Eight Things You Should Know About “The Hunger Games”

The Hunger Games came out last weekend! Its cultural saturation was so complete that you could hear the crowds lining up for fifty miles in every direction! And yet somehow I never got to see it until last night, when the superfans had all already gone, and all that was left was a crowd of easily-confused people, two frat guys who should probably have just cut their losses and left, and at least one racist! (We’ll get there.)

(Note: I read the book in advance of seeing the film, which is actually not how I prefer to do it, because having read the book, it’s impossible not to occasionally judge the film on its efficacy as an adaptation and not just as a film. However, the movie gives us plenty to talk about, and there are a few moments that actually hinge on book stuff, so it comes out in the wash.)

Much like the film, these points are all over the place; it had very effective moments and some moments I hope were not meant to be as funny as they ended up being. (If they were, that’s even better? Sometimes. Maybe.)

If you’re reading this, chances are you beat me to the draw on this one. All the same, let’s talk over eight things you should know about The Hunger Games!

(Accidentally hilarious cutaway to Gale goes here.)


1. Despite how much of this film is world-building, this movie was always going to hinge on the acting from the two leads, especially in the case of Katniss, who has a dramatic remove from first-person narrator to a character in a much larger landscape. Jennifer Lawrence is more than up to the job. Josh Hutcherson actually does masterful work making Peeta interesting while maintaining the persona of the nicest dude in the world, and it did just what it had to do in order to muddy the waters of Katniss’s feelings for him (who wouldn’t want to hang out with the dude cracking jokes in the middle of your death arena?). But it’s Jennifer Lawrence who sells this movie. She inhabits the character, always putting a layer of something deeper under beats that could have been one-note; even when she’s shocked or stunned, there’s always a seemingly-unconscious awareness of something she cares about more deeply than she realizes — honor, compassion, anger, love. It’s subtle, excellent work that makes her a compelling character in the center of what could have been a train wreck and isn’t, thanks in no small part to her.

2. Funnily enough, it is the film’s single greatest advantage against the book that there’s a level of remove from Katniss. Partly this is because a first-person narrative is inherently claustrophobic, and opening up the scope opens the world. To a larger degree, it’s because Katniss occasionally has the deductive and tactical capacity of a Might Morphin’ Power Ranger, and becomes interesting in inverse proportion to our proximity to her internal monologue. The combination makes her a magnetic character in the center of a dystopian landscape, and with Lawrence’s performance, does greater justice to Katniss than a more faithful Memento-esque tight focus could have.

3. And after praising Jennifer Lawrence’s performance to the sky, we still have to talk about Katniss. Among other things.

What with one thing and another, I’m coming to this film late. I’ve tried to avoid other reviews of the movie; however, through Twitter I’m already made to understand that some viewers of the film are doing their level best to compete for the Lack of Reading Comprehension and Also Being an Asshole Fellowship Grant, where winning applicants receive a punch in the face.

I had sort of been hoping that those comments were coming from a self-selecting pool of YouTube Commenter Types. In a book where the lead character is, according to the author, of no particular ethnicity and therefore obviously cast as white, two supporting characters who are explicitly described as dark-skinned would have somehow, I thought, gotten a pass to stay characters of color.

In the spirit of generosity, then, I would like to give a tip of the hat to the young lady in the back of my theatre who, upon Rue’s introduction, went, “…she’s black?” with an invisible “ew” on the front. I would like to give a double tip of the hat to the person who answered, “Are you fucking serious?”

(Additional hat tip to the young Asian tribute who didn’t get any lines and who had to wear a pink and teal fish costume in the parade; when he died, the entire Asian population of Panem apparently went with him.)

4. Lenny Kravitz, also the source of much ire from people who are racist asses, turned in a very interesting performance as Cinna. I appreciated that “stylist” wasn’t automatically equated to “effeminate” in the casting process (not because there is anything wrong with the equation but because there’s nothing wrong with breaking it, either, and this casting team already had enough side-eye going for it), and in the midst of the more intense supporting cast, he did just what he needed to do, which was be the coolest dude in the room, and also for several rooms in either direction. Elizabeth Banks also did well, as did Woody Harrelson and his wig (two separate performances). Stanley Tucci delivered exposition as no one else could have. But Donald Sutherland sort of waltzed off with the supporting actor prize, as a dictator perfectly aware of the clockwork that runs the system, managing to be both wry and terrifying. Aces.

5. …not that you ever see any of those performances after the halfway mark in the movie, which brings us to the movie’s single biggest quality problem: pacing.

The problem is largely that the setup is excellent. It sets the stage, introduces a huge cast of characters and successfully builds its leads, and turns a critical eye on Panem’s pageantry. Nothing seemed to drag. Which made it even stranger when we hit the arena and seemed to be watching the movie at one or two degrees of fast-forward, increasing at intervals until the movie’s denouement was actually just two single frames flashed subliminally right before end titles.

