Lionsgate Hunger Games Film A Satisfactory Movie Experience; Cinema Treatment Leaves Serious Readers Hungry for More

Two years ago, I read The Hunger Games for the first time and decided I would start using the novel as part of my Expository Writing courses at Mayland Community College. On March 23, I had the great pleasure of seeing the film adaptation of the novel on opening day in the company of my students and colleagues at a special showing at the great old Yancey Theater in Burnsville, NC, just up the road from where large portions of the movie were filmed. Though I took notes the whole time, much to the amusement of my students (who laughed at the dandelions in my braid, too), I won’t share all of my many thoughts on the movie, though there will be spoilers for non-readers (Not many of those here, anyway, I imagine!). Join me after the jump to see what aspects of the film I (and my fellow MCC readers) found most satisfactory, and what left us feeling unsatisfied.

Point of View
One of the greatest challenges in adapting a novel like The Hunger Games is in showing a story that is, in text, told from one character’s perspective, and often through her memories. Rather than sticking with Katniss’s perspective, the film, unlike the book, is free to travel to President Snow’s rose garden or back to District 12 for reaction shots. Sometimes, this works very well, as in allowing us to know a little more about Seneca Crane’s “sticky end” or in seeing how the events of Catching Fire are already being set in motion.

Most interesting was the use of Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith in the roles of sportscasters commenting on the events in the arena, adding information about the effects of Tracker Jacker venom, for example. This is a great touch, echoing the Games as the brutal next step in competitive sports. Especially effective is the rundown of the fallen tributes, with an anthem that sounds very close to the music used during sports broadcasts, and the promo shots of the tributes that look identical to the ones used of athletes. This point of view also takes us to the Gamemakers’ war room, where Seneca Crane conducts his masterpiece, using the fire not to drive the Tributes together so much as to keep Katniss from finding the edge of the arena as her mentor once did.

The drawback to the shifting perspective is that we lose what is one of the most compelling aspects of the book: Katniss’s voice. Since the film makers avoid Twilight-style internal monologue and our heroine is a perpetual introvert who admits she “no good at saying something,” we miss much of her charm, her history, and lines like “Thanks for the knife,” or “stupid people are dangerous,”which she only thinks and doesn’t say.

The film also misses the chance to fill in gaps that the book’s perspective leaves: how did Thresh die? how did Peeta cope with the death of the girl from 8 (he is not sent back to dispatch her in the film, but present when the careers do so, it seems)?

I Can See My House from Here!

One of the most wonderful aspects of the film is its use of the Appalachian mountains I know so well. The sights, the sounds of Appalachian summer are captured beautifully. The “laurel hells” (rhododendron patches) and rivers so common in this region are featured prominently and make a wonderful backdrop. District 12 looks appropriately bleak, though only readers will truly appreciate the struggles of its residents to survive. There are a few poignant glimpses of District 12 misery, from an old man picking at bones to a mother mournfully fussing over her son’s clothes before the Reaping, but not much explanation of the Everdeen and Hawthorne families’ trials and reliance on game.

As indicated in the trailers, Madge Undersee has been written out to streamline the plot, which makes me wonder about the possibility that Maysilee will also vanish when Catching Fire hits the big screen (an inevitability with the ticket sales yesterday). Yet, the tone of District 12 is perfect, from the worn-down look of the residents to their silent salute. The music also works well for the tone, though most of the songs on the recently released soundtrack don’t actually appear in the film (the best of them, the Civil Wars’s “Kingdom Come” appears with two others in the credits, but more on the music in a future post).

Very effective is the subtle depiction of the Everdeen family dynamic. Katniss is clearly the mother figure, and Jennifer Lawrence’s height means she is actually taller than the actress who plays her mother. Paula Malcomson does a wonderful, understated job of almost doing something, like tucking in Prim’s “duck tail,” but she hesitates just long enough for Katniss to swoop in and play momma. It’s wonderful, and very easy to miss, but one of my favorite aspects of the film.

Beauty Pageant

From the prologue which explains the development of the Games, to the speech of President Snow, the word “pageant ” is often used, a wonderful reminder of the way in which our pageants, from the meat markets of beauty contests to organized sports, are reflected in Suzanne Collins’s social commentary. Other nice touches along these lines are the great Tribute costumes, complete with commentary straight from the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade and outfits echoing each District.

Particularly nice are the Greco-Roman winged helmets on Cato and Clove (District 2 does house the Capitol’s hovercraft), Rue and Thresh’s overalls and wreaths, and the appalling gold cowboy outfits on the District 10 tributes, all perfect examples of the patronizing costumes Cinna deplores. Costumes in general work beautifully, from the candy-coated Elizabethan look of the Capitol to the worn and weary clothes worn in the Districts.

