Thu 22 Mar 2012
I have to admit, I went into this film with grave misgivings. As one of the many fans of the book, I was concerned about the casting. I was concerned about the treatment of the story. I was concerned about, well, everything. I’ve watched films make a mockery of many books I have loved in the past, and I didn’t see how this one could be any different.
But it was. At least, it sort of was.
In case you somehow have no idea what I am talking about, here is a brief synopsis. The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic tale set in Panem, the remains of North America after an unspecified cataclysmic disaster. The 13 Districts were ruled by the Capitol; each one prized for a certain export. After years of mistreatment at the hands of their totalitarian government, the districts revolted. District 13 was destroyed, and the others were brought back under control after a bloody battle. As a result, each year a boy and girl are chosen from each district as tributes to fight to the death in a landscape of the Capitol’s choosing. The sole survivor is crowned the victor of that year’s Hunger Games. The Games are seen as sport in the Capitol, but more importantly they are a reminder of the folly of future revolutions.
This brings us to the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the youth that volunteers for the games after her sister is picked. She joins her district opponent Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) as they journey to the Capitol and into the games. With only the support of their mentor (Woody Harrelson), publicist (Elizabeth Banks), and stylist (Lenny Kravitz), they are tossed into the arena. Will either of them make it out alive?
As you can see, there is a fair amount of stuff going on, and a significant challenge in the acting and directing department. On the directing side, it is fine. The book is written entirely from Katniss’ perspective, but the film wisely switches to a traditional third person format. Not only is that not disappointing, but it provides an interesting opportunity to present a more linear narrative, as we can see things as they happen, not when Katniss finds out about them. There is much fuss about the “shakey-cam” style of filming, but I must admit it didn’t bother me all that much.
On the acting score, the film does a fair job. No one sticks out as particularly bad, even if no one stands out as being Oscar-worthy. While the younger cast members aren’t exactly veterans of the silver screen, they all have at least a few films under their belt, and do an acceptable job. For their more seasoned castmates, it’s a walk in the park; while their roles are often one-dimensional, they make do with what they are given.
The biggest issue is the treatment of the source material. This story, while written for younger audiences, covers heavy subject matter, including serious themes, political commentary, and extreme violence. Much of this is missing from the film. The characters are softened and simplified, particularly Haymitch, Katniss, and the more sadistic tributes. The small rebellions that Katniss and Peeta display in the arena are glossed over, the violence is often offscreen or omitted altogether. When they are forced to kill people on-camera, the shakey-cam and cut-away techniques come back with a vengeance.
I fully understand that this is an adaptation of a young adult novel, and that it is marketed towards younger audiences. As an educator, I appreciate the attempt to make it more palatable for the families that will choose to see it together. As a critic, I mourn the loss of the potentially powerful statement that this film could have made. Due to the progressive nature of YA lit today, these types of books and their film adaptations will continue to blur the lines of subversive social commentary and age-appropriate family fare more and more. We’ll see which way the pendulum swings.
For now, we have to make do with a film that addresses serious subject matter while pulling its punches right and left. If you are looking for shock value or ringing condemnation of all that is broken in our society, this isn’t the film for you. However, if you want a less graphic apocalyptic tale or are a fan of the books, I say give it a go. While they personally annoy me with quite a few of the unnecessary changes they make (including a truly maddening one near the end), they do enough right to make it worth a trip to the multiplex, although you can safely skip the opening weekend insanity.