The Hunger Games movie will punch you in the gut. The saga of Katniss, teenage dystopian gladiator, turns out to be just as addictive in movie form as it was in the books. The combination of insane spectacle and surprisingly brutal violence makes this movie exhilarating, and a little exhausting, to watch. You can't help being drawn into the messed up, heart-breaking land of Panem.
The Hunger Games was a tough book to adapt into a movie — not least because it's such a powerful emotional storyline, and a lot of stuff goes on in Katniss' head that isn't really reflected in her outward behavior. This movie needs to sell us on a whole dystopian world, and it needs to make us care about Katniss and her attempts to survive both death-matches and media stardom.
The good news is, they pulled it off. I was totally pulled in to the story, and I absolutely rooted for Katniss to win, to survive. (To a lesser extent, I also rooted for Peeta, her fake boyfriend.) Even though I'd read the book a couple times and knew more or less what was coming, I was still held in suspense and found myself believing, on some level, that Katniss could get snuffed at any moment. And there were a few moments in there that really did wreck me, emotionally. So as far as I'm concerned, that's an unequivocal victory.
(I have definitely talked to a few people who didn't like the movie as much as I did, and I've read a few less-enthusiastic reviews here and there. So I'm aware that not everybody was as swept up in this movie as I was.)
In The Hunger Games, it's hundreds of years in the future, and the United States is now a shithole called Panem. The decadent, corrupt Capitol rules with an iron fist, and once a year the Capitol holds a televised tournament in which teens from the Districts fight to the death. This is held to commemorate the unsuccessful rebellion that the Districts launched 74 years earlier. Young Katniss Everdeen volunteers for the Games to replace her younger sister — and finds that surviving has as much to do with being a people person as with being a good murderer.
Brutal Where It Counts
Most of the time when you see future dystopias in movies, they tend to look a few different ways. There's the gray, totalitarian future full of ugly tower blocks, spy cameras and pictures of a white guy scowling over a message in all caps. There's the shiny false utopia where everybody lives in the Apple Store and has drug-fueled orgies. There's the "inner city decay" future, where everybody lives in Detroit. And so on. What most cinematic dystopias have in common is a sense of despair, or overwhelming oppression, or maybe campy sterility.
But Hunger Games takes a different approach to selling us on its future dystopia. It shows us the division between dustbowl bleakness in the Districts and glam-rock decadence in the Capitol — but more than anything, it shows us bloody intense death and freaked-out teenagers fighting each other to survive, while cynical adults turn their deaths into a commodity.
So the slaughter has to be dirty and ugly and intense — and here's where the movie really triumphs. It has several really great teenage-massacre moments. The pacing is pretty relentless, one area where the movie might actually have a slight advantage over the book. By the time you get to the climax of the Games, where Katniss faces an impossible choice, you're already pretty wiped out from all the nonstop horror and danger. (Which is just as well, since the climax falls a little flat.)
We never stop believing that Katniss is being pushed to do whatever it takes — even selling pieces of her soul — to be able to care for her mom and sister. And that's really what makes someplace a dystopia, rather than just a nasty spot: the stuff it makes you do to survive, and the ways it changes you.
I believed in the world of The Hunger Games because I believed in Katniss Everdeen.
Jennifer Lawrence Cannot Believe This Shit
One bold choice this film makes: Keeping the focus really tight on Katniss. Most screenwriters and directors would have taken advantage of the "third person omniscient" POV that movies naturally offer. There's a ton of stuff going on at every point in this movie, so why not pull back and show us what Effie thinks about it all? Or Haymitch? Or what the other Tributes are up to, in the Arena?
The film does occasionally cut away to a short scene featuring Haymitch or President Snow that isn't in the book — more on that below — but for the most part, it's incredibly disciplined about following Katniss closely. We see almost everything from her POV, and things that surprise her also surprise us.
This turns out to be a winning strategy, mostly because Jennifer Lawrence owns this movie. She never loses the look of deep pain in her eyes. You always feel that Katniss has been making hard choices her whole life, and this is just one more set of hard choices. When she smiles, which she hardly ever does, it's only with her mouth. When she kisses Peeta to help win over the all-important Sponsors who can send life-saving supplies, she is simply carrying out another task.
