Reflections on The Hunger Games Film Adaptation

I attended the midnight screening last night and I figure it’s best to put down my initial thoughts while they are fresh in my head. Also, I may tweak this post later and I do apologize for my sleepy-eyed voice and any grammar mistakes below…yawn…

WARNING: Contains movie spoilers and book spoilers

Seriously, if you haven’t both seen the movie and read the book you probably don’t want to read this.

First of all, I must say what a thrill it was to unexpectedly find out that director Gary Ross was at the theater my friends and I chose for the midnight screening (The Arclight Hollywood, specifically, in the Dome). My friend Barbra got a photo with him, and he came into our theater before the movie started and introduced the film. Of all the theaters in all of LA and beyond! What a truly memorable moment. He said, “I tried to cut it down but couldn’t get it any shorter than two hours and twenty-two minutes. I hope you enjoy it.”

Overall, The Hunger Games film adaptation has sweeping arcs of greatness, but a handful of shortcomings surprised me. I appreciate that the film is as long as it is and I am still taking it all in. The film is extremely faithful to the book in many, many ways, but one departure in particular made little sense to me. Anywhoo, let’s start with–

-Topic #1: Things I loved about the movie

1. The inclusion of Katniss’ backstory, i.e. the story of how she lost her father, how her mother reacted and the burden that placed on her. In this story innocence is already lost and Katniss is not growing up, she already has grown up. Instead, not only have her parents been taken from her, but her entire world is filled with injustice and pain. She does what she must to survive and she does what little she can to stand up against the injustice brought against her. This is not lost in the film.

2. The execution of the reaping, and I really liked the blood prick scanner system of checking everyone in.

3. The look on Jennifer Lawrence’s face during the reaping. The best acting of the movie, in my opinion.

4. The propaganda film played during the reaping.

5. Every scene outside of the games that took place during the games. A great way to show the politics involved.

6. A scene on the train ride to the Capitol (discussed below)

7. Stanley Tucci

8. Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley, Donald Sutherland

9. The poetic horror of Seneca Crane’s demise.

10. Thresh

11. The inclusion of a District 11 rebellion scene

12. The Tim Burton-esq approach to truly capture Collins’ descriptions of the Capital inhabitants’ attire.

13. The effort to show a broad, epic worldview

14. The fact that it gives so much to take in that despite its faults, I would like to see it again.

15. The fact that there are many things to love about this film.

-Topic #2: The world of Panem and its visual effects

The film met my expectations (which were very high) as far as art direction and some set design go. District 12, the day of the reaping, the train ride all looked great. Some shots of the Capital were breathtaking while others looked a little too “closed in.” Meaning, I knew what I was looking at was supposed to be epic and grand but I had to really try not to “see” the flatness of the obvious green screen that was used to create the effect. A mixture of “made sets” helped combat this, but for example, the chariot scene was not up to par. I still find it hard to swallow when films made in 1993 (1993!!!!) have visual effects that outshine a 2012 film (I’m referencing Jurassic Park here) and the fact that a 30 million dollar film that BLEW ME AWAY (District 9) could outshine a film that cost almost 100 million to make.

The chariot scene was either shot too close up or too far away and the impact of the scene was greatly lost as a result. It made the film feel smaller. The CG is actually a pretty big flaw the more I think about it. They absolutely  should have been able to do a better job with it. It almost felt like a throwback to sci-films that are around 20 years old. In that way, I could almost enjoy the flat effects. Why not? Look old school. Sure. The sets reminded me of Beetlejuice or the Flintstones mixed with futurism. It was kind of cool. It was different but I guess that mentality doesn’t really make sense. At the end of the day, it was interesting but it didn’t blow me away.

I do want to point out that some of the unusual look of the film is based on the unusual nature of the technology that exists in this fictional world. For example, the fake fire that lights Katniss’ outfit while on the chariot and later her dress at Caesar’s talk show is just a little odd for me to see on screen, and truth be told, I had trouble picturing it in the novel too.

And a brief mention for the CG super dogs, or whatever you call them. I am glad that they are seen in the dark, but still, their CG quality stands out. I am glad, however, that the film did not attempt to make the connection that the dogs are the souls or bodies of the deceased tributes re-made by the mad scientists of the Capital. That was a tough sell for me in the book to begin with. I can’t imagine how that would have come across authentic on screen.

