The Hunger Games: Tradition Trumps Reality

I'm beginning to think I didn't give The Hunger Games film a fair chance. True, I did give the film an 8/10 rating upon release, but how much was I really focusing on the film itself? I sat there with trepidation, hoping that the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' fine young adult novel was thoughtful and not exploitative. I was afraid of missing anything that could be construed either as needlessly sensational or blatant copying from that other government-run child murder tournament. I rewatched The Hunger Games over the weekend and noticed so much that completely went by me the first time around. The acting in this film is very good. I singled out Stanley Tucci and Jennifer Lawrence in the review and I stand by my comments. The caveat is how much the work of three key players in the film went unnoticed the first time around.

Effie

Elizabeth Banks might give the finest performance in the film. Her presentation of the puffed up rules obsessed Effie Trinket is the key to the Capital's corruption. Effie is clueless when it comes to human emotion beyond her own. Even then, the only emotions she has are the ones that allow her to advance her career in The Hunger Games. Her instinct is not to support the young tributes from District 12 but to reprimand them at every interval.

These key moments of cold brutality zip by in an instant because Banks' Effie knows she is always being watched. During the breakfast on the train where Katniss and Peeta finally get Haymitch to open up, Effie's one concern is the condition of the train car. Katniss stabs at Haymitch with a knife into the table and all Effie can do is cry out "That's mahogany!" before slipping back into the finery of Capital culture. It's a blink and you'll miss it moment of pure disgust that lets you know where her loyalty is.

Seneca

Another cold and calculating cast member who avoided my detection the first time around is Wes Bentley. This adaptation of The Hunger Games gave the evil visionary of the games, Seneca Crane, a much larger role than in the book. Bentley actually crafts a memorable villain out of these new scenes.

Bentley's Seneca is only concerned with his own job. This is not a matter of status like with Effie; this is a matter of survival. As head gamemaker, Seneca has to answer to President Snow himself. If the president isn't happy, no one is happy.

Bentley's performance is so calculated and restrained that you can easily miss what he's going for. He is the office manager from hell. The circular amphitheater of the control room is his pool of cubicles. The design he spent a year crafting is up to a large crowd of carefully trained engineers shooting holographic representations of real threats into the arena. As soon as a danger is realized, he quickly doles out praise. Bentley takes the body language of corporate America and applies it to the senseless execution and murder of children from all over Panem. I was more terrified of his optimistic and professional presentation than I was of any danger in the arena. At least the dangers of the arena, tributes included, don't celebrate their own mayhem with a pat on the back.

Haymith

The third cast member at least has a redemption arc to work with. Woody Harrelson's performance as Haymitch, the only victor ever to come from District 12, is most effective when he's not the center of attention. The early part of Haymitch's journey is far more distant and cold than his alcoholic exploits would suggest. What it really means is that Harrelson chooses to distance himself from the action to create a stronger impact later in the story.

Haymitch tells Peeta and Katniss that they need to embrace their own deaths as they're probably not coming back alive. He's seen enough District 12 tributes dead in the arena to know how unlikely it is that the poorest district will ever be victorious again. Where Collins' places his shift to a supportive role after the breakfast scene, the screenplay gives Harrelson room to make a more believable arc.

Harrelson's Haymitch goes from forced distance to calculating optimist when Peeta and Katniss reveal each other's strengths. From there, Harrelson takes his time with opening up Haymitch's actual personality. He starts with a slightly wider eye and a more relaxed posture. Then he gains the ability to smirk and actually engage with his tributes. By the time the games start, Haymitch is the most affable and energetic presence onscreen. I almost wish his later scenes were actually scripted rather than glossy montages of schmoozing sponsors to hear how he changed his voice to sell his tributes.

The Hunger Games as directed by Gary Ross is unmistakably Katniss' film. It has to be. It was the easiest way to turn a distinctive first person novel into an epic feature film. Because of that, so much of the work of the supporting cast (the tributes, especially) goes by in quick montages. The only expanded characters are the ones running the games, not the ones training or fighting in them. Structurally, those new scenes exist solely to avoid a monsoon of clunky exposition about how The Hunger Games function for people who did not read the novel.

It's easy to focus on the look of the film, the direction, and the tremendous performance of Jennifer Lawrence. I just wish I had the mindset the first time around to watch for everything else.

Anyone else check out The Hunger Games again now that it's on DVD and Blu-ray? I'm tempted to actually purchase the Blu-ray for myself after renting the movie. It's very well done. I don't adjust film ratings after a review, but I'd be tempted to bump this one up to a 9/10 based on the tracker jacker scene alone. That one made me stop the DVD and walk away the second time around.

What did you think? Has the film held up so far? Notice anything new? Sound off. Love to hear from you.

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