Monday, April 2, 2012

Move Review: The Hunger Games

I got to see the movie that most middle schoolers are probably buzzing about right now--the film adaptation of Suzanne Collin's popular book, The Hunger Games.  As I've stated in my earlier reviews of that book and the series as a whole, I was surprised at how much I liked the books--for adults.   As I've stated before, at best I don't think most middle schoolers will appreciate the best parts of the books, and at worst, it will add to the extremely violent and depressing literature that make up too much of our young adolescents' reading (in my opinion).

However, with that disclaimer out of the the way, here is what I liked and didn't like about the movie.  Overall, I think they did an excellent job adapting the book--about as good a job as I could have imagined.  It does leave me with some concerns, however....  (And for those who haven't read the book, I'm not going to discuss specific plot devices that would be "spoilers.")

Good Points:

1.  It is a very faithful adaptation
Book fans will be glad to know that the moviemakers have stuck very closely to the text of the novel.  I'm not as familiar with this book as I was with the Harry Potter series, but I noticed only a few deviations from the story as I remember it, and they were pretty minor.

2.  The casting is excellent
All I can say about the cast and the acting is WOW!  There were some roles I knew would be great, such as Stanley Tucci (whom I LOVE as an actor) as Caesar Flickerman, and Elizabeth Banks lived up to my expectations for her role as Effie Trinket based on the photos they had released beforehand.  Before I saw the movie, I wasn't so sure about Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy, but it turned out that this was the best think I had seen him do in years.  I never thought that much about the appearance or personalities of people like President Snow or Seneca Crane, but I really like how Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley  portrayed them.

But even more important, of course, were all the young people who played the leading roles of Katniss, Peeta, Gale, and Prim, along with all the other combatants in the games.  I thought all of them did a wonderful job.  Everyone is raving about Jennifer Lawrence's job as Katniss, and I think she made a great Katniss.  But I was also struck by how well I thought Josh Hutcherson brought the role of Peeta to life.  I think Peeta is harder to play than most people realize.  In my mind (and to borrow a term from the Harry Potter world), Peeta is the ultimate Hufflepuff.   He is not the bold and intense Katniss, nor the mysterious and charismatic Gale, or even the intelligent and winsome Rue.  He is just a really good guy, faithful and true, brave and uncomplaining.  He is open and honest and loyal, and the kind of person who would never go back on his word.  It is the kind of role that is easy to make him seem more simple than he really is.  But in many ways, he is the moral compass of the entire series, so it is important that he not appear too common or obvious, because what Peeta represents may be the rarest quality in the world of The Hunger Games.  Anyway, I was very impressed with how Hutcherson presented this character.

3.  The violence was handled very sensitively
I applaud how the movie handled the MANY acts of violence in the film.  They didn't downplay it in the plot, or sugarcoat the killing of children by other children.  However, they tended to stylize the killings themselves, and avoided making them very gory bloodbaths.  I appreciated that for my own desire not to be bombarded with violent images, let alone for spairing the PG-13 crowd for which the movie is intended.

4.  The visual presentation of the disparate worlds of Panem was striking
I'm not a very visual reader; in my mind as I read, I focus much more on characters than on settings.  So I hadn't really pictured what life would look like, either in Katniss' home of District 12 or in the lush, high-tech Capitol.   Thus, I loved the way the film painted those two worlds for me.   To me, the Capitol scenes seemed to be inspired by the Judy Garland move of The Wizard of Oz meets Star Wars.  The bright and garish colors and over-the-top fashions made the denizens of the Capitol look like futuristic Munchins (except of normal heights and proportions, of course).  District 12, on the other hand, being the coal mining region, looked like those black and white photos of Appalachian miners taken during the Depression.  Then, of course, you had the wilderness where most of the actual Games themselves took place (and filmed largely here in North Carolina).  It made an excellent triangle of the options available to inhabitants of Panem, all without saying a word about the politics of life there.

Bad Points:

1.  The character of Katniss is softened
I don't think this was intentional, and I don't know how the film could have avoided it.  The problem is, particularly during the Games themselves, Katniss is often alone, and so her plans and reactions to events is told through her inner dialogue.  But her inner dialogue is so much more complex that her actions alone, which is what the movie portrays.  In the book, she is single-minded, ruthless, and constantly scheming and assessing what will help her towards her goal.   She is willing to lie, cheat, steal, and kill to get what she wants (in contrast to Peeta, who might do some, but not all of those things).  However, I don't think you necessarily get that if you watch the film without reading the book.  It could be quite easy to misinterpret some of her actions as coming from other motivations than her simple determination to win the Games.

2.  The political messages are lessened
The reason I really liked The Hunger Games series was the things it had in common with 1984 (critique of totalitarianism), not what it shares with Twilight (love triangle set in a dangerous and fantastical world) or with...I don't know, Clash of the Titans or Transformers or whatever books or movie deal with young people battling enemies (that is, just out-and-out youth violence), since I never watch those kinds of movies.

But, as with the character development of Katniss, this aspect of the series, particularly in the first book, is told mainly through exposition.  And most of that exposition is missing in the movie.  The histories of the Games, the political mechinations of Capitol residents, leaders, and sponsors, the allotted roles of the different Districts, and much more along this vein are all left out of the movie.   Therefore, the political implications of the whole thing are merely suggested, rather than reinforced.

These are more central themes of the later books, and so I expect they will be more important in the movies to come.  But the lack of the political message is a real issue for me, and probably my biggest concern about the movie.

After all, we are all supposed to be disgusted with the pleasure that the decadent residents of the Capitol get from watching children kill each other.  But if the movie of The Hunger Games is simply all about the action-driven plot, how much better are we for getting pleasure out of watching children pretend to kill each other?

And that is my predominant concern about middle schoolers watching this movie if they haven't read the book.


  1. I find the removal of the political messages from the movie deeply ironic, given the nature of the messages. Admittedly, getting political messages out has been much harder for movie makers, historically, than for book authors. The censorship on movies has always been much harsher. I am watching the indie movie maker movement, and of course DIY tools like YouTube, and seeing a lot of changes in that. Still, we will probably experience this effect in all blockbaster movies and books.

    For example, "Harry Potter" books feature an underground resistance network, with teens secretly training themselves for combat. The political aspects of this message - that citizens need to be prepared to take matters into their own hands, if need be - are really downplayed in the movies. Heck, a lot of people missed that whole "right to bear arms" and the corresponding government prohibition on gatherings and societies theme in the books too.

  2. I don't know what to say except that I agree. I guess commercial movies cost a lot more than books, and so movie makers downplay the more serious, disturbing, or controversial themes and focus on the entertainment to draw in the largest audiences.

  3. Oh, I think politics would draw people all right! It became popular in the last four or five years. It's cool, again, to be active politically. I believe the reason it's excluded is censorship. But I am not sure how it's enacted, and what forces are behind it. I don't believe someone in a gray suit comes from the government and tells the director what to remove from a movie, lol.