Whetting the Appetite: The Hunger Games Movie!

**** - The short of it: The Hunger Games movie receives 4/5 stars from me, and is 5-star eligible. (A waiting period is in effect before I give 5-star ratings. I have to see if I’ll rewatch a movie and how long it will stick with me.)

I love Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I adore Katniss Everdeen…and, I’d been anxiously awaiting the movie for over a year. You see, the last time someone adapted one of my most loved books into a movie, they blew it. (It even had a perfect cast! Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Coulter?) The writing and directing missed the mark. The movie was not a financial or critical success, and I can’t imagine it inspired many children to pick up the fantastic His Dark Materials series that begins with The Golden Compass.

Thus, last spring, when I finished reading Collins’ trilogy, I used IMDB and RottenTomatoes to obsessively research Chris Weitz, the writer/director who bungled his film adaptation of The Golden Compass, and Gary Ross, the writer/director for the upcoming Hunger Games movie. I was looking for patterns in reviews of previous writing and directing – was Ross likely to make the same mistakes Weitz had in his adaptation? My conclusion was that I could remain cautiously optimistic: Weitz’s record was poor, but Ross seemed to do best when he was creating adaptations from high caliber source material. Phew.

Last week, at a midnight show, the cautious optimism I’d maintained throughout casting (wherein I looked up the acting portfolios of Jennifer Lawrence and her male co-stars, especially, and decided they had the chops) was validated.

It was a good movie.

They did not mess up.

Hoorah!

Why did I care so much? Why do I think the movie is good? Let’s start at the beginning.

Do you remember that time, when you were young, that you read a book that sparkled?

You know: it was magical. It was shiny. It was written for you.

The first chapter books I ever read were C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia, and they are forever coated in my mind with a shiny patina of greatness. The same goes for The Princess and the Goblins by George MacDonald, or Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean Auel (I read it the summer before sixth grade. The series is definitely NOT appropriate for a middle school-aged reader, but it is still important to me).

These books shaped my thinking, my playing, and my life.

I never stopped loving to read, but I resigned myself to the fact that stories function a bit like foot prints in the snow. When you have a fresh coat of snow (or fresh mind), the first few steps (books) are magical. However, when there are foot prints (stories) all over and you’ve explored more, walking in the snow (reading books) is still exciting, but it can never have the power of those first steps.

This leads us to:

Why I Care – Or, My Love Affair with The Hunger Games Books

Last spring, I finally read The Hunger Games, and it felt like those first steps in a clean layer of snow for the first time, all over again.

It SPARKLED for me.

I read it on the trip from Portland, Ore. to Houston, Tex. That was the most exciting layover of my life: traveling from one gate to the next, getting my food, I felt like I was in the hunger games. Every moment crystallized. I viewed the world through hyper-alert eyes.

I stopped before I got to my gate to eat my rice bowl, and devoured more of my book along with it. At a recharge station in Terminal C, I sobbed my way through the saddest scene in the book. (SPOILER: Rue. Yes. That one.)

I had only purchased book one at the Powell’s Books in Portland International Airport (foolish, foolish me…). I was going to Houston to train a new employee (my first time doing this training!). I didn’t have a car. That new employee, who is now a friend, kindly offered to drive me to a bookstore at the mall after our training so I could buy the next book. I bought Catching Fire there, but they didn’t have a copy of Mockingjay! I read Catching Fire that night in my hotel room, reveling in the combined pleasures of great young adult literature and how much had I loved facilitating learning at that training. The next day, I scoured the Houston Hobby Airport bookstores: no Mockingjay. On my plane ride to my layover in Denver, Colo., I was desperate to read the next book. I started re-reading The Hunger Games, absorbing the beauty of Collins’ prose and the artful way she introduced Katniss, District 12, Prim, Gale, and the premise of the hunger games and Capitol control. It tided me over, but I bolted out of the airplane in search of Denver airport bookstores. I checked a couple without success. At the third one, I giddily grasped Mockingjay‘s baby-blue cover. I literally jumped up and down for joy (and made the cashier’s night). Then, I read it.

I know that not everyone loves the third book, but I loved them all (although I agree that book one, in all its focused innocence because Katniss doesn’t know about the larger picture, is the best). Good stories always hurt at times. Nothing is perfect. The world is complex. I felt like Collins’ ending was just right. Just as imperfect and wonderful as everything else I loved about the books.

Thus, we return to the start of this post – my obsession with the upcoming movie. Clearly, this cinematic series needed to be filmed. You can’t write an amazing book featuring a reality show-inspired death game, a fabulously overblown Capitol culture, and flaming-costume chariot races and not make movies about it.

I checked up on all the elements that were guaranteed to make the movie go awry. Poor writing and/or direction would mar it. An insufficiently nuanced, gritty, and skilled actress would make a successful Katniss (and, thus, movie) impossible. There were no red flags, but I wouldn’t really know until I saw the movie.

