I came into the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ hit novel The Hunger Games without having read any of the novels. So my comments on the film will not contain any reflections on the film’s successes or failures as an adaptation of the source material. My review will simply address whether the movie stands or falls on its own, as a film.
In that respect, I found Gary Ross’ film The Hunger Games to be a very entertaining, if rather unremarkable, adventure tale.
For a film adapted from an apparently family-friendly young-adult novel, I was pleasantly surprised by how intense and grim the film was. While the film keeps the gore almost entirely off-camera, there is still quite a lot of violence, and I found the fights to be very energetic and engaging. The final bit of hand-to-hand combat atop a ship was especially gripping. Now, I’ve read Battle Royale, the Japanese manga published from 2000-2005 that tells a far more graphic, violent version of a similar story (schoolchildren forced to fight to the death). So, compared to that, The Hunger Games is hopelessly tame. But, that being said, I was impressed by the adult approach taken to the material. I didn’t feel things were softened in order to appeal to a four-quadrant demographic.
That adult approach taken by Gary Ross and his team was clear throughout the film, and was the most appealing aspect of the movie for me. This is an A-level adaptation, one in which a lot of care has clearly been taken to bring the world to life, and a lot of money spent to make it all look great. The cast is spectacular across the board. I loved Jennifer Lawrence in Winter’s Bone (click here for my review), and I thought she was also great in X-Men: First Class (click here for my review) and in Like Crazy (click here for my review). After seeing her gripping performance in Winter’s Bone, playing Katniss Everdeen seems like a walk in the park for Ms. Lawrence, but that’s not to short-change her abilities. She’s in almost every scene of the film (and, indeed, the few scenes that shift from Katniss’ perspective all seemed extraneous to me) and she absolutely anchors the story, giving the audience a character to invest in and root for.
Woody Harrelson is marvelous as Haymitch, the drunk survivor of a previous Hunger Games competition who is assigned to mentor Katniss. Mr. Harrelson brings a world of pain and backstory to his performance — you can see it in his eyes, in the way he holds Katniss and her fellow “tribute” Peeta at arms length — that made him, to me, the most fascinating character in the piece. I wish we’d had a chance to learn a lot more about Haymitch, but Mr. Harrelson’s performance, in a way, tells us everything. Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Toby Jones, Wes Bentley, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, all shine in their small roles. This is a high-octane cast! Another sign of the seriousness with which this film adaptation has been taken. As for Peeta and the other kids, they’re all pretty great — no weak links in the bunch — though when compared to that spectacular adult cast, they can’t help but suffer a little bit.
My main complaint about the film is that I wish they had fleshed out the reality of the way in which every moment of the Hunger Games was recorded on camera and televised across the world. There were times when I would have loved to have seen the reaction of the announcers, or of the people across the districts, when watching the events unfold. One of my favorite moments in the film was seeing the reaction to the people in District 11 to the death of one of the kids, and Katniss’ actions, and I would have loved to have seen more of that. (Now, I realize that too much cutting away from the action would be boring. We don’t need two hours of watching people watch TV. But some more thoughtfully-included moments would have been helpful, I think.)
By the same token, I would have liked to have seen more of the characters’ — especially Katniss’ — reaction to the reality that their every moment was being watched by millions of people. We see one moment when Katniss notices a camera in one of the trees… and then in the moment I mentioned above she makes a gesture towards one of the cameras. But that’s it, and I would have liked to have seen a lot more of that. Consider the moment, in the cave, when she kisses Peeta. Surely the closed off Katniss would have a moment of uncertainty based on her knowledge that this tender moment was being broadcast across the globe, right? Wouldn’t we see a moment when she realizes that what she is about to do is being witnessed by her friend Gale? I was really surprised the film didn’t address that at all.
Speaking of Gale, I was very surprised and disappointed that we didn’t get a scene between him and Katniss at the end of the film. They set up that relationship so well in the film’s first half-hour that I spent the whole movie wondering how the two would react when reunited at the end. Sadly, I’m still waiting, since the movie never gave us that moment. That was a big disappointment.
Other than that, though, I really loved the ending. OK, In suppose the survival of certain characters that is a bit too easy, a bit too happy-ending. But I loved that Mr. Ross crafted those final scenes so that we’re not left with a moment of pure happiness. Instead, those last few moments are filled with unease and uncertainty. It’s a wonderfully ambiguous ending for such a big-budget family film! And I will admit that it left me eager to see what happens next in the inevitable sequel.
I probably wouldn’t have chosen to see The Hunger Games had my wife not really wanted to go, and I don’t expect this is a film I’ll return to that often. But I certainly enjoyed it, and I respected the craft applied to it’s making. I certainly enjoyed it enough that I’ll be interested in seeing Catching Fire when it arrives two years from now…