Jennifer Lawrence has a quality that I'm not used to seeing in movie heroines, especially teenage ones. I think it's called "dignity." She simply cannot believe this shit. Not in a "Simple Life, spoiled teenager getting her hands dirty" way, but more like in a "person who has already experienced loss and grown-up responsibility being pushed into a situation that's both foolish and murderous" way.
Part of why you root so hard for Katniss is that Jennifer Lawrence sells the notion that there's a part of her that none of this stuff will ever tarnish. Even as Peeta loudly proclaims that he wants to prove "they don't own me" and Katniss says she can't afford to think that way, she's much more honorable and unbending than Peeta. (He's the master of disguise, he's the one who fakes an alliance with the bullies, he's much more willing to play the media games.)
Katniss is the still center of a movie that's otherwise whirling at crazy speeds.
Television-style Filming, Retro Design
Another choice that Gary Ross and his crew made that I really appreciated: they didn't overdo the "reality TV" elements. You could easily imagine a Hunger Games movie that overdosed on all the cliches of Jersey Shore or American Idol or whatever. Cutting away to commentators or pre-taped interviews with the Tributes, giving us infographics, whatever. The movie does almost none of that.
Instead, Ross conveys the sense of a television show with camerawork. We switch between two types: 1) There are static shots, in which one or two people are in frame and the camera just films them unobtrusively. Sometimes instead of zooming in or out, we switch instantly to a second camera that's also static but a different level of zoom. 2) Handheld cameras, which follow the actors during action scenes and a lot of the Arena sequences. (Although at times, the shaky-cam gets way, way too much, and you probably don't want to see this movie on a full stomach.) The mix of these two types of camera work feels very televisual but also super-intimate during a lot of the emotional scenes.
The other thing that really works to sell this movie's world-building is the design, which is relentlessly retro. Ross, of course, is the King of Retro, with movies like Seabiscuit and Pleasantville exploring the mid-20th Century. Here, he mines the past for different elements in different places. Districts 11 and 12 look like Dorothea Lange's Depression-era photos, especially in shots of the coal miners coming out of the Seam. A lot of the sets are dripping with Art Deco, including the train that takes our heroes to the Capitol. And then when we see the Capitol's high society at its most frivolous, it's suddenly the 1970s and we're at a Gary Glitter concert. (Plus the Peacekeepers are sort of the disco cops.)
What It Means to be a Dystopian TV Star
The Hunger Games really feels like a saga that's made for the times we're living in. A time where young people from the poorest parts of the country really are being shipped off to kill or be killed. Our celebrity culture has gotten dehumanizing and drenched in fake "realness," in ways that would have been hard to imagine even a decade ago. And the economic gap between the "Capitol" and the "Districts" in real life has become like unto a caste system.
The true genius of this story is that it makes a lot of these points, without ever seeming preachy or overtly political. If anything, the movie is even more political than the first book, and yet it's also more subtle, because a lot of the politics are embedded in the spectacle of the country girl going to the city and then entering the deadly arena. (And, as some have complained, there definitely is a lot less overt talk about how much everyone in District 12 is starving.) But also, as usual, you can say a lot of stuff by using mutated creatures and fictional dystopias that you couldn't say with a story set in the here and now.
But the politics are definitely there — and there are a few scenes that hit hard. Like when Katniss mourns the fallen Rue and raises three fingers in a salute, and then we see the explosive reaction in District 11, where Rue came from. You can definitely see the roots of Katniss becoming a political figure as well as just a celebrity.
Also, some of the newly added Katniss-less scenes include more of Donald Sutherland as President Snow, who absolutely makes the most of a few sardonic moments. One scene in particular, where he talks about the downtrodden outer Districts, will stick in your memory. President Snow drily observes that Districts 11 and 12 are full of underdogs, and he doesn't really like underdogs. We also glimpse more of the games master, Seneca Crane, desperately trying to keep the games from going off the rails, as he's caught between the need to put on a good show and the imperative to avoid fueling political unrest. Crane's struggles are recognizable from every backstage drama and every political drama you've ever seen, only transplanted to this strange, deadly world.
In the end, that's a huge part of why the world of The Hunger Games feels so compelling: Because it's really our world, just reflected through a jagged mirror shard. And that's really the highest accomplishment that any dystopia can hope for.