The Hunger Games full movie: Finally, a film that treated its source material right

The Hunger Games full movie: Finally, a film that treated its source material right

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My biggest frustration with so many films based on a popular source material tends to be the preciousness with which the original text – and by extension, the fan-base that comes with it – is treated. So caught up filmmakers can be in transposing every small detail from the page to the screen, that oftentimes the very essence of what makes the adapted work resonate so strongly gets lost, and the filmmakers forget first to create a work of cinema before recreating a story that has already been told.

This explains, for example, why a resolutely faithful work like Zach Snyder’s Watchmen is crippled by its own inertia, but Cuarón’s Harry Pottercontribution – despite being less rigidly devout – ranks among the past decade’s most dazzling children’s fables and, yes, far truer an adaptation to its original text than fans would have you believe.

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I’ve not read any installment in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games trilogy, so I cannot rightly proclaim the faithfulness – or lack thereof – to Gary Ross’ film adaptation. But the impression given while watching this story of a girl forced to embrace the conventions of a violent dystopia is that of an engaging entertainment filmed with eminent competence, yet not quite brave enough to sidestep the shadow of its source material. It feels like a movie that will likely appease the fan-base, is marketed broadly enough to welcome the Suzanne Collins neophytes, and sufficiently straightforward to offend the sensibilities of absolutely nobody.

For those aforementioned neophytes, The Hunger Games introduces us to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the hero of what will inevitably be a movie trilogy. Katniss lives with her mother and younger sister in the destitute twelfth district of the nation of Panem.

In order to protect her sister Primrose from Panem’s barbaric national pastime, Katniss reluctantly volunteers herself as one of two participants in the “Hunger Games,” an annual peacekeeping sport wherein each district submits two adolescents – a boy and a girl, either randomly or voluntarily – to engage each other in deadly hand-to-hand combat. Katniss, accompanied by her (randomly-selected) male counterpart Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), is whisked away to the capitol of Panem to prepare for their fateful battle.

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Director Gary Ross – who wrote The Hunger Games alongside Billy Ray and Collins herself – dedicates almost the final hour of this 150-minute picture to depicting the “Games” themselves. Much of what precedes that lengthy final chapter, however, shows Katniss and Peeta preparing for the event, waiting in fearful anticipation and participating in the media circus that plays so crucial a role in fetishizing and ritualizing the Games.

Mentoring them for battle is District 12’s only champion, an cynical alcoholic named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose faith in a victory for either Katniss or Peeta seems initially lacking. Marketing the participants prior to the Games is as important as preparing for the battle itself; a stylist named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and a gaudily-dressed publicist named Effie (Elizabeth Banks) condition both the looks and personalities for the two combatants in hopes that they might find “sponsors” to furnish them with weapons and tools during the “Games” themselves.

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It is through Katniss’ eyes that we witness the ceremonious roll-out of the Hunger Games, which means it is substantially on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence to process the absurdity inherent to a society that would pit random children against each other in favor of a violent tradition masquerading as peacekeeping. As an emotional vessel, Lawrence brings maturity and personality to her heroine.

As was the case in her Oscar-nominated character in Winter’s Bone, Katniss is serious-minded and empathetic; a vulnerable and fearful young woman who sidesteps the movie clichés of female hysteria and male-gaze sexualizing. Even if the two sequels to Hunger Games somehow prove disastrous, I’ll be happy to have her leading me through Katniss’ story.

Lawrence may manage to imbue The Hunger Games with sufficient dramatic heft, but she unfortunately does not get much help from Ross or his co-scribes to transform this consistently engaging albeit safe blockbuster flick into the scathing satire for young adults it might have been. The story feels clearly like a work inspired by many different texts, from The Lottery to Theseus to even the 24-hour news cycle.

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While I cannot speak to the ability of Collins’ novel to converge all these elements into whip-smart allegory it could be, much of it feels decidedly underexplored in Ross’ film. The media spectacle Ross depicts, particularly through the flamboyance of two television personalities (Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones), feels less like a well-oiled, government-sponsored propaganda machine than it does a reason for silly people donning silly wigs to clumsily dole out exposition and key plot-points.

I also have a hard time buying into the respective emotional arcs of both Katniss and Peeta. Both knowing that an unfair system has shoehorned them into an unavoidable scenario of certain demise, the two go through the motions not with genuine reluctance or frustration, but with dour and somber complacence. If either youth is experiencing feelings of self-pity or of righteous doubt in a system that treats their lives as casually as it does, the film gives makes almost no effort to convey those feelings.

This might not have been as problematic had the film found another way to mount the tension leading up to the Games themselves, but there is really nothing there to stimulate our anticipation. In a way similar to Katniss and Peeta, we are almost expected to watch the actions as Ross and his writers (seemingly) transpose each of the book’s plot points to the big screen, hoping it all will make for sufficient drama.

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When we finally get to the climactic The Hunger Games itself, it feels as perfunctory in its depiction as anything preceding it. In all fairness, Ross deserves credit for bringing a certain sense of weight to his means of depicting children as they set out to murder each other; it’s dicey territory, but not one of the many deaths feels cartoonish or cavalier.

But even if Ross’ depiction of an inherently immoral scenario is laudable, it’s remarkable how little we learn about Katniss as she struggles to survive by any means necessary. When her actions result in the deaths of others by her own hand, she comes off as oddly unresponsive, which I believe speaks less to  Lawrence’s performance than to the direction she is given.

Even when she reacts poorly to the deaths or near-deaths of her Games-mates, her big weepy moments never feel earned, as not enough attention is paid either to her emotional journey or to the relationships she makes along the way. A great deal happens in The Hunger Games, but with nothing in the script to bring any real emotion or heft to the goings-on, it’s hard to stay truly invested in Katniss’ journey.

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Many fans of The Hunger Games books reading this review will most likely dismiss my critiques, either because the literary counterpart I’ve not read addresses them or because future projects in the trilogy will refute them. Even if that is all true, it still does’t exactly repudiate this movie’s most glaring existential dilemma: that it is intended principally as a visual supplement to its source material. Such an approach admittedly makes for good business (The movie received a CinemaScore Grade of “A” and broke box office records), but it frequently makes for tepid filmmaking.

The Hunger Games movie will succeed, despite my misgivings, and I really should stress that there was just enough going on in The Hunger Games to keep me engaged throughout. But will the movie – and by association, the movie’s themes – continue to resonate years from now, when the studios and the movie-going masses will have moved on to the next big movie franchise? Now that’s the question that fans of film and the books alike ought to be asking.

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The Hunger Games full movie: Finally, a film that treated its source material right
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