The movie is huge. When my brother and I were getting popcorn at our 1pm showing on Saturday the guy working the counter said that the night showings were already sold out. The theater was running the film on 4 different screens. That’s crazy talk. It’s a date movie, a movie for the Twilight crowd, a movie for fans of the book, a movie for people that want to see young kids kill other young kids in brutally violent ways, a movie for everyone. And it’s pretty good, too.
The story is gladiators for the reality TV crowd, with a little dystopian future vibe. The tributes from each of the 12 districts of Panem (all between the ages of 12 and 18) fight to the death in a rigged arena for the pleasure of the Capitol audience and the hope-crushing of the rest of the citizens. A double whammy! Our hero, played quite well by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to be a tribute to save her little sister. She fights, she falls in love (?) and she comes to the inevitable conclusion. And that’s the problem with the film. For all of its pomp and circumstance (the bits at the Capitol before the Games begin are the highlights, showing just how silly and disconnected the privileged are) a lot of the film is a rote retelling of the book. The director (Gary Ross) doesn’t do anything to make the movie into a movie other than film the story as it is written in the book. The script was written in part by Suzanne Collins, the author of the book. This is why authors shouldn’t be allowed to adapt their own work for the screen. They are too hesitant to change things. There was nothing new, nothing that I didn’t already picture in my head when I read the book. Contrast this with the superb later films in the Harry Potter series which are faithful enough for the fans but maintain a cinematic quality that doesn’t exist in this version of The Hunger Games. It’s unfortunate, because the movie could have been great. Instead, it is just good. Pretty darn good, but not what it could have been. Luckily for us, however, it has made enough money to justify the two sequels, the second of which is by far the messiest book but also contains the most potential for a great film.
When I wrote my top 100 list last summer I talked a bit about messterpieces when I wrote about Thirst. What this movie could have used is some messiness. Yeah, it tries to get there with the near constant use of the shaky-cam, but even that is calculated to show just enough of the brutality to get the idea but not enough to get an R rating. The sense of urgency and dread is there, but not capitalized on. Only one scene really stood out to me once the Games got rolling. It’s a death scene and it is beautiful. The action stops, the film shows you something you didn’t see in the book (at least, not in the first book), the camera work drifts and floats around, and it all adds up to something wonderful. Why isn’t there more of this in the film? Where’s the feeling? I’m constantly being told that the stakes are high and everybody is sad, but this is the only scene where I feel it.
As I write this Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Pt. 1 is playing in the background. That’s an adaptation done right. That get’s the excitement of the battles, the sadness of the situation, the cinematic-ness of a movie. There are invented scenes and animation breaks. Yates goes all out to bring this world to life. What The Hunger Games could have used is a scene like the one where Harry and Hermione dance to a Nick Cave song. We need more connection to the characters, and we need to see them be people. Let The Hunger Games be a lesson on how extremely faithful adaptations will end up being only pretty good at best. The screen needs something different than the page. They are different media, allow them to be told in different ways.