The Movie

My overall impression of the movie? Amazing. Incredible acting performances all around. True to the book while adapting it for movie-style theatricality.

The movie provides richness and back story without slowing down the pacing. Everyone might not catch every detail, but the details are lushly present and, by and large, in line with the book.

I loved the opening. I’ve heard some readers say the book started slowly, and the movie neatly speeds along the beginning. The hunger games are explained and contextualized with the initial slide of legalese. We meet Prim, and see how important she is to Katniss. We learn that people are not allowed to cross the boundary into the forest, but that it is poorly enforced. We see that hunting is not permitted, because Katniss takes her bow from a hiding place. We see Katniss smile only out in the woods, with Gabe.

What unfolds differently (and beautifully) on paper is quickly developed through images, establishing the third person narrative that distinguishes the movie from the books. (Movies are not very good at first-person narratives, in comparison to books. With a book, you are the person. With a movie, you are the camera. This changes things, so film needs to be different, and an adaptation that slavishly sticks to the book would be stilted and overly long, with awkward voice overs.)

The movie also satisfied my nagging fears about the actor playing Peeta – Josh Hutcherson is not how I pictured Peeta looking (I imagined a more bumbling and bigger boy-man), and I wasn’t 100% sure he had what it took to pull off all of Peeta’s subtle wonderfulness. Since I saw that Jennifer Lawrence had an Oscar nomination for her work as a gritty and grim girl in Winter’s Bone, I had ceased worrying about her. Hutcherson I was still on the fence about. Peeta needs a gentleness – as a friend who saw the film with me said, almost a nerdiness – about him. He also needs to believably possess great physical strength.

I think Hutcherson nailed the role of Peeta.

Like Lawrence, he was a different person than he’d appeared to be in photos and stills (as a great actor should be). He had a quiet strength that I found to be a believable and satisfying interpretation of the Boy with the Bread. He was just as vulnerable and genuine and fresh as I’d imagined Peeta. Kudos, Hutcherson.

I know the jerky camera motions didn’t work for everyone, but I thought they added to the emotion of the piece, helping put us in the chaotic world the characters were living in. Remember, we are in the camera, not in the characters’ heads, so if we want to feel the energy, it has to come through lighting or motion. Forests are rough and uneven. Swift turns of the head to scout? Also jerky. (Not to mention hallucinations…)

Rue! I was so so so happy with Rue. She was perfect. She looked exactly right. I loved her just as much. Her “first” appearance during the knive-thiefery fight between the recruits was excellent, as was her part in the tracker jacker scene, and she stole my heart right along with Katniss’s in the movie.

I hadn’t reread the books before seeing the movie, so I discovered Foxface and fell in love with the addition of her trickster character all over again. She is one of my favorite small things, and one of the ones I think they go very right.

One thing I MUST complain about is the muttations. I haven’t spoken to anyone who read the books and was remotely satisfied with them. Mercy killing? Yes, great, that’s fine. Change it, sure. Ugly mud-colored CGI panther-bull dogs? Not even remotely close to what I picture. Small tracker jacks is fine – they still packed a wallop – but the ‘dogs’ needed to look more lycanthropic.

But back to the big picture:

At the end of the movie, I turned to my partner, who hadn’t read the books. He is a thoughtful critic of acting and knows what he likes and needs from performances, and I value his opinion. I had been eagerly awaiting sharing Katniss and The Hunger Games with him, sure he would like it, so I needed to know: had he?

“That was excellent,” he said. YES! Success. High praise. I got what I needed from the movie, so did my partner, and millions (billions?) will read these books because of its success.

Thus, life is good. Sparkling, even…

Additional Resources

My obsession with Collins’ trilogy has made me voracious in devouring everything Slate.com (my usual online magazine) has written related to the books and movie, and anything else I come across. My pleasure in there being a movie so we can have a collective picture of The Hunger Games along with scattered, individual visions is vast, and the broad array of related articles has been a joy of shared nerdery for me. Here are a few recommended articles:

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2 Comments

Filed under Bookish Review, Movie Based on a Book

2 responses to “Whetting the Appetite: The Hunger Games Movie!

  1. Kiersi

    Thanks for the plug! And I totally agree with you on the muttations. I was pissed about those. They really lost all impact and effect by not having the faces of the dead tributes. When I read that in the book I literally yelped aloud.

    The jerky camera–well, I dunno. I’m mixed on it. I see your point, but it just made me sick, and I was really confused during those scenes as to what was ACTUALLY going on. I think shaky camera technique needs to be really clear about what is occurring in the scene and just be an “effect.”

    • I am fascinated by the variation of responses to “shaky cam” – how much depends on what else people watch, what we’re trained for? I can get motion sick, but I’ve never had a problem with shaky cam. I have, however, had quite the diet of action movies, so may that is due to exposure/practice? :)

      I remember having trouble following the action in Gladiator because of the quick camera motions, so I sympathize! :)

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