Character Study

Though the film format requires the removal or streamlining of numerous characters (Lavinia is only background with no backstory, the preps little more than featured extras), others are pleasant surprises. Jennifer Lawrence is fine as Katniss, though sometimes a bit whiny for our girl on fire, especially since many of her trials, including the lack of water, don’t happen in the film. She is fantastic every time she says “thank you,” a struggle for this character, and in her interactions with Cinna and Prim.
Lenny Kravitz is a lovely Cinna, and his performance is just one I wish we saw in more detail. Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is quite effective, from his strength to his humor to his way with words and his very believable devotion to Katniss.

My greatest delight, however, came in the unlikely person of Woody Harrleson, whose Haymitch is fantastic. I had my doubts about him, but he does very well, capturing beautifully the terrible job of trying to keep two tributes alive when he has never succeeded in bringing back even one.

Surprisingly impressive is Alexander Ludwig as Cato, who gives a remarkably layered performance that indicates the Career’s instability early on and which demonstrates Cato’s awareness, at the end, that he’s just a gamepiece, too. I also loved the touch of his shoe soles, which are hobnailed like a Roman soldier’s and the implication that there is an attraction with Glimmer (whom he nonetheless abandons to the trackerjackers). All the Tribute actors do well, including our heart-wrenching Rue and a shockingly small Clove. Though “she be but little, she is fierce,” as Shakespeare might say, yet, in death, she is remarkably sympathetic, and when she falls still, we are reminded that she, too, is a damaged little girl.

The Fallen

Many parents are concerned about the violence, including those terrible Tribute deaths, but the film is carefully directed to avoid the worst of the gore. The trackerjacker attack leaves Glimmer disfigured but not the gory mess of the novel, and the most disturbing (for me and most of my students, anyway) element–the mutts’ being made to look like the Tributes–is not noticeable. They are just big, awful canines that look like a dog-lover’s vision of what should be set loose on Michael Vick.

Cato’s injuries (with make-up done by Conor McCullough, as is Peeta’s fantastic camouflage)also add to his pitiful condition, though he is not encased in the armor that make his long mauling so very horrible in the book.

Still, Rue’s death is terrible, though I loved the contrast between the way Katniss gently wraps the child’s fingers around a bouquet of Queen Anne’s Lace and the way she breaks Glimmer’s fingers to get the bow. Those limp children are shown enough to remind us of the seriousness of the situation. In contrast, one of my biggest complaints with the film is how little Katniss and Peeta really seem to be in danger of dying. His leg injury medicine is a topical cream, not a syringe for blood poisoning, and they both recover very quickly in the cave and seem fairly hale and healthy at their victory (no third near-death for Peeta in the hovercraft).

The Moral of the Story

And, of course, that’s not my only concern with the film. Though, on the whole, I was very impressed with the efforts to remain faithful to the book, sadly absent is the text’s allegorical resonance. Without Peeta’s near-deaths and resurrections, Katniss’s near dehydration followed by water and fire, or even the blackberries at the beginning (though Katniss does trade some kind of berry, blueberries I think, at the Hob), we lose some of the best allegorical and artistic elements of the novels. Some remain, though sometimes in subtle ways: the rose references, along with the fire, of course.

The cautionary tale elements work very well in the preaching against warfare: the propo that looks like it was made by the Third Reich, the emphasis on the military training of the Careers (which turns them into psychopaths), and Haymitch’s portrayal as damaged veteran. Two nice Civil War references come in Atala’s reminder to the Tributes that disease and exposure are just as likely to kill them as their opponents are and in the District 11 grain riot that includes elements of the civilian bread riots of the 1860s.

The dangers of entertaining ourselves to death are also clear, though the violence is criticized far more than the other soul-damaging effects of celebrity and entertainment saturation.

Overall, the film does what a film based on a book should do: it leaves us wanting more. There’s not enough time with Rue, not enough time in the cave (no lamb stew), not enough Cinna, not enough at the end. For those, we have to go to the book. Many viewers have not read the book yet, and, in that regard, the movie will inspire them to read, one of the best jobs a book-based film can do.

The hype surrounding the movie has also allowed me to engage in numerous conversations about the depth of the novel, encouraging deep-mining reading from those who have been only “surface-dwellers” in the story. Though nearly every single person at my showing had read the book (some of us repeatedly), most of us found the film satisfactory but not completely satisfying, just whetting our appetites for more reading and conversation on the books. For that, of course, this is the place.

Two of my students were extras in the movie

Comments

  1. Dr. Mellark says

    Elizabeth-
    Well said! I was left a little flat also by the cave scene – it seemed short and I actually began to question whether or not Peeta was acting for the games as well. I felt that the lack of attention to the “boy with the bread” aspect of the story (barely told in brief flashbacks) made the connection between Peeta and Katniss tenuous at best. I thought Josh Hutchinson did a nice job with subtle facial expressions to show the depth of his feeling, but I would have liked more time in the cave, with the pouring rain.

