Holy crap. Two years after reading the book, one full year of following news about the movie, and weeks of watching The Hunger Games grow into a simmering worldwide phenomenon, opening weekend finally happened. Let’s just say I was A BIT excited. And of course you know I had Thoughts and Feelings after watching the movie.
I’ll be honest: my immediate reaction was… mixed.
It’s the Harry Potter problem, you know? How can one movie 1) successfully translate such a beloved book, and 2) live up to such intense, prolonged hype? There’s almost no way it can deliver on the first viewing. At the time of this review, I’ve seen the film twice, and I liked it much more the second time, but some critique remains.
SPOILERS START HERE! For The Hunger Games and all subsequent books in the series. You’ve been warned!
District 12 and the Reaping were perfection. No problems there, except my inappropriate urge to giggle at Gale’s gaping mouth. Effie was glorious, and little Prim about ripped my heart out with her screams after Katniss volunteered. Haymitch was divine—on second viewing I can really appreciate how they gradually showed his transformation from drunken escapist to gaming-the-Games mastermind.
But then, just about everything that happens at the Capitol leading up to the games was troublesome for me. The Capitol itself was incredible—so richly realized, and the costumes! My problems had to do with the camera, and the goal—or goals—director Gary Ross set out to achieve by using a shaky, hand-held effect.
I really hate the hand-held thing. And that’s just from a grouchy, “it gives me a headache!” 94-year old woman within perspective. So it made me annoyed (and really glad I wasn’t watching in IMAX) when there was so much herky-jerky motion, with a lot of the action slightly cut-off and unclear. HOWEVER. I fully understand his reasoning:
It’s a very urgent first-person narrative. I tried to put you in Katniss’s shoes the way Suzanne Collins put you in Katniss’s shoes. I wanted to take you through the world using this kind of serpentine tunnel vision that Katniss has. I want to destabilize you the way Suzanne has and I want you to experience the world through Katniss’s eyes, and that requires a very subjective cinematic style, to be kind of urgently in her point of view, so that’s why I shot it that way.
—Gary Ross, interview with Vulture
In theory, I agree that without the raw feeling evoked by the shaky, uneven shots, the audience is at risk of becoming too separated from Katniss’ point of view, relegated to mere observers. Aloof, without personal stake in the outcome of the Games or Katniss’ fate. And Ross uses that to fine effect for the short beginning segment of the movie, spent in a bleak District Twelve. It’s also pivotal to understanding Katniss’ nervousness and fear in some Capitol scenes leading up to the onset of the Games, like when she’s walking on-stage for her interview with Caesar Flickerman, or clinging to Cinna as the seconds until Gametime slip away.
But the reasoning slips a bit for me when the film shifts to the Capitol. Because while Ross is attempting to give the movie-goer as much of Katniss’ perspective as possible through frenetic hand-held shots, he is simultaneously trying for another, contradictory effect: to make the correlation between Capitol audience and Regal-Cinema-18 audience.
This begins with the opening ceremonies, where sweeping shots of the Roman-esque parade route are anything but shaky: they’re sleek, beautiful, romanticized in glitz.
We literally zoom in on the Tributes’ chariots by looking through a Capitol citizens’ futuristic opera glass. We watch the Tributes circle round through a camera perched on President Snow’s shoulder. The goal could not be more blatant: behold the spectacle! This is for you. The opening credits for Caesar Flickerman’s tribute interviews play through as though Panem National TV was piping right into my living room. We were cast as Capitol citizens, right from the moment we bought our tickets.
Ross’ work to turn the film into a self-referential pretzel, a meta reflection on the watchers of the Games, and the watchers of The Hunger Games, was important. My lingering sense of unease with the movie afterward was due, in no small part, to being put squarely in my place as a citizen of the Capitol, implicit and culpable for all the evil I was witnessing. (And—considering I was nice and cozy in a cushy movie-theater seat with buttery popcorn and a massive soda, still slightly buzzed from pre-movie drinks, wearing my Hunger Games T-shirt and nail polish—the reminder of my own hypocrisy was apt.)
But in the arena, those two desired effects (giving the audience Katniss’ perspective, and giving the audience a reminder of its true Bread-and-Circus status) tried to co-exist somewhat, to uneven success.
