Adaptations from novel to screen can be a tricky endeavor and when the book in question has become something of a cultural touchstone—as Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy has—it becomes akin to a tightrope walk without a safety net. The artistic team must find a way to carefully balance the source material and its themes with their own interpretation. If they omit too much of the book—in the writing process or by leaving bits and pieces of the text on the cutting room floor during the editing process—the audience revolts; if they take too many liberties with the source material, the audience does the same. A perfect example of this phenomena occurred in 2009 with Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, a film that was so slavishly committed to the source material that the director forgot to bring his imagination to the proceedings, resulting in a film that remained strangely inert for much of its protracted runtime. General audience reaction to beloved novels or TV shows turned into film adaptations has been a point of contention with me for a decade or better at this point. It bothers me that, above all else, audiences need to be reminded of one important fact: a book is a book and a movie is a movie, and when the latter solely shoots for mimicry of the former, it’s a failed attempt at both adaptation and artistic expression. Before we go any further, I believe now would be a good time for a confession. I have yet to crack open Collins’ young adult trilogy—a fact that without a doubt places me within the minority of avid readers residing in North Carolina yet to do so. After viewing Gary Ross’ film, I do plan on sitting down with them in the immediate future, if only to eventually be able to weigh in on the firestorm of commentary left in the comments section of film websites or in the status updates of pleased/outraged fans in my “news feed” on Facebook. While I have yet to read the novels, I don’t think that fact should prevent me from chronicling my initial reactions to Lions Gate’s worldwide cinematic blockbuster; just like any other piece of art—original or otherwise—it should stand on its own merits and not by what its fans wished it to be.
As with many of the science-fiction classics that proceed it, The Hunger Games inhabits a future that the viewer is invited to interpret as an allegory for the present. The events that spool forth at 24 frames per second take place after the existing nations of North America are annihilated, allowing a civilization named Panem to take its place. Panem is comprised of 12 powerless districts outlining the wealthy, sprawling Capitol in which the colorfully affluent upper-class resides. To help keep the denizens of the 12 districts docile and squarely under the thumb of the ruling class, the annual ritual of the Hunger Games has become a (sadistic) institution in which each district will offer up a “tribute” of a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 during a ceremony titled “The Reaping.” These 24 ill-fated finalists will then be forced to battle to the death in a pre-chosen arena where hidden cameras will document their every move and broadcast it in a manner akin to that of reality TV for the rest of the population to enjoy, seemingly mirroring the Roman modus operandi of yesteryear.
The focus of Collins’ novels—and by extension Ross’ film—are the two tributes from the lowly, dirt-poor District 12 (its landscapes are reminiscent of those in Barbara Kopple’s unflinching documentary about a coal miners’ strike, Harlan County USA), Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss is a 16-year-old sharp-shooter with an affinity for the bow and arrow when hunting game in order to help feed her family. Peeta is the baker’s son whose major skill set revolves around being earnest and looking confused. Peeta is unlucky enough to be called outright, but in the film’s most effective and emotional scene, Katniss offers herself up in tribute to protect her little sister, Prim, who is unlucky enough to beat the long-shot odds and is called on her first year of eligibility. Ross possesses the good cinematic sense to infuse this standout scene with agonizing silence and employs quick-cuts provided by the film’s trio of editors, helping to convey the character’s sense of confusion and panic to the audience. To help ease the pair’s transition and prepare them both for the Hunger Games are a trio of advisors, each providing the duo with the benefits of their particular skill sets. There is a drunkard by the name of Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the only victor ever to emerge from District 12; a stylist by the name of Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) who helps cover up Katniss’ taciturn personality by employing all his wardrobe and makeup skills, and finally, the bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), District 12’s personal cheerleader and liaison that sports bleached skin and a wig that would make Marie Antoinette burn with envy.
As Katniss and Peeta continue their journey through Panem in preparation for The Hunger Games, they come in contact with several important citizens that will help shape the course of their time there. The capitol is headed by the malevolent President Snow (Donald Sutherland), whose number one is the chief game maker himself, Senca (Wes Bentley, sporting facial hair possibly designed by Beelzebub himself), a producer who may be in over his head. Rounding out the important players is a pair of TV announcers (think American Idol) played by Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones who act as eminences for the Games. The ruling class is painted in broad satire accompanied by bright colors, quite the contrast when compared to the earth-tone realism associated with the tributes and District 12.
Most of the film’s runtime is dedicated to setting up the series, resulting in hoping from plot point to plot point without giving a majority of the scenes time to breath. That being said, the film is infinitely more engaging and well-done than the first entry in the Harry Potter series and I have high hopes that the paper-thin secondary characters and glossed over plot points will be adequately flushed out in the coming films. Director Gary Ross does a serviceable job and is a rather inspired choice for the director’s chair given his history with the themes of suppression that dwell in his overlooked gem from 1998, Pleasantville. Jennifer Lawrence is the one, true standout performer and is poised to have a long and fruitful carrier as a leading lady. In fact, one can easily see why Jennifer Lawrence was cast in the role of Katniss; she was coming off her role in the underseen southern gothic film Winter’s Bone, which takes place in the Ozarks and bares more than a passing resemblance to her character’s surroundings at the start of the film. Lawerence, despite her young age, also portrays a convincing amount of strength yet remains motherly and vulnerable in all the right moments. Her relationship with Rue, another contestant in the games, hits home only due to her acting abilities, and I have no doubt that their relationship would have remained hollow and manipulative, allowing the parallels between the characters of Rue and Prim to ring untrue if a lesser performer were cast. As Peeta, Hutcherson fairs worse as the performance and the character remains bland throughout the first film; seemingly only present to help drive the inevitable love triangle that I am sure will dominate a fair amount of the proceedings from here on out. One can only hope that his character becomes three dimensional and is given more to do that get injured and pout in the coming installments.
All in all, The Hunger Games struck me as a rather safe adaptation of a book that is sure to contain darker themes, some of which may border on audaciousness. Obviously, the studio had to keep this at a PG-13 to make money and protect their billion dollar cash-cow, resulting in a predictable dialing down of children murdering each other in cold blood while a nation watches on with bated breath. While the source material and its corresponding film is nothing more than a blend of text and film preceeding it—think The Most Dangerous Game, The Truman Show, and a healthy dose of Battle Royale—it doesn’t mean that the film isn’t (mostly) effective entertainment or have anything new to offer its audience other than what is found in the works of art that informed it. I can see why the text has struck a cord with audiences of all ages when you take into account its Gen-Y love story and the tried and true theme that equates the process of growing up to nothing more than an act of survival. This cinema lover just hopes that the filmmakers don’t choose to sidestep the major opportunity to develop the social commentary that is all but abandoned in the third act and look at the moral issues that are innate within the material dead in the eye, making the rest of the series great instead of merely good cinema.