a completely objective review of “the hunger games”, from someone who has never even picked up the books.
Preface: I only became familiar with the plot of the first book about a year ago, when this movie’s production became news. And even after I knew about the “kids fighting in an arena” angle and saw the trailer, I still wasn’t really super-interested in the film. I mainly only ended up seeing it on a Monday afternoon because: A. tickets are $4.00 and kids fighting in an arena should be worth $4.00, B. while I’m clearly not the audience for this film, it did look like something I could enjoy, C. Jennifer Lawrence is a stunner and a terrific actress, D. I had spent a lot of mental energy doing a few rather mind-numbing things in the last few days and I needed a shock of something.
NOTE: I do not have any bone to pick with this film or franchise. I like a lot of really popular things. I am indifferent towards a lot of other really popular things. This movie being good would’ve been great, for me and my $4.00 investment.
So, my succinct newspaper-style review is thus:
Despite an excellent cast, capable director, and somewhat intriguing plot, The Hunger Games falls victim to the issues that plague so many modern Hollywood literary adaptations and can’t seem to decide what sort of film it wants to be and suffers for it. It fluctuates between ideas of science-fiction, fantasy, romance, drama, and coming-of-age genres but never gives any of these concepts any reasonable amount of attention to help form them into anything other than a collection of expositional scenes without very much interesting to say nor compelling to consider.
And now, with that out of the way, here is the standard, ridiculous Justin 3000-word analysis of every meaningless aspect of this film! (No seriously, this is 3000 words long and is very ridiculous. If you’ve never stumbled upon Esteban Was Eaten! before, you don’t know the neurotic horror that lies below.)
I found the whole thrust of the story pretty tedious which is crazy because it’s a science-fiction movie about a dystopian future wherein teenagers are thrown into an arena to kill each other! How could that not be enthralling? But that framework, at least in film form, was completely underwhelming in its details for me. Just about all of the tributes are hastily presented as really generic characters, making their inevitable demises uninteresting and entirely without weight. Even Katniss and Peeta are severely undeveloped (aside from their stiff “here’s what our characters are thinking!” exchange the night before the Games, I can’t remember either of them disclosing anything meaningful about themselves either in words or actions that we didn’t know in the first 15 minutes or so). Flat, undefined characters are fine (and usually even welcome) in something like Death Race 2000 or any other B-movie centered on competitive murder but Hunger Games takes itself so very seriously, its disinterest in making the rest of the movie remotely three-dimensional just left me completely detached. Like, I understand that I’m supposed to care about these characters but amidst all these very serious facial expressions and dialogue, you’ve given me very little reason to remain engaged with these people, much less actively care about them.
Even amongst the negative reviews, one common sentiment shared by just about every critic is that this movie is some sort of showcase for Jennifer Lawrence, that she gives a “star-making” performance. Well… I don’t understand things, unless “star-making” just means “being the lead in a movie that makes a buttload of money”. Because Lawrence’s character in this movie is painfully boring (I must assume this label applies only to the character written for the screen because there’s no way anyone could sustain a boring character for three books and also because I’ve seen her in other films and she is the goods). She has roughly two moments where she’s not staring blankly at something (they were: when she shoves Peeta against a wall in anger and when Rue dies in front of her). Her performance wasn’t bad, by any means but it seemingly had so little to work with, I certainly can’t say I found it memorable (which is a real shame because if the press tour for this movie proved anything, it’s that Jennifer Lawrence is endlessly lovable).
One part of this story/universe I still cannot grasp, even after watching the film: how in the world does anyone believe it’s a good idea to throw 12-year-olds into this event? I’m aware that Panem is a totalitarian state seemingly uninterested in human rights but even looking at it purely as an organization dedicated towards generating entertainment value and TV ratings, how did anyone approve this? Y’know what happens to pint-sized 12-year-olds who make it in? They get quickly dispatched by kids of adult size and strength. Or they climb trees and hide for a few days and then get killed. Do you know why Lord of the Flies is so compelling? Because they’re all kids under age 13. Do you know why Battle Royale is so compelling? Because it’s twisted and funny. Also, because all the kids are under 15. To mix and match ages in the Hunger Games event is a gaping chasm of unfairness that was even evident in the trailer. But really, how stupid is it (again, strictly speaking for the good of Panem’s TV ratings) that there could be a time when Primrose and Gale end up fighting each other in the arena? It would end in six seconds. Come on.
