I do not recommend reading this post unless you have already seen The Hunger Games movie. Consider this your spoiler alert!
As a member of the original Harry Potter generation, I’ve had many occasions to judge blockbuster film adaptations of a beloved book series. I have always tried (but often failed) to ask the question “Is it a good movie?” rather than “Is it a completely faithful retelling of the book?” Over the years my guiding light has become tone. I can handle slight deviations from the source material if I feel that the movie remains true to its tone.
That’s how Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban became my favorite Potter adaptation. Unlike the glossy Chris Columbus versions, Alfonso Cuarón captured the gritty textures that were key to my impression of Hogwarts and the whole Harry Potter universe. Subsequent films continued to embrace that darkness, but the presentation was often a little too slick for my taste.
Of course, judging tone can be a very individual enterprise. It depends a lot on emotional reaction, and mine might be very different from someone else’s. Perhaps that’s why I find myself at odds with some of the extremely positive reviews of The Hunger Games. I enjoyed the film, but for me something was missing in terms of tone.
Most of my complaints have to do with style and structure. Admittedly, the filmmakers faced some major structural challenges in taking The Hunger Games from page to screen. The novel has Katniss as a first person narrator. For long stretches during the actual Games when she speaks to no one, the reader is able to follow the psychological drama through her thoughts. The filmmakers choose to avoid any voiceover narration, which can muddle character motivation. The scenes in the arena become completely action-centric. Jennifer Lawrence does an admirable job of communicating nonverbally, but she can only do so much.
The film uses the fact that the Games are a televised event to provide some of the necessary exposition. I enjoyed the inclusion of TV commentators, but the scenes in the Gamemakers control room took the behind-the-scenes gimmick one step too far. Perhaps if they had stuck to one device for exposition, I would have felt less distracted from the story. And if we’re going to pick just one, I would definitely avoid all-white control rooms and cheesy holograms.
Stylistic decisions also hinted at the culture of surveillance and voyeurism found in the novel. I imagine that the extensive use of handheld cameras was intended to mimic the style of reality TV, but it also made me feel distant from the characters during the scenes in District 12. These touches could have been used more sparingly, preferably just during the Games themselves. That would have heightened the sense that they were intrusions on normal life. The same goes for quick cuts and extreme closeups.
All that being said, they have made a quality film. As a fan of the book, that should probably be my number one concern. Most fans of the books seem satisfied, even pleased with the finished product. Overall the cast is impressive. Jennifer Lawrence is every bit the Katniss that I hoped she would be after seeing her in Winter’s Bone. My other favorite casting decision has to be Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, the over-the-top TV personality who presides over the Games. He really knows how to toe that line between hilarious and creepy. The movie is fast-paced, almost to the point where I wish they had slowed down for a bit more character development, but you certainly won’t be looking at your watch.
I don’t intend this post to be a warning to fans of the book before seeing the movie. I think people should have the opportunity to view the movie with a clean slate and form their own opinions. I will certainly be looking forward to Catching Fire in 2013.