I have to start this discussion by donning my hipster glasses and saying, “I liked The Hunger Games back when it was called Battle Royale.” Because seriously, after watching this movie I am embarrassed for Collins at how similar her first book is to the Japanese original. I mean, I thought the story sounded similar before I saw the movie (no, I have not read the books), but I figured the execution would make it obvious the similar premises were coincidental…holy crap, no. So many details were the same, just shifted to a different world. It really was like she just re-told the story in a different context. If the similarity between the stories was truly convergent creativity, someone at her publisher needs to be fired for not knowing the market of dystopian gladiatorial games better and asking her to make it less similar in edits.
More specifically than the idea of the government forcing teenagers to fight to the death as a display of state power and a punishment for rebellious violence, we have:
-The opening scenario with weapons and supplies in the middle to either be fought over or abandoned to the player’s disadvantage
-The protagonists’ strategy of run to the fringes and let the bulk of the competitors kill each other off
-The manipulation of the game environment by the gamemaster in order to herd the players who run to the fringes back to the others
-The clear announcement of who has died so the competitors know who is left to kill
-The gang mentality where some of the players group together to kill everyone else off first
-The super crazy psycho killers who are masterful players—in BR they were past winners, here they are the District 1 and 2 kids who train for the games their whole lives
-The two protagonists who manage to remain morally superior, only killing those who attack them, shielding the weaker as they can, and relying on their trust in one another to make it through the game
-The ending where the two lovers won’t kill each other and defy the gamemaster and survive…and the gamemaster does not.
There is just no way this is anything except an American re-envisioning of the original. The parallels are too pervasive and consistent. We live in an age of remakes, so I wouldn’t even care that it’s a remake—hell, as remakes go this is an impressive and exceptionally creative one, and if they were all like this I wouldn’t mind them so much—except for the disavowal of a connection. I think it’s publisher-driven, because they didn’t want to get sued or have to pay rights. Fine. Keep your plausible deniability…but the rest of us know better.
Removes decorative spectacles.
So, now that my bit of truth-telling is out of my system, what did I think about the movie?
I liked it more than I expected to. While it was worse than I expected in terms of seeming like a rip-off of another book/movie (BR was also both), it was better than I expected in terms of immersion and character engagement. I could see what makes the story and the setting so intriguing and why so many people are obsessed with the series. It had that crack-like quality of plausible WTF that is so fun and enticing and contagious.
What I liked:
Jennifer Lawrence. I like her for lots of reasons. That she has a normal body, an expressive face and a killer sense of humor is a given. All pros. She also IS Katniss. She’s got that whole stoic, tortured survivor-girl thing DOWN. I loved her. I’m not convinced her acting was the product of Director Gary Ross’ actual direction or if this girl just has incredible instincts. She was wonderful in Winter’s Bone. I’m tending to give her all of the credit. She even made all those stupid costumes look great.
Absolutely agree that credit goes to Lawrence and not Ross here.
The rest of the cast was pretty solid. I wasn’t convinced of Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch but he sold it. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta was perfect (if a little TOO enthusiastic about conjuring paint and brushes, plus his “confused” face pretty much made me laugh EVERY SINGLE TIME), but every time he did his shit eater grin during the interviews I thought, “damn you, Peeta!” It’s hard to judge Liam Hemsworth’s Gale, since he only had about five lines, but he seemed capable of killing many squirrels.
Gale was a total Spiller! Ergo…husband material?
Exactly! TOTAL Spiller! Even if the actorkid is dating Miley Cyrus. We can forgive him youthful indiscretions. Anyways, where was I?
I thought Elizabeth Banks’ Effie was perfect. Stanley Tucci’s Caesar Flickerman was delightfully manic while Lenny Kravitz’ Cinna was…well he was really bad. The only stinky acting in the entire flick. Whenever he was on screen I could hear the rest of the crew wandering around the set in my head because it was always so jarring.
Banks was one of the stand-outs for me, too. I forgot she was in it, and it took most of the train ride for me to figure out that she was Effie. I didn’t find Cinna that bad, but perhaps not as charismatic as he should have been to gain Katniss’s immediate and absolute trust in his vision as a designer?
Whatever. He came off as a creepy weirdo.
I also liked that they chose to do so much of the filming on location. Mostly because the stuff they didn’t do on location looked like crap.
I was so underwhelmed by the capital city and the buildings in it (did the night shot of the city look like New York to anyone else?). I mean, maybe Katniss and Peeta don’t know any better, but we do. That shit was not impressive. And the sets around President Sutherland looked so…fake! The capital is made out of plastic. How has the revolution not happened already?
The fashionistas of the capital were right up my alley, though—my lavender Marie Antoinette Mardi Gras wig would work perfectly at a sponsors party, for example—and I thought the costume and make-up design were off the charts for the city folk, even if the in-games costumes were l-a-m-e.
