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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  • clumsycrafter

    I haven’t seen it or read the books and honestly I don’t want to. I especially don’t want my kids watching it for a very very long time (but my oldest is barely 7). The main reason why I’m staying away from this is because of the violence. I know in other parts of the world violence is just a part of life but we have such a gift here to avoid it and keep our kids away from it. I just really feel like I need to protect myself and my kids from embracing it further. But I would love to hear your opinion on that matter because I think that you are very well thought out and motivate yourself with pureness.

    • Bobbie, I totally understand and support your position. In regards to age, I think 7 is far too young to read the books or see the movie – even in my case I haven’t allowed my 10yo son access to them (and yes, he did ask to see the movie, curious what all the hype was about). And I agree with you about the violence. I threw a fit over the amount of violence in Cars 2, and that wasn’t even a “real” movie! I think the difference for me with this book/movie (and this may seem like justification, which I understand), is the motivation behind the violence. These kids did not choose to be part of a world where the Hunger Games existed. The uprising that resulted in the Hunger Games happened generations before they were born. The book and movie do a lot to explore the idea of these kids being put in this position to survive – they do not enjoy it, the violence isn’t “fun” or done because these are malicious people. And even for the characters who *do* seem like they enjoy killing, you learn that sadly, this is who they have been forced to become (and there is one line in the film that is powerful, where you understand how much these kids regret that). The story isn’t about the violence, but about these kids being manipulated into a position to go against everything they believe in. And the story does build to a place where they choose their humanity over what a powerful, repressive society is trying to do to them. The subsequent books show how they work together to overthrow that and make it so no teen ever has to kill again. HAVING SAID ALL THAT: these are the reasons *I* made peace with the violence. But I have no expectation that others will – or even need to – feel the same. You are absolutely right in saying that with the abundance of choices we have with media, we have the luxury of choosing wisely and in our own family’s best interests. And if that includes not reading/watching The Hunger Games, I think that’s just fine!

  • Suzanne

    Both my husband and I read all three books and can’t wait to see the movie.  I saw Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone” and thought she was excellent, so your positive review of her performance (as well as the other actors) has stoked the fire even more.

    It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book where I literally couldn’t put it down.  I stayed up till 2 AM reading it wherein I had to force myself to go to bed.  Yes, it was violent and horrific in many ways but Suzanne Collins has to paint a bleak picture if we are to believe these people are living in a Dystopian society. 

    Sometimes I think YA fiction is so much better than those written for adults – unlike the Twighlight series which I found completely insipid and couldn’t get through the first book.  Blech!

    The movie review in the Austin paper gave it an A- and I can’t wait to see it.  Unfortunately it will have to wait until next week.

    Too bad the “professional reviewer” was such an ass-clown.  Just because you have the title as professional does not mean you are good at it.

    • I have to say, I generally read a lot more YA fiction than adult fiction, mostly because it tends to be “cleaner” in content and just focuses on story instead of all that other stuff (language, sex, etc). Having said that, I also thought the Twilight books were gar-baj, and was somewhat proud when even my teenage daughters started rolling their eyes at the books. Hunger Games is a much better series, and I thought the movie was top-notch!

  • Jennifer Donovan

    Hi!!!  Okay–so yes, the first part of the film totally annoyed me!! I had to just relax and try to enjoy. And the love triangle, and for goodness’ sakes, could they have not eaten some LAMB STEW??

    • Your comment about the stew cracked me up. Especially since our screening audience talked about that during some trivia questions before the movie even started.

  • Becca

    I am seeing is this evening and I can’t wait!  I have read the first two books and loved them both! 🙂

  • I watched the midnight premiere with my teenage daughter and her boyfriend.  I’m  halfway through the second book, daughter is almost done with the first book, and the boyfriend knew nothing about it going in. 
    I liked the book more than the movie but still thought the movie was worth the watch.  Alex, the boyfriend, had many, many questions regarding why people were behaving the way they were or dressed like they were.  Once he understood the gist of the plot, he enjoyed the film.  I think people who’ve read the book would understand the movie a lot more than those who haven’t but still thought it was an overall good movie for anyone.

    • Hi, Terra! Yes, I think you’re right about catching some of the more subtle details if you’ve read the book first. Also, if you’ve read the books, I think it’s easier to see how the movie fits into a much bigger picture since it’s really just the first 1/3 of a full story. That’s what I keep telling the people who are only focused on the “teens killing teens” part. It really *isn’t* what the story is about. But I get how it seems that way if someone hasn’t read all the books!

  • My only question: Why was this guy talking during the movie? You described him correctly…boorish.

    I loved the movie. I’ve read Books #1 and #2. I felt that the movie should have spent more time on the games part and less on the intro. We had too short a time to get to know who was who among the tributes/. The scenery was amazing. Especially District 12…so grim…so sad to think that people still live in those conditions in Appalachia today. Overall it was great fun.