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Grab Bag Review: ‘The Hunger Games’ Kills It

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hunger games posterThis is a surprisingly good adaptation of the popular Young Adult novel by Suzanne Collins. Gary Ross (who also directed Seabiscuit, Pleasantville, and who wrote Big) nails the sombre and unjust tone of the novel.  The satire of reality tv and repressive government is mild but the broader themes of subtle resistance and ethical sacrifice are used to good measure. Jennifer Lawrence, as expected, is a natural Katniss Everdeen and her subdued emotion sears the screen. It’s not a breathtaking film but it is very satisfying for Hunger Gamers as well as those unaware of the book series.

Don’t think there is some Twilight tween crush kind of fandom propping up The Hunger Games. These books are serious and brutally stark. It’s not quite The Road for kids but it does paint a dismal not too distant future. The story has something for everyone with love triangles and fights to the death.

Here is the plot synopsis:  Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister’s place for the latest match.-imdb.com

Katniss is an excellent and realistic heroine. There aren’t many young female protagonists like her on the silver screen. Her ethics and her strengths and weaknesses made her resonant with American kids, girls especially, but it’s not a gender-focused story. Katniss is a clever survivalist but she is also heroic for taking care of her family not just by hunting game. She saves lives but she is nothing like an untouchable superhero. She is vulnerable, trying to hide her tears when her luck consistently turns bad and has second thoughts about her decisions while trying to maintain an veneer of confidence. Anyway, just know that the story provides an accessible and great female role model but young boys won’t even think twice that a kid with two X chromosomes is the badass hero.

katniss hunger games jennifer lawrence

Jennifer Lawrence basically played the same character in Winter’s Bone (one of the best films of 2010).  Some other memorable performances come from Woody Harrelson as the mentor, Haymitch, and Donald Sutherland as President Snow. There wasn’t enough of Haymitch’s drunk belligerence but it worked. None of the young actors chewed the scenery and the casting in general was well done.

The action was exciting and the style of the movie made the film very tense. There are a few countdown sequences when the Hunger Games arena is revealed and I was holding my breath. Katniss shakes with fear and it really made me anxious despite knowing everything that was going to happen. Speaking of which, there are no big divergences from the book; little things are changed but I think mostly the changes made were to keep the plot paced. It’s a 2 1/2 hours film and while the exposition is slow and some might say the film is slow in general I think the space and quiet makes for a film that makes the audience pay attention. The tension waits like a taut bowstring with arrow notched. The pressure builds without ever fully breaking; I enjoy that skewed balance.

The kid-on-kid violence was handled perfectly. It was nasty and final and serious without being gory or sensationalist. I applaud director, Gary Ross’, ability to not make the audience cheer for murder or vengeance.  Mercy and compassion can co-exist with bloodsport in an action film and the stylistic choices symbolize those ethical themes without contradicting them as in so many other movies about self-defense and survival.effie trinkert and katniss elizabeth banks and jennifer lawrence

I anticipate some viewers might laugh at the costumes and not understand their purpose. Yes, the costumes are silly but they are supposed to be. The Capitol dwellers are hyper-superficial and have no idea the other districts starve to death in their neo-Roman decadence. I chuckled a bit at some of the art director too but I was able to get past it.

Minor quibbles: The actor playing Gale was too old and beefy to play an 18 year old. Not enough Rue interactions. The mockingjay pin subplot was a bit contrived compared to the book’s symbolism.

The Hunger Games is worth your time and money. Definitely needs to be seen on a big screen but the IMAX is a superfluous money-grab. I guarantee they will film the next books in the series based on how well the film is going to do financially and I look forward to seeing how the deal with the increasingly brutality.

About the author

Joe Martinez

NERD! Documentary enthusiast. Independent and foreign cinema and historic theater booster. UC Santa Barbara Film Studies graduate. Homebase in Portland, Oregon. Top 10 Films (of this moment) 1. City of Lost Children 2. Black Cat, White Cat 3. Rivers and Tides 4. Sans Soliel 5. Stop Making Sense 6. Big Lebowski 7. Brick 8. 8 1/2 9. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind 10. Waking Life

  • James Fitzpatrick

    I so was looking forward to this film and being a huge fan of the book I was let down…not to the point where I disliked the movie, but I felt the stuff they did add, didnt need to be (when is Hollywood going to get that they don’t need to add crap) and stuff they didnt focus on (such as Haymitch being a big, giant, huge drunk (I was looking forward to him falling off the stage which never happened) kind of let me down.

    I am deeply upset that there was not more with Rue (I wanted to see her “fly” through the trees), the final cornucopia scene was lackluster and I really wanted more of the gifts that were supposed to come to Katniss (the bread and sleeping drought parts of the book was meaningful to the plot of the storyline).