The in game costumes were whatever. The Chariot costumes? YOU GUYS… is that what you envisioned when you read the description of the flaming cape/unitard thing? IS IT? Complete with terrible TERRIBLE CGI? And she’s got her hands above her head the whole time, even when the chariots park themselves in front of President Snow (TEAM SNOW!) she’s still got her hands above her head and Snow is starting to talk and she’s STILL GOT HER HANDS ABOVE HER HEAD… .
What else did I like?
The adaptation: Look, we all know it’s fucking hard to adapt a book into a film. It’s a lot of story to fit into two hours. Characters and side stories will be cut. Scenes will be streamlined. These things are a given. The Hunger Games manages to feel like it’s a page by page recreation even when it is not, and that is awesome.
I also liked that extra scenes were added that covered the things happening during the arena time. Adding in the riot in District 11 was really smart. Totally sets us up for the next books.
Things I didn’t like so much:
The Pacing. If there is one fundamental flaw in the entire film, it is that there wasn’t enough time spent in creating relationships between Katniss and the other characters. It’s REALLY important that Katniss have emotional connections to people. But even though Gary Ross sent us through all of the preparations before The Hunger Games begin, there just wasn’t any connection between Katniss and the other characters. It was a problem that kept coming up whenever a scene occurred in which the audience was supposed to be emotionally moved. I had a really hard time with this. When people died, I didn’t care. I was more interested in seeing Katniss survive whatever the next crisis would be. I regarded other characters as nuisances. This was especially true with Peeta and Rue.
Stop screaming at me and let me explain.
Peeta is awesome. He’s a natural actor, a charismatic boy with a sympathetic heart. Strong on the inside and fluffy on the outside. The exact opposite of Katniss. I get it. But in the film he barely has any skills at all. He’s basically dead weight. Sure he can smile and interview well but once he gets in the games it was all “I’m just going to wander around and then lay in this mud and be useless”. When it comes time for Katniss and Peeta to join back up, that pivotal scene in which Katniss screams out Peeta’s name never happened. Peeta’s injuries were also not as terrible in the film as they were in the novel. We end up with this weirdly awkward scene in which Katniss takes care of a fellow District 12 tribute with weird stalker tendencies and an inability to respect Katniss’s boundaries. Then they kiss, and it’s like…huh? She likes him? WHY?
And I’ve read (and love) the novels. What the hell must this film be like for someone who hasn’t read the books? Is there any emotional connection at all?
Ha, ha, ha, let me jump in and give you my take on these issues.
In terms of connections to characters other than Peeta—Rue was the only other character it seemed like Katniss was meant to have a connection with. And I felt like her reaction to Rue’s death was a projection. I didn’t think there was much of a connection between them except that she saw Rue as an analog for Prim, and what might have happened to Prim if Katniss hadn’t taken her place, so when Rue died Katniss had this weird translation of having failed to protect her sister, because Rue was like her sister. It wasn’t about Rue; it was about Katniss.
Now, when it comes to her and Peeta…I literally did not know (and still do not, not having read the books) if Katniss was in the cave nursing Peeta and going to get medicine for him because she actually gave a shit about him or if it was because she’s the protector type and could not have lived with herself for not saving him, the same way she could not have lived with herself for not saving her sister. Did she mean the kiss, or had she finally grasped that maybe they should play to the cameras? So as to there being a connection between them…on his part, absolutely. On hers…I still don’t know.
Also, Team Peeta! I liked him so much better than Gale! JV Hemsworth might be more objectively hot, but I find Hutcherson cute as hell, so that’s a wash…but I liked Peeta’s character better.
True, Gale didn’t get to do much but be the strong silent sulking type, and Peeta was not exactly heroic—at least, not at first. But he exhibited a level of self-awareness and insight that I gravitated to almost immediately. Peeta recognizes that he doesn’t have the skills to survive a death-match, and he can admit that he never went out of his way to be kind even to the girl he had a crush on. The best he could manage was a careless act of charity that rated Katniss only minutely higher than the family’s pig. In the games he certainly doesn’t kick ass and take names (and that is even with the fact that his part apparently got butched up somewhat from his role in the book…or at least that’s the impression some of my book-reading friends have given me).
But Peeta is one of the supporting players who set up Katniss for the big win, which she could not have done completely on her own.
See, here’s the thing—and book people may disagree with this, and that’s fine, but this is how this played out in the movie, and so we will just have to agree to disagree—Katniss is surrounded by people who play the part of the game that she refuses to play, for her, and she survives because they did.