The hand-held camera was convenient for cutting away from the brunt of child-on-child violence during the Cornucopia. I could not have handled much more of that, so I’m not complaining about that decision at all. And in following Katniss’ running, jumping, arrow-slinging fight for survival the hand-held definitely had my heart racing along with hers.
But then Flickerman and his Games co-host Claudius Templesmith stared dead into the camera, explaining directly to me what tracker-jackers were. No cuts to Capitol audience reaction, no visual reference to any audience besides me, and everyone alongside me in the theater. So then I found myself wondering if the jerky camera was supposed to represent the imperfect angles of the Gamemakers’ hidden cameras, or if we were still in Kantniss’ head. My perspective confusion made following the “real or not real?” development of Katniss and Peeta’s ro(faux)mance even more difficult, and left me wondering how anyone who has not read the books was following any of the Tributes’ in-the-arena Gamesmanship at all.
So, all told, I’m not certain how I feel about that decision, though I understand the reasoning behind it.
Where my Cinna at?
I was disappointed by what I felt was lack of development in the relationships, most particularly between Katniss and Cinna, and Katniss and Peeta. Lenny Kravitz was an impeccable Cinna, but the chemistry and trust that develops between he and Katniss felt unconvincing because it was so rushed. And, though Cinna immediately distinguishes himself from the rest of the Capitol citizens by telling Katniss, “I’m sorry this happened to you,” I missed the line that really solidified his personality in the books:
“Yes, this is my first year in the games,” says Cinna.
“So they gave you District Twelve,” I say. Newcomers generally end up with us, the least desirable district.
“I asked for District Twelve,” he says without further explanation.
(The Hunger Games, p. 64)
However, given that the movie was 2.5 hours long and still had to leave so much out, I understand that some things required trimming. And the scene with Katniss and Cinna before she’s lifted up into the arena…
Jennifer Lawrence blew me away there, completely. Her intensity was frightening, which lifted the countdown and subsequent Cornucopia scene to exactly the emotional level they needed to be at: basically Threat Level Fuscia. That’s also when Kravitz truly shone as Cinna, Katniss’ rock-steady touchstone through the entire Capitol experience. (And it reminded me of the scene from Catching Fire where I WILL COMPLETELY LOSE IT.)
Standout performances also to:
Seneca Crane and his epic facescape. I’m so glad you’re back, Wes Bentley, and I’m so pissed that I forgot Seneca Crane bites it. The memory of your beard will live on, sir.
Donald Sutherland as President Snow. I’ve heard some people critique his performance, but I have to say I found him eerie as hell. Listen, this guy lives in a world where innocents are slaughtered for the momentary delight of millions. And in that world, he’s in the most cutthroat field: politics. And such is dude’s sociopathic capacity for manipulation that he earned the top spot—he’s the freaking PRESIDENT. So you try telling him he can’t hold whispered life-or-death discussions in his rose garden. Go on. Tell him.
Another decision I found fascinating was the subtle hints that Cato and Glimmer were an item.
It served as a stark contrast to Katniss and Peeta: warm and natural where Katniss and Peeta were stilted and uneven; flying under the radar where Katniss and Peeta were given celebrity status; egalitarian, each striving to be seen, and to win, on their own merits where Katniss was receiving one selfless advantage after another from Peeta before they even stepped off the train. No one in the Capitol seemed particularly interested in the budding romance of a couple of gunners, trained from birth to succeed. They wanted the underdogs as much as the Districts, exactly as Snow knew they would.
So, overall, I thought it was a good movie, and one that I have no doubt will grow on me as time goes on (and I watch it eight million more times). The adaptation was absolutely true to the spirit of the books, which was the absolute, most important thing.
But wait! you say, What about Peeta?! Ohhhhhhh I have not forgotten him. NO INDEED. As you might expect, I have SO MANY Thoughts and Feelings about Peeta, and Gale, and Katniss’ overall emotional state as mostly reflected through her interactions with aforementioned boys. Too many for this post, because it’s already crazy butt-long. SO. I will be posting again tomorrow, focusing on that part of the movie.
BUT! What did you think?? Did you see the movie? Did you like it? Did the hand-held camera action make you feel dizzy? Did you read this without having seen the movie because you don’t care about spoilers? If so, WHY??