even make temporary allies out of Cato and Katniss and Peeta in their mutual frenzy to flee the beasts. And yet, with a huge budget and all the CGI they could dream of, they just give us a really big pitbull. Seriously. Angry dogs the size of ponies chase them through the woods and up to the top of that ridiculous Cornucopia. It would be laughable if it wasn't so upsetting.

However they serve their purpose by forcing the final climactic battle between our two heroes and their remaining adversary Cato. This is ostensibly the biggest fight of the story, the final round, the climactic battle that will decide who wins and survives and who dies. Therefore it seems like the kind of fight the audience should be able to actually see, the kind the choreographers and stunt doubles put a lot of effort into designing. And yet the cinematographer/director decide to actually increase the unsteady cam nature of their work so that this battle, set in the darkness, on top of a dark grey metal monstrosity, is entirely 100% unfollowable. There were actually many heads whipping around in the audience, mine included, looking at their companions with confusion, then back to the screen, trying to find something to focus on, some blow or block to make sense of, but alas, its just a blurry frenzy with sound effects from which you can infer a fight is going on, and you'll only figure out who's winning once it's over.

And when Katniss and Peeta DO in fact win, it is anticlimactic as all hell. Cato's long, tortuous, agonizing death lasts all night in the book, with Katniss and Peeta huddled in pain and misery listening to his screams as the muttations devour him but keep him alive. This is one of the many things that haunt the real (literary) Katniss after the Games are done, one of the many horrors that come with such a shocking premise, and the kind of memory that will make Katniss wake up screaming from nightmares for the rest of her life. Instead, he gets nibbled on for a second before she puts him out of his misery with an arrow, and then the sun rises benevolently on the two survivors, bringing with it one more twist.

Yes, that too, the final twist, Katniss' shame at instinctively guarding herself against Peeta, Peeta's instant sacrifice and words of love, and her defiance of the Capitol with the berries, was bungled just like the rest of the movie. They cut Katniss' first reaction to the announcement, Peeta delivered his line like a logical piece of plastic, and the moment of defiance itself followed by the abrupt end of the Games was empty of all significance.

At this point I guess the editors realized they were clocked in at over two hours and decided to accelerate the denouement. A clip of the post-game interview, essential as the beginning of Katniss' farce in an attempt to placate the Capitol by convincing the world she's madly in love with Peeta, tries to show her inner conflict without having to say it explicitly, and fails miserably. Haymitch's whispered warnings have no weight, and Katniss' only interaction with President Snow is devoid of any anger, fear or threats and instead shows a banal exchange of platitudes. We briefly see Katniss and Peeta return triumphant to their district, but the smiling face of Prim is no delight because it feels as if they saw each other yesterday and that the things that happened in between weren't really so bad after all. The final scene shows President Snow watching the televised return with a grim though possibly amiable or else just constipated facial expression, and then turning his back to the audience and walking away.

A crappy final shot as far as foreshadowing the conflict of the next two installments, but pitch perfect in illustrating the director's relationship to the audience, one that altered between disdain and condescension.

Jennifer Lawrence is a very talented actress. She very nearly nailed the role of Katniss Everdeen, a surprisingly complex character who is essentially unlikable as a person, but whose motives and actions make her a hero, and no doubt would have performed it perfectly were she not given so many terrible throwaway lines. Still, she was the only saving grace of the movie, and any hope for the next two lies with her, as well as a completely essential change in director and screenwriters.

As far as this one goes, however, it is the shame of the world that they took a brilliantly paced and plotted story, beloved by millions, emotional and fierce, inherently dramatic and begging to be filmed, and turned it into a plodding, flat, uninspired, badly written, disastrously filmed travesty, an empty heartless shell of the original material.

The trailer itself was far superior to the film, and it proves incontrovertibly that books are better than movies. So if you're one of those few who have seen it without reading it first, I heartily encourage you to find the book and experience the actual story, doing all in your power to erase the film's images from your mind. The only comfort is that it will be at least two years before the next one comes out.


  1. Dear Captain,
    I think I know the answer, but I'll ask the question anyway:
    Having neither read the book nor seen a movie, which should I choose? Perhaps if you really love a book, any book, no film can satisfy your expectation. Seen through the eyes of an uninitiated, this picture could perhaps be more acceptable?
    Then again, I so much hate shaky camera! Why do they ever bother, for all love?

  2. Good review Elias. It has the slightly grubby, cobbled-together look of a futuristic flick from the ’70s, but that is part of its charm. It’s also a lot better than any of the Twilight movies, which isn’t saying much, but it isn’t sappy, mopey, or just plain bad and that’s all that matters.

  3. Great review. I was really looking forward to the films, especially as Collins was screenwriting. But now I'll just re-read the books instead.

  4. In the movie they made Katniss look like age really loved Peeta when she really didn't. So people are going to be confused when in catching fire they see Katniss and Peeta apart.