Book to film adaptations are hard. They're even harder when the book is a hot property, widely read and beloved. Couple that with a fully realized character study taking priority over narrative action and you can easily see a great story ruined on the big screen. Any doubts I had about adapting the tightly wound first person prose of The Hunger Games into a feature film disappeared completely by the end of the film. Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray wisely expand the story beyond the knowledge of leading lady Katniss Everdeen to create a rich introduction to an especially repulsive dystopian future. Katniss is the driving force of the story, but hers is not the only story being told.
Katniss Everdeen is a 16 year old girl in the coal mining district of Panem--the nation to rise from the ashes of a disaster that destroyed all of North America. Every year, one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts is trained to fight to the death for the amusement of the Capital city residents. Only one child can come out alive in a high stakes reality show where your entire goal as a tribute is to make the audience love you. With love and adoration comes gifts--weapons, food, medicine--that can give you the edge you need to stay alive and emerge victorious.
The biggest issue with The Hunger Games is the hour long lead up to the actual combat. Many details had to be changed from the novel to streamline the proceedings and appeal to a wider audience. That is to be expected. Unfortunately, this leads to moments that are a bit too cloy in their exposition. There was audible laughter, for example, when Katniss' younger sister Primrose gave her a mockingjay pin as a good luck charm. Katniss had literally given the pin to the young girl five minutes before with the promise that nothing bad could happen if she wore it. Yes, it was necessary to streamline the story of the pin that will become synonymous with Katniss in the games (in the sequels), but did it have to be done in such a clunky and absurd way?
The first hour is littered with moments like this. They do nothing but confuse people who haven't read the book and turn off people who have read it. Substituting characters is to be expected. Adding sub-CW original series happenstance just to stress important elements for the future films is lazy. It is not a matter of straying from the novel as some guide cast in steel. It is a matter of choosing some very poor devices to fill in the gaps. Sure, they fill the holes, but the finish is so rough they stand out more than the holes would have.
Thankfully, the film drops these twee moments as soon as the games begin. It is here that Jennifer Lawrence gets to demonstrate the full range of her acting abilities as Katniss. With the exception of the few moments showing the game room, Haymitch wooing sponsors, and Katniss' family back home watching, the camera never leaves Katniss. We are following her track of the reality show from beginning to end. That means we see her exhaustion, fear, hunger, panic, sorrow, rage, confusion, weariness, doubt, and excitement in every phase of the games. Lawrence does so much to elevate the story beyond cheap thrills and teen romance that I cannot imagine The Hunger Games working with another leading actress.
The acting all around is excellent. Stanley Tucci's Ceasar benefits from taking on the role of color commentator during the games. Much of the exposition from the novel--identifying plants, traps, and genetic monstrosities--is dumped in his lap. It was that or have a nonstop voice over of Katniss' inner monologue. She is not a talkative character, but Ceasar makes his living turning horrors into entertainment. Tucci delivers these bizarre lines in such a cheesy talk show fashion that you can imagine how the citizens of the Capital can fall in love with the ghastly combat on display.
Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz, and Elizabeth Banks lead Katniss and Peeta's support team as Haymitch, stylist Cinna, and escort Effie. Harrelson gives a subtle turn as a jaded former champion hooked on booze to escape his inability to save children from death in the arena. Kravitz is the kindest adult in the film, offering a loving and genuine sense of support for Katniss through outrageous eye-catching fashion. Banks is so strong at delivering unintentional villain as Effie that I began to wish she could have joined Ceasar in the color commentators' room. Banks' Effie views herself as a brilliant task masker giving the wretched and worthless District 12 children a final moment of real society before their unavoidable demise in the games. That separation from the tributes creates a perfect spectrum of confusing advice for Katniss and Peeta leading into combat.
To director Gary Ross' great credit, the children playing major roles in the film give strong, natural performances. I have a sinking suspicion that there are hours and hours of cut footage of the tributes interacting in training and in the games. The focus has to be on Katniss to actually be The Hunger Games, so these scenes had to go. The results are alliances that feel dangerous and true, fully realized characters, and a growing sense of dread and unease as the surviving children come close to attaining their freedom. By chance, this forced sense of community results in nuanced performances from actors as young as 12.
Much has been said about the decision to use shakycam in The Hunger Games. As someone who actually got ill during The Blair Witch Project and Cloverfield, I can gladly report that the use of shakycam has been greatly exaggerated. There is a difference between using fast cuts/quick camera movements and using long shots that refuse to stay focused on the subject. Ross' vision is to capture the reality TV aspect of the games ala Big Brother--thousands of cameras watching every move from the time of the reaping until the declaration of a victor. The quick edits and montage of the initial bloodbath add great weight and complexity to a twisted picture.
The only big let down is the obvious attempt to play up the cliffhanger that ends the novel. Events that take place in the second book are shoehorned into the final moments to raise the tension and set up the rest of the series. Though executed well, it felt like the film was a "to be continued" screen away from saying "give us more money in another year or so." There is no reason that this film should not have felt like a self-contained vehicle telling the story of the 74th Annual Hunger Games. Instead, it's a mostly cohesive film that leaves a few too many threads hanging to come together as strong as it should in the end.
It is hard to imagine that any fan of the novels will be truly disappointed by The Hunger Games film. It's a companion piece that pulls back the curtain on the Capital and the mechanics of the game. Similarly, any action, adventure, or thriller fan will find something to enjoy in this big screen adaptation. The technical execution and level of acting are so high that you would really need to build yourself up to hate the film no matter what to leave dissatisfied.
Thoughts? Love to hear them.