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Review: Hunger Games 

This review was originally published in my column at Towleroad. Congratulations to Towleroad for winning Outstanding Blog at the GLAAD Awards

"The Hunger Games," now in their 74th year, began as a way to punish an uprising against the government. The totalitarian regime of Panem (in what remains of the former United States) maintains total control over the outlying districts. Each of the 12 districts is required to send forth two "tributes" annually, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 to 18 chosen by lottery. They are shipped to the Capital where they are paraded about and then shipped off to die for the amusement of the masses. Everyone in the nation watches. There are no alternatives in this dystopia. Only one adolescent will live bringing supposed honor (and maybe food?) to their starving district... or so claims the capital. What honor there is in forcing teenagers to kill each other is not a question the Capitol asks itself.

Any similarities that The Hunger Games has to the Japanese classic Battle Royale (2000), which also features schoolchildren forced to kill each other by a totalitarian regime -- only one survivor allowed -- are, according to The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, entirely coincidental. Another film in this subgenre, the little seen Series 7: The Contenders (2001) also features mandatory lotteried killing for televised amusement. In short, the ideas are nothing new, just the treatment; these are topics we're obviously grappling with in popular culture in this era of televised "reality" and winner takes all capitalistic vice. The gap between the haves and have nots grows and this dystopia gives it steroids.

"The Reaping" Effie chooses tributes from District 12

When 12 year old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is named as tribute in "The Reaping" ceremony, her protective sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. The district also sends Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a sweet strong baker's son who Katniss knows a little. Will they kill or be killed? 

The first hour plus of Hunger Games is touching and quite visually intriguing, "The Reaping" sequence is especially memorable with Effie (Elizabeth Banks) a flamboyant disconcerting fuschia in a sea of grayed out zombie teenagers fearing their name read aloud. The last hour, the actual games, paradoxically thrills less.

I have not read the novels so the world building was fascinating and even semi-plausible. For the most part director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) delivers an artful scifi drama. Particularly impressive are the sound and scoring, both less bombastic than this type of film usually receives and more affecting for it. When a contestant dies there is a low "boom" that's surely intended for the combatants to keep count (since the Panem audience will already know who has died) but it adds to the dread. Consider it an artistic reminder that less can be more since the offscreen deaths are just as unsettling as those we witness. 

Once the tributes reach the arena, basically a forest with clearings, the slaughter begins. The initial bloodbath is filmed mostly in blurry handheld camera and incoherent quick edits (as are most subsequent action sequences), either because Ross has little feel for action, because coherent editing is out of style or because the R rated material wanted a PG-13 for a bigger box office reach; I'm guessing all three. He's also overly fond of foreshadowing and controlling where you're looking on the screen even when several people are in frame. Even if you haven't read the books it's easy to sense who will live longest based merely on who the camera asks you to look at. And one thing above all else becomes clear - this movie belongs solely to Jennifer Lawrence and cares possibly more about how wonderful Jennifer Lawrence is to look at than the sorry plight of teenage tributes as cruel pawns in a snuff film.

Katniss in perpetual danger

Here's a basic shot list during the games: clearing, blurry slaughter, Katniss, Katniss, Katniss thinking, confused running, Katniss, tree, a report on who has died, Katniss thinking, Katniss sleeping, trees, Katniss waking, closeup of weapon, Katniss, nature, Katniss sleeping, Katniss, control room, Katniss thinking, Katniss, other contestants, Katniss, control room, Katniss walking, fireballs!, Katniss running, Katniss falling, Katniss running, Katniss, Katniss, Ohmygod it's Peeta, Cato and his gang, Katniss running, Katniss hiding, Katniss climbing, disgruntled teenage assassins, Katniss, Katniss sleeping, everyone sleeping, Katniss waking up, Katniss & Rue, something deadly, Katniss thinking, weapon, a particularly gross death, Katniss, Peeta, Katniss hallucinating, people watching the games, Katniss, Katniss walking, Katniss, Katniss, control room, Katniss & Peeta, Katniss sleeping, fire, Katniss running, Katniss, Katniss singing, Katniss making a friend, Katniss, Katniss crying, Katniss looking at the camera, nature, Katniss, Katniss, control room, Katnis suddenly thinking of Peeta, Peeta, a parachute, Katniss pretending to sleep, Katniss, Katniss strategizing, Katniss, grass, something threatening, another contestant, blurry fighting, Katniss running, Katniss hurting, Katniss, and so on... and some more Katniss.

There are 24 tributes but you wouldn't know it to look at her.

I didn't know where to begin in reviewing The Hunger Games which is specific enough as a concept to excite immediate feeling but vague enough as a metaphor to invite all sorts of projections. Like many pop culture phenomenons, what you bring in to the theater is half of the experience. The Hunger Games will surely spark a lot of conversation as the angles are endless: man's inhumanity to man as entertainment -- with us since the days of the Gladiators; Television as the opiate of the masses; The politics of wealth distribution; Our complicity in the perpetuation of our own misery; Etcetera. 

The Hunger Games flexibility with metaphor even extends to mass market entertainment and actors as celebrities. Katniss and Peeta are styled and primped before public apperances preceeding the games and they're repeatedly encouraged to be "likeable" so that they'll win sponsors. The movie hedges its bets this way too, employing the reliable trustworthy Disney tactic of not really making the heroes kill people unless its indirectly. (It might make them more likeable but it also kills some of the psychological horror the concept promises.)