But really, thank goodness the CG is minimal in the arena.

-Topic #3: The Action within the arena

As it turns out, my favorite scene in the entire film is one I could not have imagined picking before going into the theater. It’s a very small scene that takes place inside the train on the way to the Capital. Katniss is alone in one of the cars and she turns the TV on and sees a news report recapping last year’s games. On the screen we watch in horror as the last tribute alive bashes in the head of the second-to-last surviving tribute with a blood soaked brick. The moment is raw, awful and very real and over it all we hear the talk show host say something like, “I love this moment. The moment when a contestant becomes a victor.” There was so much power in that scene and I could feel the desperation and brutality of it. Honestly, I’m not sure I ever got there again with the rest of the action.

That being said, I do remember having a stress lump in my throat for a big chunk of the time spent in the arena and the opening cornucopia scene was handled well. It was as brutal as I imagined it to be even though it was handled with quick cuts and close up shots. I could fill in the blanks and honestly, I didn’t want to see more. The large splattering of blood was enough.

The action handled in the arena, like most aspects of the film, was a mixed bag. Much like the chariot scene, some of the sequences seemed to have been shot too close up, while others felt too far away. For example, when Cato returns to find his stash of goods has been destroyed, his outburst of rage fell flat. Half of the audience laughed. We are supposed to be terrified of this boy and yet, in the height of his anger, we laugh. The shot is wide and Cato’s outburst is observed from a distance. I enjoyed seeing him at the end of the film but there wasn’t enough there to truly make Cato stand out the way he does in the book. The same thing happened with the kiss in the cave. It was over so fast. We didn’t get to absorb Katniss’ choice or that moment. Something felt off to me. I wanted to feel more drawn into the story at this point. I wanted to feel more of the hatred, pain, and desperation that should be permeating the games. But, it felt a bit stale.

Rue’s death sequence didn’t work for me this time around, something, once again, about the close up angles, the pacing and actually, the acting as well. I was not drawn in and I wanted to be. I think I’ll see this film at least once more in theaters and see if I can feel any differently about that. I do think that the pull back reveal shot of the spear has impact but it wasn’t enough to save the sequence for me. I did though feel more from the scene that followed when Katniss covers her body with flowers and signs to the hidden camera.

I enjoyed the scene when Thresh saves Katniss, but the fight between himself and the other tribute looked hokey to me. Her death barely looked passable.

Basically, I wanted a Gladiator feeling. I wanted to experience the games as Russell Crowe experienced them in the Colosseum. The action in Gladiator felt very real and the moment Crowe defies the emperor is saturated with palpable emotion. When that thought crossed my mind, I had to remind myself that perhaps the key difference is simply, this is a YA story and it needed a PG-13 rating. But, I hate to say that because part of what I love about the book is that I don’t think it panders to a young audience. It simply exists as the story it is and the emotion is there regardless. Something, it seems, is lost in this translation.

-Topic #4: Deviations from the book that stuck out

Peeta and the burnt bread. Yeah, what happened here? I’m a fairly open minded person when it comes to adaptations. If the changes get the general effect of what happened in the book and the correct theme comes across, I’m fine with tweaks in story. They have to happen in adaptations sometimes. This change, however, was not one of those smart changes and for a film that was so faithful to its source material, I was very surprised by this change.

In the book, Katniss remembers being a starving little girl after her father has passed away and her mother has retreated to a catatonic state. She can’t feed her sister, she can’t feed herself. She hasn’t eaten for three days when she gets yelled at by Peeta’s mom (I think) for going through their trash. Peeta witnesses this. In her despair she huddles in Peeta’s backyard, in the rain. As she sits there, she hears a loud crash and Peeta is yelled at and hit by his mom for being so stupid as to burn their bread. He is told to throw it to the pigs and so, when he goes outside, he instead throws the bread at Katniss and hurries back in before his mother will notice.

In the film, Katniss is a teen who by what we’ve seen by now has Gale, as well as some pretty stellar hunting skills so I’m not sure why she’s sitting in Peeta’s backyard in the rain like that. She’s not a a baby anymore. And, then as Peeta feeds the pigs he sees her and throws a piece at her.