Her producers (whatever the hell Effie and Haymitch and Cinna were called…they seemed like producers to me so that is what I’m calling them) were obviously the most creative in the group. The other producers should all have been operating on Cinna’s philosophy of “I want to make them NOTICE you,” instead of paying homage to what had been done before.
Haymitch gives Katniss and Peeta the advice of “make them like you,” which Katniss basically disregards and which Peeta grabs like a lifeline. He is hamming it up to the crowds from the beginning, while she sits there all better than that and disgusted; he grabs her hand as they roll around on fire so everyone can see that they consider themselves a team, and then he jokes with the interviewer and admits that his special girl is in fact one of his competitors. (Hell, he’s smart enough to manipulate her into holding his hand on the chariot in the first place, which I don’t think was a move calculated to the crowd, just a desire for comfort and contact until she rejected it, at which point he was like, “how can I convince her to touch me?”) His admission of his crush was true, but his decision to admit it was a conscious spin on his character as a competitor, and it paid off. It made Katniss part of a larger story that made her seem human and relatable, when on her own she was perhaps too strong and intimidating. Everyone wants to root for an underdog, and the doomed love angle made Katniss and Peeta as a pair underdogs; when on her own she was a favorite. Would she have gotten the sponsor who saved her leg without the producers who made everyone notice her and Peeta’s actions to make them feel sorry for her?
My take-away was that Katniss is basically Harry Potter. Sure, no one but her could have won the games if they were dealt the hand she was…but she couldn’t have, either, without the help of the people around her. Peeta is basically Hermione, is what I’m saying. And I do love me some brains over brawn…
…Which is why, TEAM PEETA!
Ahem. The uncertainty of Katniss’s motives also made the ending more poignant, because he’s still standing their declaring his love, and I still don’t know what she thinks about the kid.
So maybe that’s a fail. There were others.
One other thing I hated: THE CAMERA WORK. WHAT. THE. FUCK. It was like watching Cloverfield. The shaky cam with the extreme close ups. I became intimately connected with all the hairs on Jennifer’s Lawrence’s face. That’s how close the camera was all the damn time. And whenever there was a fight it was all, “KIDS ARE KILLING KIDS BUT WE CAN’T SHOW YOU BECAUSE WE’LL LOSE OUR RATING SO PLEASE ENJOY GRUNTING AND BLURRY SHOTS OF TREES. AND BLONDE KIDS, ANY OF WHOM COULD BE PEETA BUT ARE NOT.”
Ya know what doesn’t work when you have super HD close up shots framing the entire movie? Shitty effects. Especially any time at all when there was fire (srsly, the fire outfits for the chariot parade? WTH? It looked like a homemade music video from 1998). And the muttations. CGI disasters. Totally a product of the film being written, cast, filmed, edited and marketing in a six-month period. Good shit needs TIME. Unfortunately, the film is hobbled by having to rush things.
Oh, yeah. The cinematic filming itself was competent but not special, if excessively soap-operatic, but the effects were obviously a rush job. And the fires? I thought it was a joke when she said, “oh, yeah, it’s real,” because to me they looked so fake. Like anyone was fooled!
What bothered me most, though, was the dearth of good violence. The fact that it was PG-13 really limited the brutality of the games, and that works in opposition to what Rachel has expressed as one of the key themes of the book—our culture’s use of violence as entertainment. By virtue of maintaining an all-ages rating, this movie could not be so brutally violent that we the audience could question the film as entertainment; we became the people of the capital, watching the games and the deaths for fun.
Aside from the fact that the action sequences are hardly comprehensible because the cameras and edits move so quickly, the violence was disappointing in its utter lack of creativity. Not a single death in all of the dozen we saw onscreen was memorable? That’s kind of sad. If you’re going to riff off of something else, at least take all the good shit (since BR has a few choice deaths). Or go watch Shoot ʼEm Up and Sukiyaki Western Django a few times to get some good demises to steal from them.
In the end, and I have seen this film twice now, I would look around the theater thinking that I had not drunk the kool-aid that made many of the people around me deliriously happy with the film. While I think the movie is good and happily saw it again, I found it to be anemic. Without the guts that make a film actually emotionally connect with the audience. I feel that if you do not step into the theater with the knowledge that reading the books give you, that you’ve got no chance of really feeling anything while watching the movie.
I think the experience of the film for those who haven’t read the books is much more about what you project onto the characters than about what the film directly makes you feel. There are moments where the emotions swamp you, but in general it’s you consciously projecting yourself into that situation and that environment. The movie entertains, but it’s not a masterpiece. I’d watch it again, but it didn’t make me want to run out and read the book. Perhaps that is the most scathing indictment I could offer.
All that being said…I’m really excited that a science fiction film with a young girl as the protagonist has done so amazingly well at the box office. It makes me excited for the future of this franchise and the future of other unmade films.