(P.S., the people who are seemingly upset about Hunger Games’ similarity to Battle Royale should watch both before deciding. Oh, and take comfort in that Battle Royale is a much more singular film. But really, there’s very little in common, between them. Also, these critics should realize that “people being put into an arena to fight to the death” was invented before Battle Royale. And John Carter of Mars. And America. And Japan. And film. And photography. It was done with participants called “gladiators”. No really, look it up. People updating this concept to the reality television age and making it “edgy” by including children as combatants is not really the most difficult idea at which to arrive. Plus, both films were based on books, released in 2000 and 2008, respectively — this supposed disdain for the “copycat” nature of Games should’ve been raised four years ago. Oh, and do you think there’s any chance Suzanne Collins had seen a cult Japanese horror comedy before conceiving of the first Hunger Games book in 2005 or so? Great minds, people.)
On the point of fairness between competitors and whatnot: was I crazy or was it established more than once that Katniss is basically the favorite to win the Hunger Games? In addition to the fact that they empirically evaluate her to be an 11 out of 12 (the highest rating shown amongst the tributes), it seems like many people were very much convinced she had a legitimate chance to win (and I’m not counting her inner circle, whose support goes without saying). Even considering her archery prowess, that decision seemed like a really strange contextual angle, especially for a protagonist — rooting for the favorite, only to watch her spend the majority of her first few days in the arena basically hiding was confounding. How am I supposed to be rooting for her to survive and make it back to her sister if everyone else seems to think she’s the odds-on favorite and then she relegates herself to sitting in trees? I obviously understand that strategy from a real-world, survival standpoint but in terms of “a movie I’m going to sit and watch for two hours”, I’d rather my hero start… y’know, doing something. OR just make her the underdog and sort of emphasize her less-active strategy as being necessary to win, as the underdog.
I’m glad the movie spent no less than six scenes stressing how important it is for the tributes to try and be likable in order to earn sponsors to get supplies. Especially when there were precisely TWO subsequent instances where any sponsor sends anything to anyone. That’s it! And even worse: both times, it’s just Woody Harrelson sending something to Katniss (or at least, he’s the one who puts the message in the container — if he’s the middleman for the sponsors, that was never made clear). We don’t see anyone else get anything from any sponsor. We don’t even see anyone watching the Games on TV and saying “oh, I like him/her” and sending along supplies as a sponsor (we barely see anyone even watching the Games on TV, at all). Countless times, the movie drives home the idea that Peeta and Katniss pretending to be in a relationship would be good for them when it came to earning sponsors… and it never bears any results at all. So tell me: why did we need that 20 minutes of exposition in a 142 minute movie? Set something up, pay it off. Or *gasp* edit this thing.
Speaking of Woody Harrleson’s character: it’s weird that his very limited advice is presented as invaluable experience from a previous winner because it’s completely obvious common sense and not very unique at all (plus, the idea of his “previous winner” status carrying any weight is dumb considering he won over 20 years ago and they change the setting of the Hunger Games every year). Oh, don’t step off the platform before the countdown is over? Jeez, I’m glad you’re here. Oh, I need to find water? Thanks, Woody. Never would’ve considered that. Oh, don’t run into the open-space slaughter zone with 23 other people fighting for supplies, right at the beginning? Another great tip, sensei.
Oh, and this is the first major movie I can remember that took the “inflated sense of danger regarding the untamed jungle” idea, removed the idea of dinosaurs or monsters, replacing them with overexposure or disease… AND STILL DIDN’T DELIVER. The training sequences are peppered with comments about how the survival skills are what will be most valuable to the tributes, about how many tributes will die due to the elements or starvation rather than at the hands of another competitor. And naturally, how many people died from something that was completely due to the environment? ZERO. One girl gets stung to death by wasps (a situation that only occurs due to Katniss provoking/displacing the wasps) and one girl eats poisoned berries (which were placed out as a trap by Peeta). That’s it. Katniss’ injury/burn came about as a result of the people-in-charge-of-the-game starting the fire and shooting fireballs at her. Peeta’s injury began as a sword wound. Every other death that we see comes at the hands of a fellow competitor. So why repeatedly drive home the idea that survival skills outside of combat are so very important?
