The whole point of going to a midnight movie is to avoid teenagers and crying kids and annoying people who talk incessantly on their phones right in the middle of a climactic scene. Unfortunately, when you go see an adaptation of one of the biggest YA books known to mankind, squarely in the middle of Spring Break, well, the odds are decidedly not in your favor of having a wonderful cinematic experience.
Thankfully, despite the Team Peeta versus Team Gale crowd, I still enjoyed this movie quite a bit.
It’s the dystopian future. One boy and one girl from the ages of 12-18 are selected to compete in The Hunger Games, a yearly, epic, televised fight to the death where only one participant can survive. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers as tribute when her younger sister is selected to compete.
1. The Hunger Games is a very faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins’s novel . . . presumably because if the filmmakers had changed too much, rabid hordes of angry teenagers would storm the castle (er, Hollywood) and claw their faces off. Ultimately, I was pretty impressed with how closely the film followed the novel, although I’m not certain how the movie will be received by people who haven’t read the book. I suspect I’ll get a better feel for that on a second viewing.
2. I’ve never met Gary Ross, the director of The Hunger Games, but I imagine that casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss has to be at least in the top five smartest decisions he’s ever made in his life.
Of course, after watching Winter’s Bone, I wasn’t exactly worried about Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss. Honestly, they’re kind of like sister characters. If Lawrence could pull off Ree Dolly (which she did, beautifully so), then she could pull off Katniss Everdeen. Still, it was nice seeing that I was right. I mean, that’s just a good feeling.
Katniss is just what you want a young adult heroine to act like. She’s strong but not without flaws. Brave but not absolutely fearless. Has moral integrity but isn’t overly righteous and preachy. Hell, I’d like more adult heroines to manage this kind of protagonist in films. If a weaker actress had been cast in the part, the movie would have failed, at least critically. (There was absolutely no doubt about this movie being a commercial success.) But thankfully Lawrence is pitch-perfect in the role because the movie does fall heavily on her shoulders.
3. Before I get into the rest of the cast, though, let me talk briefly about hair dye, and why, sometimes, you need to suck it up and change small details from the book just for the sake of your movie.
There is a small sort-of love triangle in The Hunger Games between the characters of Katniss, Gale, and Peeta. (It’s not actually a huge part of the story, which is why I don’t really mind it.) Katniss, mind you, has brown hair. Gale also has brown hair, and Peeta has blond hair. Of course, in real life, Jennifer Lawrence has blonde hair, Liam Hemsworth has blonde hair, and Josh Hutcherson has brown hair. So each of the actors dyed their hair for their respective parts.
Now, Jennifer Lawrence is one of those people who can make pretty much any hair color look natural. (The bitch.) Liam Hemsworth definitely looks better as a blond, but the dark brown hair is not completely atrocious. Josh Hutcherson, on the other hand . . .
This is what Josh Hutcherson looks like:
And this is what they turned him into:
See, the sad truth of it is that some of us brunettes are simply not meant to go blond. And you can’t always predict it, either—your skin can be fair, your eyes can be light, but put your head in a bucket of bleach and watch the horror show that emerges when you come up for air. Josh Hutcherson was clearly not destined for blondeness, and yet the filmmakers did it anyway. Was it really that necessary for Peeta to have light hair? I honestly don’t think so. Apparently—although I’d forgotten this—having blond hair and blue eyes sort of signifies wealth and status and whatnot in the books, but . . . come on. The audience didn’t really need different hair color to figure out that Peeta has more money than Katniss.
And maybe you think I’m being silly, complaining about bad hair, but honestly, I actually found Peeta’s dye job significantly distracting as I watched the film. There are times, I think, when a film does not need to stick quite so closely to the book, and hair color is one of those details that I think, nine times out of ten, doesn’t really matter all that much.
4. Now, as far as our love triangle goes acting-wise . . .
This is Gale. Gale probably has seven minutes screen time in this whole film. He also manages to give Sam Worthington a run for his money on Flattest Delivery Ever. I mean, I tried to tell myself that Hemsworth didn’t have much time to develop, but . . . for fuck’s sake. Seven minutes! Maybe seven minutes, and he screwed up that! I didn’t think I was expecting that much of his performance going into the theater, but apparently I was wrong because I was significantly unimpressed with Liam Hemsworth.