Why this happened is tricky. I appreciated that the movie knew the dangers of being complicit with the Capitol, and didn’t linger on or glamorize the violence in the arena; I think they were actually some of the film’s most effective moments — stomach-churning blurs of muted sound in which someone is suddenly dead, the method almost as confusing to the bystanders as to the victim. Here, shorter is better. And yet Rue, whose death means so much to so many, gets less than four minutes of screen time, which Amandla Stenberg makes the most of, but it also means that her death comes too soon after her introduction as a real player.

This might be less of an issue except that the decision was made that rather than showing them gifting Katniss a thank-you present that starts to show unity across Distry boundaries, they show an Occupy District 11 riot breaking out violently in response to Rue’s death; it’s not a moment that lacks power — it’s a very tense scene that does a lot of work setting up the rebellion fomenting just under the surface of Panem. However, with so little of Rue preceding it, the moment reads as being as much about Katniss as about the girl who perished, which is a loaded thing to bring into a moment that already has a bunch of angry dudes of color being hosed down by riot police. That said, the scene was well done, its violence as visceral as the Games, and a good glimpse of a revolution that’s inevitably coming.

I suppose in light of this, the rushed ending is just a case of TooMuchItis. However, when you spend so much time building a relationship that’s hopelessly genuine on one side and conflicted/partially manufactured on the other, up to and including running at one another screaming in panic, several instances of cuddling in a cave, kissing for the camera (maybe), and spreading glittery antifreeze over one another’s ouchies, this:

“What will we do when we get home?”
“Try to forget.”
“I don’t want to forget.”

Is just not going to be enough to unpack a scene that’s supposed to be about Peeta realizing that Katniss has been lying to him, as Katniss realizes she might not have been lying as much as she thought, moments before they both have to play to the cameras in a delightfully hellish return home. (Hutcherson and Lawrence do their level best with it, but the scene is literally fifteen seconds, and nobody could sell that dialogue in fifteen seconds. Plus, as soon as they return to District 12 and it cuts to Gale holding Prim shoulderhostage, everyone who wasn’t already laughing at the dialogue cracked up, and I don’t blame them.)

6. In fact, EVERY time the movie cut away from Katniss and Peeta to Gale being butthurt back in the smithy, the audience cracked up. I’m going to assume that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers, because honestly, that shit was hilarious. (Runner-up: the control room full of shippers who watched the cave stuff with their chins in their hands.)

7.I will never get over how much of the violence in this story is Cooksoned so that Katniss’s hand is indirect. For someone painted as ruthless, she does very little of her own killing. It’s even more present in the film, where she saws down a nest of tracker jackers, and then Glimmer trips in the forest, and then a rock falls on her, and then a mockingjay eats her liver, and THEN she dies. (In fact, except in cases of immediate self-defense, the person whose death she’s most responsible for is Rue’s. Whoops!)

This doesn’t mean that she should have been coming down on these kids like Diana and the hounds, either, but it’s interesting to note that though she’s set up to be the most ruthless and the most clever, she’s really neither. Foxface, the nameless girl from District 5, shows up Katniss handily at every turn, without any violence whatsoever, and is well in line to win when she eats a handful of nightlock and perishes. The film really likes her, and she gets almost as much face time as Rue: characters repeatedly mention her name just at the edge of the sound mix so we always miss it by a hair, which is a clever bit of trolling; and there’s a pointed moment where she’s examining a botany worksheet that suggests she might have known what she was taking and just wanted to go out her own way. It’s not an impossible setup for one of the few supporting acts to get her share of depth; the movie even has Katniss and Foxface collide during the escape from the first mornings bloodbath and warily go their separate ways, setting them up as foils unwilling, just yet, to kill one another. It’s a little moment that says a lot.

8. In fact, it’s the little moments in which this movie really excels, examining the kind of society that’s allowed the Hunger Games to flourish at all. Effie Trinket earnestly mouths the last two lines of the propaganda film played during Reaping to a crowd in which she’s the only person buying any of it. Haymitch sits in a public square of the Capitol, watching as a young boy gets a Hunger Games toy sword and play-stabs his sister to great delight. Caesar Flickerman earnestly talks about the moment a tribute becomes a victor, as footage of one teen beating another to death with a brick plays out behind him. Game maker Seneca Crane himself meets with the President several times, only slowly coming to realize the stakes of the game he’s making. It all comes together pretty well.

In fact, “it all comes together pretty well” is a good final word on the movie. It skirted some of the major problems that were facing it, both as a film in general and an adaptation in specific. In other places, it stumbled a little. But overall, it did what it was trying to do, and more or less stands alone as an effective, and sometimes clever, film that puts its heroine in its center without getting trapped in her experience, and that never condones the dystopia in which it lives. You could do worse.

  • http://www.scififanletter.blogspot.com/ Jessica Strider

    I'm impressed by how thoroughly you've parsed the film.  I thought they did a great job, but another half hour – to flesh out the side characters and ending – would have been welcome too.

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