Some more unconnected thoughts:
- While my science-fiction aptitude is largely relegated to the more mainstream titles, one thing I absolutely can’t get my head around in any sci-fi media is when art directors over-design the hell out of the future seemingly for no other reason than to try and really cram the notion of “hey, this is the FUTURE! ISN’T IT CRAZY?” down our throats (except when it’s done for satire, like in The Fifth Element). And this movie was so over-designed in the Capitol that I was repeatedly taken out of the moment whenever we cut away from the arena or District 12. How am I expected to experience anything other than unintentional comedy when watching Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, or Wes Bentley, with their wardrobe/hairstyles? I love Stanley Tucci but good God, I couldn’t take anything he was saying seriously. Reading about a guy with a weird blue pompadour and iridescent glittery blue suit is one thing. Watching it? Not the same. Stages and pages are different. I couldn’t take anyone seriously except Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz (who, by the way, bucks the trend of most other musicians and is actually an effective actor), Donald Sutherland, and the tributes because they didn’t look like rejected concept art for Zoolander characters or costume designs from Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (and I’m not including when the tributes were in those chariots — the movie started edging towards being completely laughable at that point). If one thing is going to look ridiculous, it all needs to look ridiculous. Otherwise, keep the “designy” ideas within about 15 degrees of reasonability (see: Star Wars, Star Trek, Firefly, basically any science-fiction story that isn’t absurd in its designs).
- This is yet another movie somehow convinced that disorienting the viewer with copious jarring camera movements during action is a perfect way to entertain us. It’s not. Please, please stop. Nobody likes this. How is this still a thing that happens? “Yeah, so move and shake the camera a lot and cut every 16 frames — people love that. Not-knowing what you’re looking at or what is going on is the hallmark of any great film.” You can convey kinetic action and adrenaline-fueled characters without completely confusing the audience. I know this because I’ve seen it in all the good, visually coherent action movies ever made. “Shaky cam” very very very rarely serves any purpose and we can add Hunger Games to the remarkably long list of modern films wherein that visual style yet again fails to do anybody any good (it also falls into the category of modern films which insanely mixes shaky cam with very standard, static beautiful cinematography).
- Did the book ever address the inherent stupidity of the four “bad” kids (plus Peeta) forming an alliance and/or the politics within that group? Based on the movie that we got, I think knowing what all of those kids went through for their brief time together would be far more interesting. First of all, how did the Alliance materialize? Did they discuss it beforehand? In the arena? Were any of them romantically involved? Further: how do you just go to sleep with four people around you, all of whom absolutely want to kill you? What was their endgame? That’s a movie’s worth of psychological warfare, right there. Of course, we were offered no glimpse as to its inner-workings.
- On that point: it seems weird that with the Districts who are described as basically raising their kids to be lethal in the Hunger Games, more kids wouldn’t just volunteer. Especially when there’s such a huge prize for winning. I can’t believe there wouldn’t be at least one volunteer, every year, from each district. Is it really preferable to live in a terrible coal-mining town forever?
- Remember when they unleashed a massive fireball-fueled wildfire to force Katniss back towards the other tributes? And she’s nearly incinerated and/or crushed multiple times? How do the Panem audiences generally respond to one of the most popular/favored combatants being murdered by the government people for no good reason? Seems like a very misguided decision, if your goal is to please the masses and quell uprisings.
- Oh, and hey — all those big bear-like dogs unleashed to kill the remaining tributes? How does that work, when the dogs actually wipe out all the remaining combatants (which they very nearly did in the film)? Do the dogs know how many people are left and when to stop killing everybody? Do the Panem audiences really respond to nobody winning or to the people in charge of the Games completely shifting the purpose of this event from “fight to the death” to “try to not get eaten by these monsters”? The end of the film suggested that the higher-ups really frown upon any result that doesn’t produce a single victor. So how would en masse dog slaughter play in the Districts?
- Logical question: why were Peeta and Katniss just walking through the woods at night, even after hearing some sorts of monster-sized growls? She knew better than anyone that sleeping in a tree was a wise way to go, just for safety from other tributes. But of course, on this night, something like a dozen bear-dogs have also been added to the mix… they’re in the shadows… and she sees no need to climb a tree for safety? That was some very convenient stupidity-fueled drama for both characters in a movie that spent the last 2 hours suggesting that these two were very smart/capable of surviving.
- People said “may the odds be ever in your favor” way too many times. Especially when it was being said it to multiple tributes at once — odds can’t be in more than one person’s favor, at the same time. If you can say “star-crossed lovers” 86 times, we can deal with you just telling us that “good luck” is still a common sentiment in the future and the “odds” nonsense is only said in one-on-one situations.
- I still don’t understand the point of the Hunger Games themselves. Oh, it’s penance for the uprising? It seems like the incredibly vast disparity in socioeconomic conditions between the Capital and many of the districts was doing a pretty good job of keeping the people at bay. And as we glimpsed in District 11, it seems like murdering people’s children might occasionally spark a bit of rebellion. But that’s me — kill 23 kids a year and I’m sure nobody will ever get that upset.