Josh Hutcherson, on the other hand, has much more time to develop Peeta, and he’s . . . okay. Actually, I do like Peeta—I think Hutcherson plays him exactly the way Ross wants him to—but one of the things that I wasn’t satisfied with in this adaptation is how Peeta’s cleverness and ability to manipulate people gets a bit short-changed in the need to make him the Nice Guy. I mean, they allude to him being smart once or twice, show a few glimmers of him instinctively knowing how to play the game better than Katniss, but I still think there’s something missing here, like they dulled any edges the character might have had. I still like Peeta—I mean, the kid’s likable—but I wish the film would have allowed him to be just a bit sharper.
5. There are a handful of other awesome side characters that round out a pretty good cast, Liam Hemsworth excluded. Elizabeth Banks makes a very fun, colorful Effie. Lenny Kravitz isn’t nearly as bad as I was picturing him as Cinna. Donald Sutherland and Donald Sutherland’s beard are both enjoyably menacing, and this is the first thing I’ve really enjoyed Wes Bentley in for years.
But Stanley Tucci and Woody Harrelson are easily the stand-outs of the side characters. Stanley Tucci manages to work his blue hair simply because he’s Stanley Tucci and can kind of do anything. He’s completely awesome as Caesar Flickerman, the . . . er . . . Ryan Seacrest of the Hunger Games, maybe? Anyway, that smile, man. That smile is perfect.
And Woody Harrelson, well. If you were in any doubt whether or not Harrelson could manage a slightly tortured, alcoholic, comedic mentor character . . . well, were you really in any doubt? The second I heard Harrelson was cast as Haymitch, I was like, Oh, yeah, that makes sense. Awesome.
6. For your consideration, here are some famous R-rated films:
Die Hard, Pretty Woman, The Matrix, True Lies, The King’s Speech, Good Will Hunting, Up in the Air, Speed, Slumdog Millionaire, The Breakfast Club, The Rock, and I shit you not, When Harry Met Sally. When Harry Met Fucking Sally, man.
I’m not a parent—let’s get that out of the way right now—but at this period in my life, I feel that I would have no issue taking my eight-year-old child to see any of these movies. I mean, it depends on the kid. Different kids can handle different things at different ages; that’s just how it goes. But in general, I’m not expecting my child to be terrorized by Billy Crystal and Meg Ryan. No, not even by Meg Ryan pretending to have an orgasm in the middle of a cafe.
The Hunger Games, on the other hand, is rated PG-13, and I saw dozens of children at the theater who couldn’t have been any older than ten, some more like seven or eight, and I wondered. Not at the parents for bringing them, necessarily—they know their kids, not me—but just at the rating system in general, cause I mean, there are a lot of dead children in this film. This movie doesn’t shy away from that. The Hunger Games isn’t gory, nor does it need to be—this isn’t Battle Royale, despite the similar subject matter—but it does something that I think a lot of R-rated movies would try to avoid: it shows the faces of the dead tributes. Not, like, an arm here or there, but honest-to-god Dead Kid Face. Lots of them, actually. There is one brief but particularly powerful montage of dead children in The Hunger Games, and I think it’s a fantastically bold choice. These shots are always simple, fairly bloodless, and yet somehow they manage to be even more stark and affecting because of how matter-of-factly the bodies are shot.
I was extremely impressed with how The Hunger Games handled the brutality and violence while catering to a YA audience . . . but I’m not entirely sure how it got a PG-13 rating when The King’s Speech received an R. Are we really freaking out that much over the word fuck? Really? That’s more inappropriate for a child to watch than kids murdering other kids? I don’t get this.
7. Finally, there is one element—besides Peeta’s hair and Gale’s flat acting—that kind of seriously bugged me in this adaptation, but I can’t talk about it without spoilers. Actually, pretty much everything else I want to say includes spoilers, so if you’ve already read the book, seen the movie, or just don’t give a damn, follow below . .
I’m not going to methodically write out everything that happens in this entire film. I don’t feel like it. The book’s, like, 300-something pages. Just go read it. (Or Wikipedia it. Whatever.) But here are a few more notes I couldn’t mention above:
8. I would have like to have seen more of Rue and Katniss together, but I understand time constraints and whatnot. Even with the little time they had, though, Rue’s death scene was very well done. And, you know, depressing. Jennifer Lawrence was extremely effective in this scene.
