Posted on 3/25/12 05:44 PM
Typically when there's a movie I'm excited for that is based on a novel I will wait to see the film before I read the book in order to allow the filmmaker to tell me the story rather than get caught up in my own interpretations of it. The thing is, though, I wasn't excited for The Hunger Games. I had heard the book was great, but the marketing material looked as if it was geared mostly towards the Twilight crowd, of which I am most certainly not a member; so I went ahead and read the book. Now the book tells a compelling story with an interesting and timely political parallel, but it is not necessarily the most well-written thing I have ever read. Competent, but not excellent. However, what the book is is cinematic. The novel was absolutely begging to be made into a film and you could almost see author Suzanne Collins sending it off to publication and waiting by her phone for the film studios to start calling. As a filmmaker, and major film nerd, reading the book I started creating my own imaginary screenplay for the film and directing in my mind my version of The Hunger Games. The problem with this movie lies in the fact that it's not David Daut's The Hunger Games, it's Gary Ross' The Hunger Games.
For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hunger Games is set in a distant dystopian future, a post-post apocalypse, if you will. The nations of the United States and Canada have collapsed and out of the ashes rose the nation of Panem and thirteen outlying districts. At one point, the districts banded together in an attempt to overthrow the tyrannical rule of The Capitol, but were unsuccessful and District 13 was completely destroyed in the process. As punishment for the rebellion, and as a constant reminder of The Capitol's power, every year two children from each district are chosen to fight to the death in the Hunger Games, which is broadcast live to all of Panem and is required viewing for all residents. Katniss Everdeen, a girl from District 12, ends up competing in the games and the rest of the movie plays out from there.
So as I mentioned, my biggest problem with the film was that it was not The Hunger Games movie that I would have directed, and while I know that sounds terribly pretentious of me, give me a second to explain. Due to the cinematic nature of the novel and the fact that as a filmmaker and a film fan I have certain sensibilities, there are things that I would have done differently while adapting the story, but that does not make them inherently better than what is in the film, just more aligned to my personal tastes. I regret now that I read the novel first because I think I would have appreciated the film much more from an objective perspective. That being said, Gary Ross does a great job adapting the material and, despite what the marketing campaign might have indicated, it doesn't fall into the trap of teenage melodrama that so many other similar films do. The love triangle that forms in the story is appropriately handled here and doesn't overtake the more important themes of the narrative.
The film has a very gritty and realistic feeling to it, and I know that those two words are buzz words that get thrown around a lot, often in the wrong context (Snow White and the Huntsman is neither gritty nor realistic, it's a big CG fantasy film that happens to have dark subject matter), here however, I mean it in the most literal sense. There are no big "money shots;" no grand, sweeping moments of spectacle; no massive visual effects set pieces; the whole thing is subdued in a way that I feel is very appropriate for the work. A lot of the camera work is hand held and intimate, and the score never attracts attention to itself and exists only to punctuate certain moments; listening to the score on iTunes would likely be boring, but it works perfectly in the context of the movie, often stepping out of the way in favor of complete silence when appropriate.
The performances were also fairly strong, which is something I was not expecting from this. There's a fairly low bar set for acting in similar films that are aimed at young adults and teenagers, but everyone did a good job in this film; even some of the casting decisions I wasn't sold on right away (Josh Hutcherson most notably) surprised me by taking on the role really well. It doesn't have the brilliance of something like the casting of the Harry Potter films, but few things do.
One thing the movie does cut significantly from the book is the lore and backstory, and I'm sure many fans of the novel will lose their minds over this, but it didn't bother me too much. Having too much of the movie dedicated to explaining the history of Panem would have taken time away from the core story and character development which arguably got trimmed too much already (I'll get to that in a moment). Not only that, but with the popularity of the book it's almost an absolute certainty that anyone seeing the film who hasn't already read the book will know someone who has, and conversations will inevitably be sparked about the lore of this world. There was just enough of the lore included to make sure the story at hand was in the proper context, but not too much that the film gets bogged down in the details.
My one legitimate complaint with this film, is that it rushes through some of the character development in order to keep moving the film along at a brisk pace. At 142 minutes the film is already pushing it for a mainstream blockbuster, but if they had taken some more time to really develop the relationships in the film (like that of Katniss and Rue or the dynamic that shifts between the two leads in the third act) I think it would have made for a stronger film.
The movie is an extremely well-made film and exceeded my expectations in many ways. It's not perfect, but I feel it does a good job of adapting the novel and setting up the trilogy. I also think that it is one that I'll appreciate more on repeat viewings as I'm able to set more and more of my personal vision aside and appreciate it more objectively than I do now.