Movie Review: The Hunger Games

At the screening I attended for the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ young adult book The Hunger Games, we sat next to a quote-unquote professional film critic* who had not read any of the books. As we listened to his audible impatience with a few scenes in the movie (“What does that mean?,” “What’s that all about?”), it begged the question: do you need to have read The Hunger Games books to understand what happens in the movie?

No, I don’t think so. But it would help if you had some patience to just let the story wash over you, and pay attention to a few of the finer details the filmmakers lay out for everyone, whether you’ve read the book or not.

The Hunger Games Movie Poster

If you haven’t read the book, a synopsis:

Every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the evil Capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. A twisted punishment for a past uprising and an ongoing government intimidation tactic, The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event in which “Tributes” must fight with one another until one survivor remains. Pitted against highly-trained Tributes who have prepared for these Games their entire lives, Katniss is forced to rely upon her sharp instincts as well as the mentorship of drunken former victor Haymitch Abernathy. If she’s ever to return home to District 12, Katniss must make impossible choices in the arena that weigh survival against humanity and life against love. 

If you are a Hunger Games fan, let me say this: the film is incredibly faithful to the books. I felt immense gratitude for that, and perhaps the continuity is due to Suzanne Collins’ part in adapting the screenplay. The movie is a very fluid representation of the book, from character personalities and development, to the physical landscape, to the intensity of the Games themselves, and the deeper, more emotional questions of the story.

The look of the film was everything I imagined and more. The film was shot entirely in North Carolina, and from the drab surroundings of District 12 to the lush Games Arena, the geography was perfect. As were the costumes, which ranged from threadbare monotones in the outlying districts to the explosion of color and opulence of the Capitol. Even the futuristic train and hovercrafts felt right.

The casting for Hunger Games is brilliant. My biggest doubts were over Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, but he delivered a surprisingly understated, wry performance. Stanley Tucci was great fun as Caesar Flickerman, Elizabeth Banks was almost unrecognizable as Effie Trinket, and Lenny Kravitz was touching as Cinna. I thought Josh Hutcherson was fabulous as the likeable, well-meaning Peeta. But it was Jennifer Lawrence who truly carried this film. Her thoughtful, earnest portrayal of Katniss gave the movie a sense of weight and helped build the film’s momentum through anxiety, to survival, and ultimate rebellion.

Having to “get past” the violence of the story might be hard for some, but you must in order to appreciate this movie. While I think the worst of the “bloodbath” is done without gratuitously lingering on the deaths, there are some up-close-and-personal scenes of the characters killing and being killed (ie: a snapped neck, a head bashed in, a spear pulled from the chest). I can’t sugarcoat this for you: this is an intense film with a lot of violence. And yet, I honestly think children 10 and older will be okay to watch it, most especially if they’ve already read the books. There were a few scenes during the portrayal of the Games when my screening audience actually cheered. I’m not sure what that meant about us, but there it is.

I felt there were definite strengths and weaknesses in adapting the Hunger Games for film. For instance, I don’t believe the “love-triangle” aspect was fully fleshed out, and Peeta and Katniss’ romance seemed about as superficial as it was meant to appear to the Capitol. On the other hand, I was absolutely intrigued by what was happening outside the Arena during the actual Hunger Games. In the book we are limited to Katniss’ perspective, but in the film, we get to see what is happening in the different districts, how Katniss’ childhood friend (and Peeta’s potential rival) Gale reacts to the Games, and especially how Game Maker Seneca Crane – a minor character in the book, but given much more space in the film – orchestrates and manipulates the drama within the Games.

And though it is minor, I have to mention my frustration with the cinematography in the first 15-20 minutes of the movie. I am not sure why, but the filmmakers decided to go with very (VERY) choppy camera work from the very first moment of the film, and I felt nauseous and annoyed right out of the gate. Which made me sad – I wanted all that “technique” to get out of the way and just let me watch the story unfold. I’m not sure if they thought it would serve as a storytelling device – conveying a sense of upheaval and confusion and desperation – but it was terribly distracting and unnecessary. Thankfully, after the first 20 minutes or so, the camera settled down.

I am so happy to say that The Hunger Games is a solid, quality film. It does justice to a book series that bucks the trend of “fluffier” young adult fiction (and an adapted film series) that has been popular in recent years. I could probably write 1000 more words about all of my favorite scenes, the moments of subtle brilliance, the times when my heart was racing, even though I already knew every inch of the story. But really, all I have left to say is: GO SEE THIS MOVIE.

Quick info:

  • Comes out Friday, March 23
  • Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens

What about you? If you’ve seen the film – what did you think? If you haven’t seen it yet – what are you looking forward to? or what are you most curious about? I’d love to hear from fellow Hunger Games fans and movie goers!

*I say “quote-unquote” because he made a point to repeat this fact several times to those of us sitting around him, and he was boorish and rude and really thought quite highly of himself. But then he acted very UN-professionally (in my mind) by making irritating comments throughout the film. It was frustrating.

*Disclosure: Lionsgate provided media passes for the screening of this film. No compensation was received for this post. All opinions expressed are honest and my own.

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