Now, I need to preface this with a statement I have made clear in the past. I did not like the first novel. In fact, I only enjoyed the second book, and then only the second half. However, I was excited because I firmly believed that the books would translate better on the big screen. After all, Battle Royale, the first one only, was awesome. My problems with the novel largely center on Katniss, and how poorly I feel she is written. To me, she comes across as a self-centered, vapid, inconsistent character and it annoys the piss out of me. I understand that I am largely in the minority here, but it’s important that people have a starting point for my review.
The main complaint of the movie going crowd was “There wasn’t enough Peeta kissing”, so perhaps I am coming at this from the wrong direction.
The Hunger Games movie should really be presented as Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games. That might as well be the full name of the movie, because almost no one else gets any screen time at all. Thankfully, Jennifer Lawrence is utterly amazing as Katniss, making her much, much more likable but keeping her “I’m a rebel and a longer” vibe without falling into the trappings of the novel that made her so wretched, to me. Her good nature, which seemed so tacked on in the novels, comes across here directly from the beginning of the film with some good scenes with her sister, Gale and then her mother. Poor Gale, he might as well have been Sir Not Appearing In This Film Except for Reaction Shots. The screenwriters also go to great lengths in re-writing certain scenes to make it clear that she is more clever and intelligent than the book lets on. However, this comes at the cost of the personalities of the supporting characters. This is really a shame, because the acting chops of the people involved with the film are quite impressive. This is largely surprising since most of the cast is so young, but they pull their weight quite nicely. In fact, this is by far the best thing about the movie. The ACTING doesn’t seem forced or as if anyone is chewing the scenery. When compared to the acting, everything else might as well just be called backpack, because it gets carried by the acting.
The director and editors made a lot of bizarre decisions that I just don’t understand. The first is the filming itself. The beginning of the film is more at home in a true survival horror film than it is in this. It strives to be jarring and raw in order to promote a sense of disorientation and urgency. This means lots and lots of gritty shaky cam. Bring your dramamine, folks. The camera cuts around like each shot cost them by the second. It lurches from shot to shot like a drunk falling down the stairs, and while it largely does serve to show the hopelessness and resignation of District 12, it loses anything resembling pacing or storytelling. It relies on instant exposition in the form of a written opening piece and a kind of fun propaganda video narrated by President Snow. Elizabeth Banks, though she is given next to nothing to work with, is quietly brilliant in this segment. In fact, this theme of instant exposition to backfill storytelling gaps is something that occurs throughout the film, except for when it doesn’t. This is a major problem in the narrative pacing of the movie as a whole.
One of the decisions I did like was to tell the backstory of Katniss in a series of flashbacks. I think the Peeta flashbacks were a little too stretched out, but it was a good way to tell that portion of the story and the editing there punctuated the non-verbal acting of Jennifer Lawrence. The scene that includes the history with her mother (Hey look, it’s Trixie from Deadwood playing a worn down woman in a mining town, weird!) is by far my favorite scene in the entire film because of the way it’s put together and everything that it includes. The flashbacks serve not only as mostly silent exposition, which is a pleasant surprise, but increase the tension of the film. This is particularly noticeable throughout the rest of the film, in which the tension is consistently destroyed by the directorial/editorial decisions. I can almost guarantee that laughter is not the desired emotion for almost every single reaction shot presented, and yet that was exactly the reaction and for good reason. Laughter like this means that the tension you have been building has been squandered. Even when the arena cutaways don’t provoke laughter, it doesn’t do anything for the film, except showcase the solid acting that film has. Most of these segments revolve around Seneca Crane, a throw away name in the novel, the Gamemaster team, and Crane’s conversations with President Snow. There are times in which the scenes could have naturally occurred, but they felt rather hamfisted. The final strange interspersed scene choice hearkens back to that “instant exposition” I mentioned before. There are constant cuts back to Ceasar Flickman, Stanley Tucci is as amazing as you would expect, and some guy with him that seems useless. Flickman is the voice of explanation that the director seems to think the audience needs. This is a shame, because I think it’s not really necessary. Part of my reasoning is that aforementioned excellent scene that involves Katniss’s mother. That would have been enough, I feel. The other tension cutting moments? Everytime Peeta and Katniss shared a moment, it cut away to a Gale reaction shot or the Gamemasters stopping to share in it as well. This comes across as unintentionally hilarious, and I can almost certainly guarantee that laughing at the moments isn’t the desired reaction.
Speaking of Peeta, he’s solid in the scenes he is in, as are almost all of the actors, save Clove, who hams it up a little. The problem is that he’s barely in the film at all, and the relationship is bare bones at best, though the chemistry is good. Haymitch is mostly wasted, and his relationship with Katniss is much more good natured than it is in the novels. This isn’t bad, but the Haymitch development is basically nill. Cinna is present, but it’s unfortunate that the parade scene is easily the worst in the entire film. In fact, the Capitol segment is weak and uninspired as a whole. The shooting, framing, dialogue and CGI are all wretched during this segment. Still, it’s fairly brief, but it’s kind of a let down and doesn’t serve to do anything for the film artistically. The Girl On Fire stuff is very forced.
The arena segment of the film is mostly fine, but it suffers from close-frame action that makes it so you can’t really see what’s going on for the most part. I understand that this is largely a directorial choice to let the audience experience the fear and disorientation of Katniss, but it does strange things to the opening arena scene. However, one thing the arena segment does is capture the viciousness of the careers and the helplessness of others. The way the careers work together and hunt the other tributes really brought me back to some of the group dynamic highlights of Battle Royale. Part of the truly terrifying thing about these scenarios, to me, belongs to the group dynamic of teenagers. Cato, Glimmer, and Clove are developed entirely through dialogue while action is occurring, and it establishes their personalities very strongly. This is another thing that I thought the film did well, but I might be hyper-aware of this particular method of development. I love it. The actual pacing in the arena section is very, very zippy, but you never really have a sense of urgency or stakes. This is in large part due to the diffusion of tension that I keep harping on. It’s really a big deal. Strangely, all of the true tension building that remains built occurs at the end of the film, and the conclusion is very strong.
Now, while I have a lot of complaints about the actual film, I did enjoy it more than the books and I will see the second movie. I think it was ok film that did some things better than the book, and some things work. I consider it a net positive, despite its flaws. I did mention the acting right? That goes a long way. On a scale of five frowny faces to five smiley faces, I would rate it two and a half smiley faces. I would be interested in watching it again now that I have deconstructed it once and seeing if I have the same thoughts. It’s the kind of film I’d like to pick up cheaply on video to rewatch it a few times. This does reveal new things about the film to me when I do this, after all.