9. I also would like to have seen a bit more of Foxface. Again, this isn’t a big problem—you aren’t going to have time for everything—but even though she never speaks or gets a real name in the book, she felt like more of a major player, like someone Katniss really needed to be worried about. Here, not so much. I thought her death scene could have been handled slightly better.
10. I like that Peeta is an awesome cake decorator and can transform this ability into super stealth camouflage, but somehow disguising himself to look like the scenery didn’t seem quite so ludicrous in the novel. Again, this isn’t a big flaw or anything, just something I found kind of funny. I figured his sneaky ninja painting skills wouldn’t be quite so elaborate or detailed in the wild, but apparently the boy can do crazy things with just his fingers and a handful of mud.
11. I like the bits that are added to the movie with President Snow and Seneca Crane. For the most part, the film stays fairly close to Katniss and what she’s going through—as it should—but I enjoyed the asides to introduce our villains, who (I assume) are bigger parts in the other books. (I haven’t actually read Catching Fire or The Mockingjay yet. Yes, I know. It’s that love triangle I brought up before. It works for me in The Hunger Games because Peeta and Gale never speak to each other, ever, but I’d lay down money that it gets more far more melodramatic and silly in the rest of the trilogy.)
Anyway, I like that this movie takes the time to introduce our villains—well, I guess I should make that villain, since Seneca’s death is heavily implied. I very much liked the scene where he’s forced into the room with the bowl of poisoned berries. I was only disappointed because I was rather enjoying Wes Bentley and his ridiculous, little beard, and I had hoped to see him in the sequels. But that’s okay. I’ll still have Sutherland’s ridiculous, gigantic beard to comfort me.
12. My biggest problem with this movie as an adaptation—because clearly I’m having trouble judging it on its own merit right now; like I said, it’s all about the second viewing—is that Peeta never confronts Katniss about pretending to be in love with him.
See, Peeta is clearly in love with Katniss, but he also uses his feelings for her as part of his strategy to garner sympathy from the sponsors who are watching. (Because, you know, he can be smart and have feelings all at the same time. I don’t understand why some writers seem to have trouble with this concept.) But Katniss only sees the strategy part of it and doesn’t realize that his feelings for her are real. And when Peeta is slowly dying from infection, Katniss starts playing along to fool the sponsors into thinking they’re star-crossed lovers in order to get him medicine.
Now all this works better in the novel than in the movie, partially because Peeta is more interesting in the book, and partially because the book is from Katniss’s point of view, and you get to see everything she’s thinking . . . her struggle between strategy and genuine emotion is clear, whereas in the film it’s a little more muddled. But these scenes still would have worked for me if after Peeta and Katniss survive the game—since, yes, they both manage to—they had a discussion about it like they do in the novel. Cause Peeta, the supposed manipulator of the two, is fooled along with everyone else that Katniss really falls for him. And though I’m not eager for the upcoming love triangle angst, like, at all, I really thought that this was an interesting dynamic between the two characters in the book, and I was definitely disappointed that the film minimized that aspect of their relationship.
13. Finally, one of the ways I measure a film—particularly an action film—is how I feel afterwards, like, physically. (This is mostly only relevant if I’ve seen the film in theater.) If I’m raring up for a fight, that’s a good sign. If I’m relatively ambivalent and only really thinking about pie, well, that’s not. Immortals, for instance, was this big action film with tons of fight scenes that should have made my adrenaline shoot up like crazy. . . but it completely failed to do so. The Hunger Games, however, did work in this regard. It wasn’t quite like Kick-Ass or Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, where I immediately wanted to go running out into the streets and stop crime by headbutting bad guys into coins . . . but I did feel myself getting ready for a fight, just in case someone burst around the corner with an arrow or a sword or something.
. . . admittedly, I can be fairly ridiculous, myself. Still not as ridiculous as Peeta’s bad bottle job, though.
Despite some small problems—and one or two slightly larger ones—I very much enjoyed this movie. Jennifer Lawrence really rose to the occasion, and I thought the violence and death was handled perfectly.
Jennifer Lawrence. No question.
Do whatever you have to do in order to protect the ones you love.
(Also, learn how to decorate cakes. Seriously. Peeta says it himself in the novel: “Frosting. The final defense of the dying.”)