I’ll admit that I was a bit skeptical when I first heard about Suzanne Collins’ book series called The Hunger Games. Though I love reading books, I’m not what you’d call an early bird when it comes to finding the next big thing. I usually only get around to hearing about an author when they start getting enough attention that studios are buying the movie rights to their properties. It happened with Harry Potter, happened with Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park, happened with George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire: all books that I had no idea existed until Hollywood got its clutches on them.
I was determined to read The Hunger Games before I watched the movie, though. I had already heard good things about it and had seen the excitement that the announcement of the movie had stirred online. Thanks to my natural skeptic nature though, I wanted to see for myself what the fuss was about and decide on my own if this was really worth it.
I don’t know about you, but when I was a “young adult” this isn’t the kind of thing I found at the annual school book fair. The kinds of stories I did book reports on were Ralph S. Mouse and The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe. There weren’t any innocent kids being slaughtered or people starving in either of those books. Talking animals, yes, but graphic, televised murders were not in the offing. Now, apparently, times have changed and there’s a little more “adult” in young adult books.
Collins’ novel is packed with characters that feel very real and situations that, while bizarre, seem to ring true. There is no “Panem” today, but the things that happen there feel like things that happen here. Poverty, Hunger, War, Injustice, Corruption, and Excess: we see these things everyday in the news, in the papers. I’ve read that the author was inspired in part by her memories of her father’s stories about being drafted during the Vietnam War. The allegory of her protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, being forcibly volunteered for the Hunger Games tournament is plain, as is the violence that thereafter pervades the life of the chosen contestants being likened to war in our own world.
The scenes she paints of the “tributes” picking up weapons and learning to fight, eventually learning to kill, reverberate because we’ve seen it before. You don’t have to go farther than Mindanao to find children being armed for war. Go and get a copy of Blood Diamond or any recent movie about the conflicts in Africa and it’s pretty easy to see the connective tissue between the real world and Collins’ fictional dictatorship.
A lot’s been said about the similarity between Panem’s annual Hunger Games and the Program of Koushun Takami's Battle Royale, and I can’t refute the resemblance between the two. Both are all about young men and women fighting to the death for the entertainment of the masses. The difference between the two, however is that Collins’ world is so much more fleshed out than Takami’s. In Battle Royale you never really get a feel of why these kids are here or what the game is meant to accomplish. We never really see what’s outside of the island and have no feel for the Republic of Greater East Asia. We’re told that it’s to terrorize the public and quell any hint of rebellion, but never really shown the effects.
In The Hunger Games however, there is due attention paid to the consequences of the tributes actions in the arena, as well as ample time spent in Katniss’ hometown where we get to see how she and her people live. We then get to compare their quality of life to that of the people of The Capitol and understand the conflicts that led to these games. By allowing the reader to perceive that imbalance between Panem’s rich and poor and to feel the bitterness that the disparity must cause in the inhabitants of the districts, Collins’ makes her story that much more powerful.
As you’ve read, I was impressed with the book, despite half-expecting a Twilight clone. Having finished it a day before the release of the movie, I was fresh from the high when I watched Gary Ross’ film interpretation of the book.
I’ve never seen any of Ross’ films (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit being his big projects), but he’s made a great showing with The Hunger Games. He’s taken Suzanne Collins’ 374 page novel and turned it into an engaging, well-paced two and a half hour film. While he’s taken some liberties in order to compress the story into a workable frame, he’s able to capture the tone and power of the novel exceedingly well.
It helps that the cast is extremely well chosen. Jennifer Lawrence is the perfect Katniss Everdeen. I never liked her as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, but her despondency fits well with the way I imagine Katniss from Collins’ description. She’s depressed, but stubborn. It doesn’t hurt that she’s, as my girlfriend says, hot.
Her supporting cast is just as awesome. Tucci, Bentley, Harrelson, Sutherland, Kravitz: all of them give great performances here, and you don’t once think that they don’t absolutely believe that they aren’t living in a post-apocalyptic dystopia. I love Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket. Her portrayal of her is so spot-on with the way I see the character: flighty, but determined and sincere. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, Katniss’ partner, was unknown to me, but it turns out he was in another of my favorite movies, Bridge to Terabithia, another mope fest (I should probably see someone about my preference for bad endings). Anyway, he’ll be a great foil to Liam Hemsworth’s Gale: i.e. someone not as obviously handsome.
I think the thing that struck me most about the film is its very deliberate pacing. There’s no rush to get to the big show. We get to stay with the tributes from the Reaping (the lottery in which the sacrifices are chosen) all the way through the preparations and the interviews before we even start the big game. If this were a Bay production, you know all of that would have been dumped into a montage and lasted about 2 minutes. This way, there’s time for you to get to know Katniss and Peeta, really connect with them before they’re dropped into the arena and have to run for their lives. It’s the kind of slow burn that really gets you primed. Then when you get to that opening fight, the brutality hits you like a brick.
There are some things that I didn’t like about the movie. One was Ross’ dependence on the hand-held camera ideal. I hate hate hate hand-held used in this manner, to force you into believing this is some kind of documentary. I hated it in The Blair Witch Project, I hated it in Battlestar Galactica, I still hate it here. When used sparingly to create tension in a scene, I’m all for it, but Ross uses it from start to end and it grates.
Second was that the ending was kind of a letdown for me. I don’t want to spoil it for you, but the way the author described it felt scary. You could feel the dread. The film version is just more boring CGI gimmickry. It just doesn’t hit you in the gut the same way as it did in the book which was one of the best parts. I also don’t like the way they decided to portray the tech of The Capitol. In the book, the scientists of the city are geniuses in bio-engineering, creating anything they need. In the film version, they seem to have some kind of miracle tech that allows them to create things from thin air, like Star Trek’s shaped force fields in the Enterprise’s holodeck. If they’re this far advanced, I find it harder to believe that they’ve remained a totalitarian regime for more than 75 years. You’d think someone would have been able to get a decent matter replicator together and smuggled it out to the districts. “Earl Grey tea, hot” for everybody!
But these are just nerdy rants. Truthfully, The Hunger Games is a great film, and it deserves the audience it was able to capture.
At least we can look forward to one continuing franchise for the next several years. Now that the chance of a John Carter sequel is dead, I’m glad that this one looks to have captured the public’s attention and isn’t going the way of either The Golden Compass or A Series of Unfortunate Events. They’ve probably already started setting up the porta-potties for the Catching Fire shoot.