The first time I read The Hunger Games, I experienced a continual sense of urgency, anxiety, and discomfort. I had a lump in my throat and a beating heart that didn’t go away even when I finished the last page, closed the cover and set the book back on my nightstand. I’m no stranger to books that are difficult to read because of the scenes they depict, although this is one of the few “children’s” books in which I experienced that unease. What clung to me throughout the book was a mixture of horror at the subject matter–kids killing kids because of a government-mandated murderous game–and guilt that I was sucked into the drama, celebrity, and pageantry of it all. In the novel, Suzanne Collins‘ tough teenage heroine, Katniss Everdeen, tells of her disgust at the Capitol citizens who scream for the teenagers’ slaughter and root for their favorite contestant, or tribute. I couldn’t help but feel guilty myself when I tumbled into a landslide of hope, fear, and yes, excitement as I read. Rooting for Katniss to succeed is to root for the deaths of the 23 other teenagers who travel to the arena with her, yet as a reader and audience member, it’s difficult not to.
Watching the movie for the first time this weekend was a similar experience to reading the book, in that even though I knew what was going to happen, I was still filled with a sense of desperation as if I didn’t know how the plot would treat the tributes this time around. As I watched the scenes, people and events that I had internalized from reading the book become flesh onscreen, I found that I was almost as enthralled with the movie as I was with the book. I was hit with seeing the Capitol citizens Katniss despises in gorgeous and garish costumes and make-up, cheering like fans at a sporting event. The guilt returned when I admitted to myself that I was just as caught up in the gore and glory as they were.
The Hunger Games takes place in what remains of the United States after floods and famine have engulfed the land. Out of the wars that followed, a totalitarian government called the Capitol emerged to rule over thirteen districts composed of the remainder of the United States, collectively known as Panem. The districts rebelled against the Capitol, but the Capitol squashed the rebellion and obliterated District 13 altogether as a sign of their all-encompassing power. As a continual reminder of its power and ongoing punishment for the uprisings, the Capitol also instituted The Hunger Games, a yearly event in which two children between the ages of 12 and 18 are chosen by lottery from each district to participate in a fight to the death on TV. It is the ultimate reality show–the children (or tributes as they are called) are removed from their district and treated as celebrities until they are dropped into an enclosed arena where they must fight one another until only one victor remains.
Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a sixteen year-old from District 12, the poorest of all the districts in what used to be the Appalachian Mountains. Her father has died, leaving her to provide for her younger sister and her mother. Katniss learned to hunt from her father before he died, so she is able to hunt in the woods with her close friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), to provide for her mother (Paula Malcomson) and younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields). Katniss is resourceful and a survivor; her difficult life has left her hardened and aloof, but she’ll do anything to protect her timid little sister. When Primrose is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Chosen to participate in the games with Katniss is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the local baker’s son. Katniss and Peeta are taken to the Capitol with publicist Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) where they are paraded for the Capitol citizens to see; they are mentored by the alcoholic Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), District 12’s only winner from a previous Hunger Games. Once the tributes are prepped to enter the arena through weapon training and televised interviews to garner support, all 24 tributes are brought to the arena, and the games begin.
Transferring a book that has a huge fan following or has become a part of popular culture is always a challenging feat. There is no way for the filmmaker to please everyone; of course, there were parts of the book that I wish had been included in the movie, but the final cut of the movie runs 2 hours and 22 minutes; adding in all the details I had become attached to in the book would have just made the movie drag on for far too long. That being said, given the high stakes, I think that the film adaptation did an excellent job of bringing the world of The Hunger Games to the screen. Although it is addressed quickly, the viewer sees the contrast of the poverty in District 12 with the wealth and shallow nature of the Capitol. The actors do a commendable job of bringing out the details of Collins’ characters. Jennifer Lawrence and Woody Harrelson were the finest in my opinion. Lawrence shows us the tough exterior Collins describes, yet brings in subtle moments of vulnerability with a glance or even her shortest of lines; the combination makes her an irresistible heroine that we sympathize with and root for, although it means the downfall of the other tributes. Harrelson is probably the best actor in Hollywood to play a drunkard (with the exception of Robert Downey, Jr. or Charlie Sheen), so his casting here is ideal. Harrelson may be typecast of late, but he plays the drunk with a soft spot so well, it’s hard to argue with what works. The supporting actors in the film do an excellent job as well; Elizabeth Banks as the affected Effie Trinket is spot-on, and Lenny Kravitz has several endearing moments as Katniss’ stylist, Cinna.
In the book, Katniss is the narrator; everything we see, we see through Katniss’ eyes. Collins made the nice choice to tell the story in the present tense, which makes every line seem immediate and urgent; when Katniss stands on her metal disc after she is placed in the arena waiting to begin the Games, the reader stands right there with her. When Katniss runs to escape, the reader runs with her. Since this kind of first-person narration is close to impossible to duplicate onscreen, I appreciated that the filmmakers chose to show us events that Katniss would not have seen, such as the decisions and technology that go into crafting the Games. This also allows for Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to have more screen time than the book would suggest they would receive, which offers a little more insight into the world of Panem. Still, the cinematographers did include scenes from Katniss’ viewpoint, including jarring, documentary-style shots when Katniss is whisked off to the Capitol to prepare for the Games. The inclusion of both her perspective and the need to tell a complete story on-screen was well-executed.
The book has a lot of information about Panem and life in District 12 that is not necessarily clear in the movie version. Since I had read and loved the books, much of Katniss’ internal monologue was running through my mind as I watched, so it was difficult for me to separate the two versions of the story. Parts of the film could be confusing to those who haven’t read the book, but the film attempts to touch on the most vital parts of the story. It edits out a lot of the horrific violence that Collins details so graphically in the novel; I imagine this was to ensure a PG-13 rating in order to allow the film’s target audience to see it, thus increasing revenue. Much of the real gore is implied, which unfortunately diminishes the message of the story. The novel has complexities and allusions that would go over most young readers’ heads, and the movie doesn’t truly convey the horrors, injustices, and class differences of the society in Panem. The film does try to show the grotesque ways in which the Capitol citizens relish the Games, but unfortunately one of Collins’ messages seems to get lost in the film adaptation.
In any dystopian movie or novel, I like to see how very close our present reality gets to the possibility of a future nightmare. Just as the Capitol citizens are desensitized by the violence in the Games they watch for entertainment, is our own society that different? How many times is the true horror of murder lost on us when it is just another daily occurrence in the news? How is it so easy to tolerate violence in any form, even the simulated kind in a video game or action flick? I experienced this desensitization myself with this book and movie; the first time I read the book I had skim over some of the graphic and violent visuals, but by the second time around, I was much less affected by it. I saw the movie twice this past weekend; the first time, I was shaken by the minimal violence the movie chose to depict; the second time, I barely batted an eyelash. Even if the movie had actually shown the graphic gore and gotten an R-rating, the violence would have just shoved the movie in with any number of Hollywood blockbusters that celebrate creative ways to dispose of people. Perhaps that’s why I was so shocked to read about this world in a book where images are described and set down in prose on paper, yet seeing it onscreen left little lasting shock value; it’s just the norm. If this is in fact the situation with our society, perhaps there is no way for a movie to do justice to this message of the book. Although the movie is unable to convey the total depth of the novel, it does make for some fine entertainment. For better or for worse, I was captivated, which is what Collins, the filmmakers, and of course, the Gamemakers would intend.
My rating: Good (3 of 4 stars)
Quick facts: The Hunger Games, 2012; PG-13 rating with a running time of 2 hours and 22 minutes; directed by Gary Ross; Lionsgate
Film info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1392170/