Gary Ross’ adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel THE HUNGER GAMES is something of a mixed bag, to say the least. And while I can already hear the fans sharpening their knives against me, I stand firmly in the assumption that this novel – and, by extension, the premise that it represents – deserved a better adaptation. I should note at this point that I have almost no familiarity with the source material, and it’s entirely possible that many of my issues with the film are problems that stem from the novels themselves. That doesn’t change the fact that the adaptation process leaves room for tweaks and, god forbid, changes. Even Harry Potter did it, to the benefit of the film series.
This film suffers from structural, script and tone issues that I expect will be a moot point to the rabid fan-base who will be incapable of separating the adaptation from their preconceived notions of the story. This isn’t a knock, either – we’ve all done it for one franchise or another that we hold dear to our hearts. Yet, as somebody who came into the film with almost no prior knowledge, I found myself lamenting the woefully rushed pace, dualistic structure and, in the film’s final act, some downright counterintuitive plot developments. It’s entirely likely that those who have read the novels won’t even notice these aspects of the film, but they were glaringly obvious to me.
I wanted to know more about Katniss (played most suitably by up-and-comer Jennifer Lawrence), her situation and her day-to-day life before she was thrust into this adventure. I wanted to get to see her life on a daily basis outside of a few lines with her sister and would-be boyfriend, Gale. But for some reason, what might have been the first act turning point in a more deliberate film becomes the inciting incident in this one, and she finds herself volunteering for the titular games before I even know anything about her, her relationship with her costar and what exactly she’s giving up by doing so. When Woody Harrelson’s character – the delightfully named Haymitch – accuses Katniss of exhibiting an unlikeable personality that would be detrimental to her in the days to come, I found myself wishing that I was aware of her social issues prior to that scene. That way, when she finally overcame those issues, it would feel more rewarding – we’d have seen the full arc instead of just the latter half of it.
Which, of course, raises the central issue with the adaptation: there’s a lot of story to tell here, and the script doesn’t exactly do the best job making the tough choices on what’s important and what’s not. You always run the risk of angering fans in a situation like this, but somebody has to have a firm hand. Things need to be cut, and at an already-lengthy two hours and twenty-two minutes, it doesn’t seem like much was. Still, the film doesn’t feel long, mostly due to its strangely disjointed structure: about halfway through the narrative, the games – and what essentially amounts to “part two” of the film – begin. The transition is by no means smooth, and I found myself forgetting about characters from the first half as they reappeared in the second. Again, this actually has the added benefit of keeping the pace brisk and interesting, even if it betrays the consistency of the film.
Even so, the three screenwriters seem less interested in crafting careful character moments as they do in throwing everything they know of the story onto the screen in the hopes that the important beats stick out. Why the pivotal interaction between Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta and Katniss is told in slowly evolving flashbacks instead of as an opening scene is beyond me, for example – knowledge of their relationship is central to both the plot and the conclusion of the film, so it seems odd not to make that more central in the opening. Instead, the screenwriters seem to acknowledge that there is a lot of plot to burn through from the get-go and just dive in recklessly, counting on the audience to just tick off the beats in their heads (if they’re already fans) or forego traditional narrative evolution for the sake of density (if they’re newbies).
Despite this rushed opening, there are some really terrific moments to be found here, particularly the “reaping” of Katniss’ sister, Primrose, and her eventual volunteering to replace her. It’s a quiet, powerful scene that gives Lawrence a chance to show off her chops and gives the DP a chance to (finally) make effective use of his cinema vérité-style camerawork. (Seriously – what was the deal with some of the cinematography? A horrendous spectrum of handheld quality, from emotionally resonating to downright distracting. I get that they used it to mask some of the more intense scenes in order to keep the rating down, but it got ridiculous at times.) These quiet moments are actually peppered throughout the first half, and there’s a somber atmosphere that I wish had been more effectively and more often utilized.
The production design, on the other hand, is quite beautiful. It flirts dangerously close with Philip K. Dick or Kurt Vonnegut-stytle absurdist humour, and I for one wish that the film had actually forgone its melodramatic tendencies to play up this humour a bit more. There’s something devastatingly hilarious about how terribly unfair this entire plot is, and Ross uses small touches of humour to effectively balance that tone and keeps things from tipping over the edge into unearned sentimentality.
At least, for a little while. The second half is not so lucky, and it seems to abandon all elements of tonal complexity for a more straightforward narrative that becomes, frankly, rather dull; as soon as it becomes apparent that any aspirations for emotional nuance have been completely dashed, the film devolves into what is essentially slasher territory. We know these kids aren’t getting out alive; it’s just a matter of how they’re going to go, and by making almost half of them “evil”, the narrative doesn’t even attempt to supply any complexity to the tragedy unfolding before us. Even the “emotional” death of one of the characters about three-quarters of the way through the film is betrayed by the lack of seeding in the script. Perhaps readers were just happy enough to see the character die the way that she was supposed to, but as a newbie, I would have liked to have grown to care about her a bit more before they offed her, especially since the moments that followed her death were amongst the most powerful and poignant in the film. There was no reason why she couldn’t have been introduced earlier in the story (because she was, just not adequately enough) in order to pack a more potent emotional punch.
All of which is fine, by the way. Up until this point in the narrative, I was still entirely onboard with the film. There were moments where I wished it had taken its fantastic premise to greater heights, but I was perfectly happy with the adequateness that was going on. After all, putting all grievances aside, this is one of the more compelling and worthwhile young adult series being produced at the moment.
Then, of course, the final act kicked in, which successfully eliminated any hopes I had that this narrative would a) follow through on its premise and b) supply something within the realm of complex human psychology. Instead, we get a deus ex machina so potent that it essentially gives the characters an out from having to confront anything psychologically involving. Even the predictably last-minute reversal of the god machine did little to salvage the damage that had been done – never did the characters have to confront the inevitability of their predicament before they figured a way out. Instead, we get a, “oh, man, we actually have to go through with this? Well, I guess we could just do this instead…” that compromises what makes the premise interesting in and of itself.
All bitching aside, this is a decent movie. It has a little something for everybody: flashy effects, romance, dsytopic science-fiction, kids killing each other and even a dash of comedy. I just can’t shake the feeling that it could have been much, much better, and I find that disappointing. They had the blueprint for a film that would have actually given the teen romance story a breath of fresh air: what if you had to look a person who loved you in the face and knew that you had to kill them? There are these moments in the film, sure, but never in a situation where one of the characters could have actually done it, and that’s the opportunity that was missed. Still, you could do worse at the theatre right now, and I expect that it’s going to please a lot of fans, especially considering the nearly unanimously positive response.
Just not for me, I suppose.