    Also, the fact that they look quite healthy at the end of the movie, and neither of them are shown to nearly die (in Peeta’s case, twice!) skims some of the richness of the story away, not to mention the symbolism. However, all and all, a successful film adaption.

  2. Louise M. Freeman says

    I think you are quite right in that movies made from really good books tend to disappoint. I was dismayed the first time I saw To Kill A Mockingbird”… they did almost nothing with Dill! And that film is constantly on “Best of all time” lists…

    I agree with you that Katniss and Peeta looked way too healthy (and clean! With clothes barely ripped) at the end of the ordeal… probably due to the cutting of the near-dehydration/starvation scenes. For something called the Hunger Games, everyone looked quite well fed. I couldn’t help think of the mention in the book of the unfortunate Games of years past where they sent a blizzard… and turns out it wasn’t interesting TV to watch everyone slowly freeze to death. I guess seeing people dehydrate is not good film either.

    As for the cave scene and the overall Peeta/Katniss connection that you and John both felt fell flat, I was less bothered by that. You may recall I was leaning toward “Team Gale” most of the way through the series (something my daughter likes to tease me about now) and I think that relationship came across as more real in the movie. In the interview with the Chattanooga paper, one of the points I made (that they didn’t print) was that neither the reader nor Katniss could tell if Peeta’s feelings for her were real or part of the show… and that is only going to get worse as Katniss evolves into the Mockingjay. The reporter asked, “So I take it you don’t approve of shows like the “Bachelor” to which I replied “I can’t imagine that that could possibly be a healthy start to a relationship.” We’ve got two more movies to see Peeta move from kind-hearted boy with the bread to his true nobility and Gale turn, in the face of the horrors of war, from protector to lethal weapons designer, losing any chance with Katniss in the process.

  3. Elizabeth,
    Thank you for the best review of the movie that I’ve read, and I’ve read many. You capture the ambivalence that many avid readers feel when a beloved book is translated to the screen. I saw the movie at a midnight show with my son and daughter, and we had very similar reactions, differing only in a few details of what we thought worked and what didn’t.

    Although several scenes that create Peeta’s character were eliminated or poorly defined, I thought that Josh Hutcherson did an excellent job with what was left. He was a pleasant surprise. I expected a great performance from Jennifer Lawrence, and she delivered. If her character was a bit whiny at times, well, Katniss has a lot to be whiny about.

    I thought that the departures from the book worked very well – Snow’s dialogue with Seneca in the garden, Seneca’s scene at the end, and especially a short scene at a plaza in the Capitol where children are playing with swords, presumably warming up to watch the spectacle. Chilling.

    I had feared that the studio would tone down or eliminate the social commentary and political aspects of the book, and the clear depiction of the totalitarianism of the Capitol. I was happy that didn’t happen. Of course there is much more of this in the next two books, and we’ll see how well the writers deal with it.

    Overall, as you said, a very good translation of the book to film if not perfect, and certainly good enough that I look forward to the next installment with great anticipation and confidence that it will be even better.

  4. Donna Lewis says

    I very much enjoyed your review and your mention of the old Yancey Theatre brought back many memories. I grew up in Burnsville and spent many happy
    Saturday afternoons there. The scenery in the movie made me feel “back home”.

  5. Mary Ellen says

    Thanks for the great review and all the thoughtful comments. I saw Hunger Games on Friday and was really very impressed. Gary Ross and Jennifer Lawrence convey many of the themes that make the Hunger Games trilogy so powerful with amazing delicacy and economy. And I can think of no other actress of her age who can do more with 30 seconds of screen time than Lawrence.

    I am basically a book person, and when I see a movie based on a book that I love I always have to remind myself that film is such different media that it can never replicate the experience of reading, but only complement, illustrate or illuminate.

    There is a small but powerful moment when Katniss explores her room at the Capitol training center and discovers that the picture window is a giant television screen. She flicks through the ‘channels’ that include scenes of the Capitol crowds and suddenly comes upon a peaceful woodland view. What happens next is a magical distillation of emotion conveyed with the tiniest, most fleeting shifts in her back and shoulder muscles, in the set of her jaw. She moves towards the screen as if she would walk into it and find peace and safety in that lovely place. Then, suddenly, she steels herself and turns off the fake woods.

    In those 30 seconds of film, Lawrence as Katniss prefigures the entire Real/Not Real theme that will resonate all the way to the close of Mockingjay (and that John outlines here: http://www.hogwartsprofessor.com/mockingjay-discussion-12-real-or-not-real/ ). I plan to see the movie again, and I fully expect that I will find more moments like this that convey much of the allegory that makes the Trilogy powerful, but this time with the smallest gesture or fleeting glimpse through the camera’s eye.

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