For what it’s worth, The Hunger Games is a very accurate adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ bestselling novel. In being that, it brings to the big screen its fair share of problems, primarily in the way that the plot is structured, but I know fans of the book will be satisfied by what they get to watch. Pretty much everything that Hunger Games followers will want to see has been included, with the minor exclusions not being terribly important or distracting.
For instance, does it really matter where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), our main character, gets the pin that’s been used so frequently in the marketing? Not really. The book introduces a new character who is never particularly important, while the film has her get it from the market. A small change, but considering how much is going on, it’s an important one. Another change comes from the total exclusion of the “Avox Girl” subplot.
As fans of the book can attest to, the plot of The Hunger Games happens in two basic parts. The first is the build-up, in which Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are picked as “tributes” — although the former becomes one through an unconventional method — and become prepped for the titular Hunger Games. The government uses these games to control its populace, which has become divided into twelve “districts” after some sort of apocalypse, each of which with its own purpose. Katniss and Peeta come from District 12, which is known for its coal production.
The second part is the actual Games, a Battle Royale-style tournament involving 24 teenagers (two from each district) fighting it out to the death in order to become this year’s victor. If you win, you bring with you riches and spoils for your district, ensuring that your neighbors don’t starve from the constant lack of food. Katniss and Peeta are at war against one another in this half, despite being friendly with one another in the first, even going so far as to train together. After all, each district is only given one mentor, and you have to share him. District 12’s is a man named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a constantly drunk man who won the Hunger Games some twenty years ago.
If you can see the problem with having this premise and a PG-13 rating, you’re not alone. How exactly does one have a film where half of the time, teenagers are involved in a bloody war where 23 of them have to die, and you have to keep it accessible to the teenagers of the same age who are fans of the books? The filmmakers behind The Hunger Games decided to shoot the action scenes like a Bourne film, using shaky-cam cinematography and quick-cut editing to mask exactly what we’re seeing at any given moment.
I know that this made it hard for some people to follow the action in the Bourne films. Now imagine that, but all of the characters blend into the background. Can you picture the problem? It’s really hard to follow the action scenes, and when almost half of the movie is like that, there’s a problem. The PG-13 rating, which was required, directly hampers the finished product.
Thankfully, the first half of the film is great, setting up a fantastical world filled with gorgeous visuals and an interesting idea. The Capitol (basically what the oppressive government calls itself), looks amazing, and we really understand how deluded their values have become. Thanks to spending over an hour before the Games begin, we really get to know our main characters, which means that by the time everyone is killing each other, we care about the individuals involved. Even though Katniss is our protagonist, some of the secondary characters warrant sympathy as well.
That’s actually something that the film adaptation does better than the book: It introduces the secondary characters early on, and the “villains” out of the teenagers are established as such (and by name) before they can actually hurt our lead. They’re already a threat, and when they inevitably meet Katniss in the arena, we are scared for her because we’ve seen what they can do and how little they care about the other contestants.
We spend almost all of our time with Katniss, which is what happens in the novel as well. She’s a headstrong 16-year-old, good with a bow and caring about everyone. She makes for a perfect role model, and also a strong female character. Granted, Jennifer Lawrence is almost becoming typecast in these types of roles, having played pretty much the same character in both The Poker House and Winter’s Bone. Still, I’ll take that over a ditzy role in a romantic comedy any day, and Lawrence is good at playing the tough, independent teenager role.
I was worried before watching The Hunger Games that a couple of things wouldn’t translate well. The first is how the Katniss’ thoughts would be brought across. The novel was written in first-person perspective, while the film contains no voice-over narration. It’s done fairly well, even if the Hunger Games’ announcers (Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci) pop-up a little too frequently to explain things that we learned from Katniss in the novel. The whole “performance” aspect in the novel — where the characters have to “act” in order to gain the affection of sponsors who will send them items during the Games — has also been faithfully reproduced, even though it’s mostly mentioned in the first half and not brought up again after that.
Unfortunately, just like the book, the plot structure of The Hunger Games feels very disjointed. You know exactly when the second half begins, with the transition not being very smooth. It’s a distinctly different style of filmmaking once the change is made, and it’s somewhat jarring. Some aspects from the novel also get glanced over; for example, the reason that certain characters have their name in the lottery to be picked as a tribute is never expanded upon, and if you haven’t read the book, you won’t ever know why. Still, those are minor flaws, and if you are going in fresh-faced and innocent, you won’t have your experienced ruined by not knowing all of the small details.
Still, The Hunger Games is a very exciting, emotionally involving film that will please both the people who are already fans, and those who are experiencing the series for the first time. While the action scenes are obscured to appease the PG-13 rating, they are still generally thrilling, and because you get to spend so much time with these characters before their lives are put on the line, you care about them. It also contains another winning performance from Jennifer Lawrence, as well as strong supporting work from Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland. It’s a long movie, but it’s definitely worth the time spent with it. I can’t recommend it enough, especially for fans of the novel.