The difference: In the book we realize that Peeta has always had compassion for her and that he knowingly endured a beating by his mother in order to feed her. In the movie, all we know is that Peeta had extra bread and he tossed some her way. And later in the cave, Peeta even says, “I should have come down and given the bread to you.” So what does that mean? Now the story is more about the fact that Peeta lacked compassion by throwing the extra bread into a puddle? Well, that’s just downright backwards. The beauty and emotion in that scene is mostly lost.

The story is watered down for reasons that don’t seem to add up. They had the set, they had the pigs, they had the mother actress. All they needed was young Katniss and Peeta and a couple more lines of dialogue. I was disappointed by that change, of all the changes they could have made in the film.

Also, Haymitch’s role was reduced and I would not have minded seeing his story flushed out a bit better. I understand why he was cut out of the reaping. I’m guessing it was to contain the scene to its drama, which is the center point.

-Topic #5: Successful Additions

-The President Snow and Seneca scenes. I think most people would agree with me there. Basically, those couple scenes were excellent. Bravo you two! Also, the scenes in the control room were very well done. The CG here worked quite well.

-Topic #6: Overall Thoughts

Overall, I guess I have to admit that in a certain light, I was disappointed. There’s a lot of good and great going on in this movie, but the potential for emotional impact was stunted. The film could have been so much more and that is what bugs me. I wanted to feel more for the story. I wanted to be drawn in. I wanted the deaths to horrify me, much like that TV snippet did on the train, but a lot of it was lost in too many quick cuts and close up shots. At times the film moved along so in tune with the book, as if they had to hit every point, A, B, C, D, E, F, come on, move the story but don’t forget a thing, that we actually lost something. We lost the ability to really get inside certain moments. I agree with critics who felt there were missed opportunities all over the place to bring in more depth and well developed action. Fortunately, the story is worth telling and the overall themes catch a lot of the slack for these shortcomings. The ending is perfect and very in tune with the novel. I enjoyed seeing President Snow’s face and knowing that there is so much more in the way of politics to come, an important topic to make accessible to a YA audience.

After all that I have to say, I do feel the need to point out that I do think The Hunger Games is a good film. I think its a solid “good,” a B, if you will. I just really hoped we were getting an A+.

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4 responses to “Reflections on The Hunger Games Film Adaptation

  1. ellen,

    i haven’t seen the hunger games yet- i read and loved the trilogy, i loved it deeply. i read your review with great, great appreciation. your detail, your explanations, this review would be clear to someone who had not yet read the books. i fear i may end up agreeing with you after seeing this film. one of the reasons i chose not to attend a midnight screening was to avoid the heightened ‘everything’ that would go along with it. i didn’t want to be swept along with the gigantic expectation, i’d like to attend a quiet screening to see for myself. thank you for a well written and wonderfully comprehensive review. i, too, have seen films where i haven’t felt enough when i should be a) weeping, b) recoiling, c) frozen with fear or tension. i understand your sentiment completely. will keep you posted…

  2. Miranda,

    Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment! I would love to hear what you think after you see it. And you know, I’m on the same page with you on the “quiet screening.” I may give it a little time and then go see it once more in a calmer setting, which may help me really solidify how I feel about it. You are so right about the frenzy and expectations that can go along with a midnight screening. I’ve learned a thing or two about this experience.

    Thanks again and definitely keep me posted : )

    -Ellen

  3. Ellen,

    I agree with most of what you said.
    I think that our familiarity with the source material does render us somewhat overqualified to judge how most people will see this movie. But while the movie did hit all the major points in a perfectly valid (though somewhat perfunctory) way, I think it missed the emotional moments and didn’t feel any sense of connection to the material.
    Yes, we did see the Rue storyline playout, but we missed all of the emotional build-up that makes that moment work. And the Gale/Katniss/Peeta triangle is given very short shrift in condensing the material.
    What I think I missed most is the sense of desperate time passing with resources and health straining to the brink for the characters. While roughly two weeks passes in the book, it feels like barely three of four days pass during the movie, and the feeling of a long drawn-out struggle to survive is pretty much lost.

  4. Tony, thanks for reading! I agree with you completely. You basically, in a much more succinct way, verbalized how I feel as well. I feel the exact same way about Rue especially. Special effects aside, I really wish we had more emotional build up for those key moments, and I agree with the passage of time too.

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