Just because I don’t like to sling critiques without offering up help, here’s two ideas I’m offering up, to make this movie incrementally better:
- Considering she doesn’t do anything terribly interesting with it until the last 40 minutes or so anyway (and even then… ehhh), there should’ve been a better ramp-up to the “Katniss finally gets a bow and arrow” moment and a lot more pay-off. Like, show how proficient she is with it back at home in the woods obviously. But insert the story idea that, once she’s in the Games, she’s reluctant to use it because she doesn’t want to kill anyone (which is consistent with her character in the film). You could totally build in an Unforgiven-type situation where she’s resistant to even pick up a bow because she knows if she does, people are going to be in trouble. But then she is finally resigned to use it to save someone (Rue or Peeta or herself or whomever) and it’s a total hero moment. As it stands, she uses her arrows in the arena three times. Once, in a blur, after a little girl is speared (impressive and justified). Once to open a bag of apples from a few hundred feet away (a clever sequence but still, not the most distinct “oh, awesome!” moment). And then to shoot through a guy’s forearm (one of the most anticlimactic villain deaths I can remember), and then she kills him instantly when he’s being eaten alive by dogs (a nice character gesture but still far from the big finish she probably deserved to deliver). That’s it. That’s all she does for us, with her really distinctive skill. And she’s our protagonist? Be a hero, girl. I’m sure the books are far more elaborate but based on her iconic status as a character and the fact that they casted such a strong actor on which to found this franchise, I really expected Katniss to have a lot more to offer, even if it was just mindless and generic action hero arrow slinging. The only even remotely cool moment she has with a bow-and-arrow is when she shoots the apple out of that pig’s mouth in front of all the higher-ups (tangent: what is going on, with her and apples? Is that backstory explained in the books?). And that wasn’t even really that important, to her or the story. I wanted her to be as cool as people say she is.
- The whole sudden “we changed the rules, two people from the same District can both win” and “whoops, nevermind!” gear changes are just insulting (especially because they are delivered in the form of loudspeaker announcements, as if this is dinner theater and the audience is just trying to screw with the actors). It’s like bad TV or comic book writing, where everyone is concerned about a looming obstacle one week but it’s quickly erased the next week and then “un-erased” the week after that because doing so turns one dramatic moment into a series of very similar dramatic moments, but all ultimately with the same result. Take that “fool’s gold” drama out, and just have Katniss and Peeta know that they would never be able to kill each other as they both prepare to eat the poisoned berries at the end. Also: we never even heard about these berries existing in the arena until about 10 minutes before this climax — introduce them a little earlier so that, at that climax, we can maybe believe that both Katniss and Peeta kept some of these berries in their pockets from the jump, knowing that if it came down to the two of them, they’d be able to commit suicide in defiance of the rules. As it stands now, the berries are a very sudden, convenient and sanitary way to kill one tribute and then (almost) the two lead characters. I want to believe they had a connection that didn’t just occur very quickly so that the movie could end.
In just about every scene, The Hunger Games felt like a book adaptation that was so eager to include as much of the narrative as possible, it rationalized all abbreviated character information as being unnecessary because most of the people buying tickets would be people who had already read the book (all of whom would have this character information stored in their brains). This is fine. Except for people who had not already the book. So, I guess it’s my fault?
Truthfully, this strange double-edged sword predilection movie studios have to “stick to the source material” at the expense of the film itself is why so many of these popular modern adaptations are so incredibly uninteresting: turning a book into a 2-hour film is likely going to require some effort in the storytelling department. To appease all the diehard fans with a verbatim adaptation while also making a movie that stands on its own and appeals to people who just want to see a good story in a movie is nigh impossible. Things need to be reshaped, added, removed, and (imagine the impertinence) adapted. This is the main problem with modern films relying so heavily on adapting other media: it’s not the mere fact that these films are adaptations, it’s that the modern formula for adapting them is so uninterested in taking any care or employing any artistry in translating them (and if you think Hollywood “used to be original”, read a book — dating all the way back to the 1930s, an overwhelming abundance of Hollywood films, from award-winners to box-office champions, were adapted very closely from other media).
Think of a book as a square peg and a film as a round hole. In the past, there were people who realized that these two things didn’t “fit” on their own, so they worked to shape the square peg to fit that round hole. Now? They crack it, splinter it, and shove it in as best they can before walking away. And if you didn’t know about that square peg, pre-shoving… you’re just going to be lost and bored. See: me, while watching The Hunger Games.
[If you can offer up some information from the book(s) that refutes or alleviates some of the points raised here, please do. But if it’s not in the movie, I can’t really say it’s my fault I wasn’t aware of it.]