*The following review contains some storyline spoilers and specific references to the differences between the book and the movie.
When a book is translated for the silver screen, there is almost always a debate about whether it would be more enjoyable to read the book or to see the movie first. It’s a struggle that I have personally suffered through many times.
On face value, the remarkable success of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy cannot be understated. The fact that it was on the New York Times best seller list for over 100 consecutive weeks and that there are over 2.9 million copies in print is such a staggering number to comprehend that at times it seems almost as implausible as kids killing each other for the amusement of adults around them and at the same time still has the same ring of truth that makes it so compelling.
The Hunger Games takes place in the fictional place of Panem. The nation is comprised of a wealthy Capitol and twelve poorer districts that surround it. There was a thirteenth district that tried to rebel against the Capitol government and while the threat was quickly vanquished, its after-effects were damning. The rebellion led to the Capitol establishing The Hunger Games, where each year, every boy and every girl between the ages of 12 to 18 are entered into a lottery. The twelve districts then randomly select a male and female tribute from these names to represent them in an outdoor arena fight to the death where there can be only one survivor. In lay terms, the kids kill each other until only one is left standing. The movie takes place during the 74th annual Hunger Games.
Our lead character is District 12’s Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) who volunteers to participate in the deadly game in place of her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields) who was actually selected. Her male district teammate… I mean counterpart (there can be no teammates in the winner-take-all format right?) is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). Katniss is not only forced to leave her family behind, she is also separated from Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), her brooding hunting partner who she may or may not have feelings for.
The story quickly sees Katniss and Peeta uprooted from their everyday life of poverty and thrust into the luxurious and indulgent absurdity of the Capitol’s horrifying version of the Olympics. They are fed more food in the few days preparing for the Games than their entire families have eaten that year. They are offered professional stylists like Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) who primp and finesse their looks with the unspoken undertone of dressing them for their inevitable death. They are told that their chances to actually return alive are almost non-existent considering the somewhat wealthier nations have trained ‘career’ tributes who actually spend the majority of their life preparing for The Hunger Games because of the honor and riches that winning would provide.
Why has such a simple story developed an almost cult-like readership and loyalty? While the material is disturbing and completely over-the-top, in a time when reality television blurs the line of not only what networks are willing to show but also what people are willing to do on these shows, The Hunger Games is not as impossible to believe as they once might have been. Collins did say that she was inspired to write the book after changing channels on her TV and flipping between a reality show and CNN’s coverage of the Iraqi war. She said that there was an “unsettling” symmetry between the two programs that inspired the series.
Because of the detailed plot and Collins’ specific pacing and detail in the books, any movie adaptation was sure to face criticism from rabid fans. Simply put, it wasn’t a question of whether the movie was going to leave anything out, it was just a question of how much.
The obvious plot point difference to point out right away is changing how Katniss received the Mockingjay pin that has become the universal symbol for the series. In the book, she is given the pin by Madge, the mayor’s daughter who offers it as a token of hope and safety during the game. In the movie, Katniss picks up the pin for her sister to ‘protect her’ but Prim promptly gives it back to Katniss when she learns that her sister is taking her place in the Games. As a purist, I certainly thought this was a major change considering how much emphasis is placed on the pin and what it represents not only in the first book but in the next two.
The relationship shared between Peeta and Katniss is the core of the first book. Brought together once by necessity and now by circumstance, one could argue that it is their dynamic that is the sole reason for the story’s popularity. In the book, prior to competing in the Capitol’s sick spectacle, Peeta, the cute baker’s son tosses our heroine a loaf of burned bread knowing how badly her starving family needs it (and presumably gets a beating from his mother for his compassion). Katniss continually refers to the incident when she questions whether or not Peeta is trying to kill her in the game. In the movie, the incident is an oddly placed recurring flashback that doesn’t do much to explain its fundamental importance in establishing Peeta’s true feelings and this is an egregious mistake.
Finally, the violence of the game’s deaths is perhaps the biggest editorial compromise made from the book. Clearly, ensuring that the brutality was severely softened to ensure that the film received a PG-13 rating was of primary importance to Collins when she collaborated with director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) and Billy Ray (Breach, State of Play) on the screenplay. All the fight sequences almost always look like someone pressed fast-forward on the DVD player. They are more of a montage than a drawn-out kill and I also believe that purists might not agree with the choice. Similarly, the mutant dogs with the eyes of the fallen tributes is also underplayed with them being offered as scary and not completely terrifying so that kids can talk about the movie excitedly rather than compare their nightmares. The Hunger Games has long been criticized for its similarities to Battle Royale (2000), the Japanese film about ninth grade students being given a weapon and told to kill each other in an effort to control overpopulation under the guise of a school field trip. In that respect, while the books might be similar, the movies definitely aren’t as Battle Royale glorifies the kids killing each other while The Hunger Games seems to almost bury it.
With those storyline knocks out of the way, the movie does do a lot of things right.
The finesse that Ross uses to present the film as both the sad story of two star-crossed lovers while retaining its epic nature as the ultimate game of life and death is flawless. Ross’ retention of the realism is also remarkable. It would have been easy to fall into the trap of showing Katniss’ fire dress as a cheesy medley of unnecessary CGI, but Ross ensures that just the right amount of ‘can a dress like that actually exist?’ co-exists with ‘there’s no way that thing is real’ and that is impressive.
The pacing of all three books in the trilogy make them impossible to put down and the same can be said for the movie. Despite being over two hours long, I didn’t see anyone get up or take their eyes off the screen for a minute. While this is easy to accomplish when you have a story as good as the one that Collins wrote, it is still the first time I have ever seen an audience so completely captivated.
The performances from a relatively unknown cast can also be praised. While no one can question Jennifer Lawrence’s acting chops after seeing her Oscar-nominated performance in Winter’s Bone, she was bound to receive criticism after winning one of the most beloved roles in literary history. The fact is that she not only plays the role of Katniss Everdeen but actually defines it. A tough, gritty and badass performance is fused flawlessly with the emotion and passion that is needed in the game. There are many times in the movie where she doesn’t even need to say word to convey her message to the audience. The same goes for Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson. While Hemsworth’s Gale is more of a background actor in the first movie, he is still enough of an enigma to leave you wondering if we would choose our teenage crush over somebody who we need to rely on in a life and death situation. Hutcherson’s take on Peeta won’t disappoint. We want to both laugh and cry with him at the same time. Also keep an eye out for Stanley Tucci’s blue-haired Caesar Flickerman. The Games’ version of a Sportscenter analyst is hilariously believable.
The final take?
Regardless of whether you have read the books or not, you won’t like The Hunger Games. You will love The Hunger Games. The nitpicks that I have pointed out in terms of the differences from the book are strictly for hardcore purists to note. Gary Ross had an almost impossible task to incorporate all the elements in a much shorter period (142 minutes) and he is to be applauded for how much he did manage to squeeze in. The feat is even more impressive when you consider how many years fans have had to wait for the movie and theorize about the ways that they would handle the script. My thinking going in was that there was no way the movie could be as good as the books because they are the only work of fiction that I have ever described as perfect. After seeing the film, I can now unequivocally say that you can see the movie first without any problems because it is as good as it gets.
The Hunger Games is what every great film should be about. Life and death. Love and loss. Decisions and drama. It’s a wonderful and historic piece of filmmaking.