    Now I did think the violence was done very well. The actors were chosen well (I agree with you on Gale) and I am excited to see what they do with the next one (considering the book itself is exceptionally shorter in length (there could be a lot more character development stuff).

    • thesoymachine

       I can see your disappointment. I lowered my expectations going in. It could have been sooo much worse. I was scared kids would be cheering to see people get killed.

      I also wanted to see Rue fly and Haymitch acting more of a depressed fool. I was surprised they didn’t add the bread sponsor drop.

      Spoiler alert: I really wanted to see the mutated dogs with tribute faces. That really affected me in the book.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1021625989 Molly Olecki

    Great review, Joe. I have not read the books (for some reason, and probably to my own detriment, I am never drawn to serial novels, and especially those that gain widespread popularity).  After reading your review, I may actually give the book(s) and the movie a chance.  I am a huge Cormac McCarthy fan, so your comparison to “The Road” hooked me.  Well-written review.

    • thesoymachine

       Thank you. It’s not anything like a Cormac McCarthy story because it is much more pop-oriented. But if you like bleak futures, then you will enjoy this. I wouldn’t say it’s post-apocalyptic but it is dystopian.

  • Kirrrrst10

    I will be honest, I was really worried going into this film. I absolutely loved the book series. At the same time I also loved the twilight series. Basically, I was terrified that it would not live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, I am just using twilight as an example. By this I mean, originally I was not thrilled with their adaptation of the book. I am NOW able to enjoy the twilight films, but I feel like I have had to adapt my expectations according to the skill levels of the cast. This was simply NOT the case in the Hunger Games. I could not have been more pleased with the performance in this film. Jennifer Lawrence embodied every emotion that the book captured. She was everything I wanted Katniss Everdeen to be, and more.

    This review hits the nail right on the head. Perhaps there could have been a bit more comic relief and perhaps the role of Haymitch (the drunken mentor) could have provided this, BUT the overall tone of the film/book IS a dark one. Woody Harrelson would have had no problem with being exuberantly inebriated (just look at The People vs Larry Flynt), but It is also key to remember the teenage demographic in which this film was intended. That being said, I agree that the director played out the perfect balance of violence versus survival with the tributes in the arena. The director took kind of a Spielberg approach, using camera angles,
    music and suspense to substitute for scenes that were overtly violent. It can really be a fine line between gratuitous and hokey or dismissive violence. Since this was such a key element to the storyline it was crucial to get it right.

    In my opinion, the film provided enough foresight and background to keep those who were unfamiliar with the series to keep up. Yet simultaneously it also managed to stay true to the readers. Yes, there were subtle additions and subtractions from the original storyline, however they were mindful and ultimately served purpose. One criticism I did have was that the “love” triangle could have been better explained, but for as much as there was crammed into this first film I can understand why they left it vague. It will be interesting to see how this plays out on screen in the next two films for which I am eagerly awaiting!!!    

    P.S. Lenny Kravitz, seriously do you ever age!?!? The man is almost 50 and still a stone cold fox, that looks like he could be in his late 20′s. What is the secret Kravitz, do you feast off of the souls of the young to look like that?? Are you a Unicorn or a wizard?! Incredible…. 

    • thesoymachine

      Some more comic relief might have been nice but yep, the book is dark and so I’m glad the movie is too. I think the lack of comedy or direct jokes about the weird costumes might throw off the newbies to the story. But like you said, it does well conveying the book for newbies and fans. 

      I’m sure they couldn’t fit in the love triangle due to time but there were strong hints.  And they really made it ambiguous as to whether Peeta really likes Katniss or not. 

      Lenny does look good. He was one of the more interesting characters too. PS: What do you call Hunger Games fans? Someone realized we can’t follow the Twilight fandom’s twihard neologism because we would be Hunghards!

      • Kirrrrst10

        I almost felt like they could have used short narratives at the beginning explaining the extravagant styles of the capitol and even to cover some of the inner-monologue by Katniss in the games. On the other hand, it would have changed the feel of the movie. It would have turned into more of a story being told rather than the feeling of being the voyeur who is witnessing this girls story unfold. 

        I agree that some of the wardrobe seemed over the top costumey. At the same time, it happens pretty often that films use futuristic fashion in without bothering to explain it. In this particular film it did certainly make it easy to distinguish the rich capitol citizens from those in the districts. 

        The only concern I had with the way they did the “love” triangle is that I have heard from people who had not read the book that they thought Gale was her boyfriend. I could see how it was misleading in the film. I was totally fine with the vagueness that surrounded her relationship with Peeta. It is kind of the way it was written. I don’t want to give much away, but if you are looking for it (you read the book), the ending really does begin to elude to the conflicting emotions Katniss has. This will make it quite the hot topic in the next movie. I hope they don’t try to teeny-bop it up too much though. That would be irritating.

        Hmmmm I have not heard of any names for the fans…tributes, mocking-jays maybe lol. Hunghards works