(Note: there are NO spoilers in the top half of this article, and only very very mild ones after the warning.)
The question, for me, isn’t whether or not The Hunger Games filmmakers got everything right.
Because they did. They got everything right. This is a damn near perfect adaptation. For fans, it’s sublime. I have almost NO nitpicks. I can point out differences from book to film, but none of them, not ONE, at this moment, seem important enough to note, never mind gripe about. If you know my history reviewing Harry Potter films, and feel shocked, don’t worry: I do, too.
The film is also brutal. I spent the entire movie clutching my chest. Anyone who claims they pulled punches should take it back. My head hurt by the end. The people I was with walked out saying the same things:
“I think I ate my scarf!”
“I’m stressed out!”
“I need to rest after watching that!”
This is not what you usually hear at a movie house. I saw this film at a Scholastic screening. A room full of people who not only knew the book, but in some cases had studied it. Intensely. Gary Ross was there to say hello. (I will include his comments in a further post.) I would wager perhaps one person in the room – maybe someone’s guest – had not read the book. Yet we all sat there, hands to chests, clutching our pearls, gasping at revelations we knew were coming, flinching at the brutality we had so well imagined in our own heads as it splayed itself on the screen.
It’s a thriller, to be sure. But it’s not a particularly enjoyable film. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the things I love most about it: a movie that can break into this kind of commercial success and not just be popcorn-grabby, “ROOM WITH A VIEW OF HELL” fare gives me hope for the medium. That it was perfectly happy making us complicit in the voyeurism of the Capitol spectacle; that it made us implicit in the undercurrents of revolution swimming through Panem; that it mimicked the reading experience of the HG books by trusting in simple, tight narrative and its power to propel us to empathy? All of these things should make us all very happy.
The question, the real test, for me, with this film is going to be in the second and third week box office figures. Does America want to return again and again, to see this flick in which you are left gasping, but also thinking? For all the gore of a horror film without any of the hand-holding and cheap entertainment to get you through the rest of it? Will there be a frenzy to watch children kill each other, in a game that has a triumph but no winners and an ending that promises only worse is to come?
We don’t ask this with books, because it’s partly why we read books. We don’t only read to escape: we do it to challenge ourselves, too. A far higher percentage of the reading public would prefer to be challenged by their material than that of the moviegoing public. Mostly we sit in a dark theater to let the screen think for us.
But this is a different type of film. If early receipts are any indication, it could cause an upset in the very type of filmmaking that matters. And that, for me, is going to be the most interesting result of all this hype.
As for the film? I said it up top, it’s damn near perfect. [This, readers, is where spoilers start. So if you don’t want to know, go away. I won’t say anything too detailed, but some of you are purists.]
The acting’s as good of a place as any to start: and it is just wonderful. Jennifer Lawrence is a gem. She’s a magnet; she uses her eyes to direct you exactly where to go and what to feel. It’s pretty remarkable to watch, actually, but not so much as to be distracting. Katniss is as she is supposed to be: fierce, but vulnerable. A survivor. Completely overtaken by what she is supposed to do but not about to sit back and let it be taken away from her, either.
Every important character statement is present, and is presented or played out in ways that won’t make you groan or feel as though the filmmakers don’t trust you enough to make the leaps. No one ever compares Rue to Prim. It is obvious. No one ever says out loud that Katniss’s memory of Peeta’s life-saving bread is the spark that warms him to her. It never has to be stated that Haymitch, while a crazy drunk, is a head smarter than everyone in the room.
All the important characterizations, you’ll find artfully explored. Haymitch’s sardonic affection for Katniss. Cinna’s quiet cool. Peeta’s dependable lovability. Effie’s hilarious and unintended crassness. The cold, calculating game room. President Snow’s rose garden and his careful use of pruning shears. Gale’s embittered (and, you can’t help but feel, knowingly helpless) rage at the Capitol. Rue’s winning sweetness. The grey slated District 12.
Yet it is no slavish adaptation. It is a loving one. It has kept the right things and changed only that which improves it in movie form. Laughs are earned; each scene builds a necessary block to the final picture. The love “triangle” is very clearly not a triangle at all, but a grievous and conflicting situation. Katniss’s internal monologues from the book are, at times, quite literally translated into visual and physical interactions; this leaves Jennifer Lawrence with more to do to bring Katniss to full life, but she is more than up to it. You can discern the reason for every change without ever feeling that the filmmakers are speaking down to you or overexplaining anything.
One of my very favorite changes has to do with Cato, and though I won’t spoil it here, it is a perfect testament to the fact that the filmmakers understood the heart and core of this book. This is one change that wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, but adds another layer of discomfort. It takes away any surety we have in the righteousness of any of the deaths, as though that wasn’t obvious from the get-go. It drives the knife point home, and the fidelity to the theme of The Hunger Games comes rampaging back out even at a point where, in regular Hollywoodland, we are used to the most callous of climaxes resulting in easy payoffs.
There are no easy payoffs in The Hunger Games. As a fan who was most concerned that the translation to film would result in shallowing of the book’s themes and a Hollywoodification of the storyline, it is such a relief to say that. What a brave, laudable statement to make about the possibility of film as watchable and thought-provoking. Gary Ross and company should be commended. If the moviegoing public rewards it with box office receipts that support this kind of filmmaking, we’ll all be better off for it.
We’ll be talking a lot more about The Hunger Games on LeakyNews. This is the first of many reviews and posts on the subject as our team sees and discusses the film. We can’t wait to have you join the discussion!