Hunger Games Pulls Its Punches

I usually go into movie adaptations of my favorite books with cautious optimism, with the attitude that – even if the film translation captures a fraction of what made the book so amazing – it will be worth seeing. I was particularly excited at the prospect of The Hunger Games, a book cinematic in its structure and pacing, to be brought to the big screen. But despite the cautious part of my optimism, despite my acknowledgement of the many details it got right, when the lights came on at the end of the film, I couldn’t help but feel that the movie had somehow…missed the point.

When it comes down to it, The Hunger Games (book) is an in-your-face critique of the devastating effects of violence and oppression. It was published into a country that is able to largely ignore the acts of violence and oppression it plays a role in everyday as citizens of this country. We are the Capitol, living in our cocoon of wealth and privilege, removed from and often ignorant to the stark realities of survival that so many people in this world (and country) face on a daily basis.

“What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment?” – The Hunger Games (book)

The reader is asked to see the Capitol and this style of life from Katniss’ perspective, and it is utterly ridiculous and negligible. The diminishing of this lens is where the movie fails: it is not from Katniss’ perspective, at least not to the same claustrophobic degree the book is. Yes, Katniss is clearly the protagonist and the viewer is routing for her, but do they identify with her? Perhaps as a likeable character, but that identification is so much more in the book. Katniss is not always the most likeable of characters (that distinction probably goes to Peeta, whose motives rarely waver from selfless and honorable), but she is always the character we identify with because it is built into the very structure of the book as a first-person narrative. We are trapped within the arena and within an oppressive society with Katniss.

For me, the strongest scenes in the film were the ones that were given from Katniss’ point-of-view. In Katniss’  interview with Caesar Flickman (played ABSOLUTELY brilliantly by Stanley Tucci) she is completely shell-shocked when she walks out onto the stage – it’s as if she is already at war – and that is implicit in the form: the cheers of the crowd and Flickman’s initial question are muted and the lights as disorienting for the viewer as they are for Katniss. That perspective is almost completely missing once Katniss enters the arena – when it is arguably the most necessary. I admit that it was a near impossible task to translate Katniss’ inner monologue, which is such a large part of the book, into a film, but Jennifer Lawrence is a strong enough actress that, in the moments when they let her try, I could almost hear the passages from the book coming through. I wish she had been given more opportunity to do so.

Another problem I had with the film is its depiction of violence. I expected a measured hand going in, knew that the studio would want the PG-13 rating for a wider audience, but there are ways to give the violence weight without being explicit. Suzanne Collins does not give us the distance of florid description when describing the brutal deaths of the Tributes because that’s not what their violent murders are. They’re not pretty or vague or poetic. They’re real and they’re raw.

This brutal honesty did not translate to the film. Though the violence is not pretty or stylized, it is definitely abstract and the story suffers for it.  The quick and confusing shots of fighting are lazy. The acts of violence lose meaning. The deaths of the Tributes go by so quickly that even Rue’s death, which is terribly sad, feels rushed. The book is fast-paced, but by the end of it, you feel Katniss’ utter emotional and physical exhaustion. In the film, it felt more like children playing a game of capture-the-flag in the woods than an all-out fight for survival.  You are happy that Katniss and Peeta have won, but the weight of the violence is absent and so are the life-or-death stakes.

Don’t get me wrong. There were things about the movie I absolutely liked. I thought the casting was superb, and that Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson did an excellent job. If there had been lesser actors in those roles (i.e. a Liam Hemsworth), then this movie could have been bad. I thought the depiction of the relationship between Katniss and her sister was extremely well-done. The Reaping scene was bleak and perfect and so hard to watch.

I also thought the rebellion scene in District 11 was effective and an example of something added to the movie that could not have been shown in the book (in book-to-film translations, directors are often so afraid to move away from the template of the book that they miss valuable opportunities like this one). If the movie was going to distance itself from Katniss’ perspective, then I would have preferred that they embrace the change in form and show more scenes like this one.

That being said, the scenes of the playmakers were redundant and I was a bit confused as to why they chose to increase  Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee’s role so much as it would have been interesting to see more shots of the Hunger Games from a perspective outside of the arena. They dabbled with this, giving us expository sequences with Caesar Flickman explaining the finer intricacies of the Games or familiar faces watching from District 12, but it left the viewer uncertain of her role: is it as participant of the Hunger Games or as viewer? And this is where the movie fails. Because, as my sister and midnight premiere-going companion noted, if they weren’t going to allow us to be part of the Hunger Games through greater identification with Katniss’ character, then perhaps they should have shamed us as the complicit, captivated viewers of The Hunger Games that we are.

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