The showbiz doesn't end there. Katniss's mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) even encourages her to amp up the drama during the games and she complies. The best thing about Jennifer Lawrence's work here might be the occasional beats of ambiguity -- you're not entirely sure how much her feelings for Peeta are real or amplified for survival, and when she acknowledges the audience on occassion, how much is she really feeling? The Hunger Games will surely make Jennifer Lawrence, who came to fame with an Oscar nominated turn in the poverty-stricken drama Winter's Bone, a huge star. 

Curiously in both films she plays a destitute but resourceful Appalachian girl who kills squirrels and who happens to be her sister's proxy mother since the real one is terrible at the job. It may be the tiniest niche an actress has ever inhabited but Lawrence is a very big deal.


Grade: B
Oscar Hopeful? Box office sensations, including genre franchises, win Oscar attention when they're impossible to deny in the tech categories... which this isn't. But never say never. It's flexibility for Op Ed pieces will keep people talking and given that it has an aura of serious real world issues (unlike say vampires and sorcerers) it could win traction. Will the odds be in its favor for actress? art direction? costuming? sound? score?

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Reader Comments (31)

The Hunger Games has got to be one of the strangest blockbusters to come along in a while, if only because of how relentlessly downbeat and grim the majority of the film is. For me, one of the movie's greatest successes (which it managed to preserve in the book-to-screen process) was the way the Capitol was established as the main enemy, not the other tributes. Sure, Cato, Glimmer, et al are hunting the protagonists, but the movie sure keeps the audience from cheering by granting the Career tributes the most unpleasant, brutal deaths in the film (the exception here is the knife-happy Clove, who the movie takes great pleasure in beating to death).

March 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoe K

I could actually see Jennifer Lawrence getting traction for this.

March 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPhilip

The camera work and the bad fire effects really distracted me while watching the movie. I probably would have enjoyed the movie a lot more if it weren't for those two things, but I couldn't stop focusing on it.

March 25, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterK

re Lawrence's ambiguity: in the books, it's much more explicit that Katniss' feelings for Peeta are just for the camera (at least in the first book, pretty much anyway). i thought it was interesting how some things from the book were left out and made much more ambiguous. overall, i thought it was great, mostly because of how much it stuck to a source material that i love. after 10 years of Harry Potter essentially telling a legion of fans to go screw themselves with all of the changes they made, it was nice to see a faithful, but still exciting, adaptation.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOlivia

Thanks for mentioning Series 7: The Contenders, which I've always thought was grossly underappreciated. Maybe now it will get some attention by association and recommendation engines.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJ.P.

I think they didn't take full advantage of the battle aspect. I don't mind at all that they never directly showed the deaths, atleast the gruesome ones, but usually when someone dies I feel for them. But yeah, with so many characters they kept the focus so tightly on katniss that the excitement level was just so tightly leashed whenever others were shown. The romance just flat out sucked to me. I hope she was just playing it up for the games, that would make it a whole lot more believable for me. Katniss and peeta are the only names I honestly remember. Plus woody,facial hair, stanley, and Effie! The adults had more personality than all other 24 tributes combined. there were the instant kills, ruth, and douche-bags. Feels like a bunch of wasted opportunites. The psychological aspect didn't seem like much of an aspect inside the arena, and that was the part I wanted the most. Cause, I mean, what they're doing is fuckin' crazy.

But,aside from that, I thought everything leading up was good build-up, it just didn't end up to much for me.But there were details that added a lot like your mention of the cannon sounds in the background, how they differentiate the different classes(actually I kind of wish they showed more the other districts) , seeing the others training; proving how ruthless they can be, and, of course, jennifer lawrence bringing a lot to the table. I guess I sometimes just don't like my curiosities staying curiosities. especially when I'm really curious!

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

First off, Nathaniel, you should read the books! I think you'll really enjoy them.

It's rare that I walk out of a movie thinking, "The sound editing was amazing!" Well, this was the rare occasion. I thought the overall sound was so effective in the storytelling. It was surprising, not too flashy, but very detailed and a character of its own. And the theatre where I saw the movie has an awful sound system. To overcome those obsolete speakers...that's saying something!

Oscar attention? I think it could definitely be in the running for tech stuff like the sound categories, costumes, makeup, art direction, etc. Jennifer Lawrence proves she's a star. I bet her name will come up in conversations.

I want to see this movie again if only for that chilling Reaping sequence. Wow!

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Poppy, everything you mentioned were aspects of the book, so maybe this is a case of staying faithful or straying from the material a bit. The novel is narrated by Katniss, so of course she is a main focus throughout the movie and also during the actual Hunger Games. She doesn't get to know the other tributes, so neither does the audience. The adults do have distinct personalities. The romance is for show, so it's meant to be a bit superficial. It was meant for Peeta and Katniss's survival so they get gifts from sponsors. At least it is for Katniss.

Now, of course, all of these things could have been told more clearly. Not saying it was handled perfectly, but they are all points in the book. The second and third installments definitely open up more, show more of the other districts, the Capitol, and beyond. The first pretty much gets the ball rolling. I'm sure they'll go into more depth in the next one.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

Actually, I think the film's best shot at Oscar noms is in the design categories -- art direction, costumes, makeup. I liked Lawrence better than I expected (but don't think that "like" needs to be validated by an Oscar nomination, at least not yet).

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDusty

The focus on Katniss during the whole Hunger Game sequence was very true to the first point of view the book was written. After all, it's Katniss' take on the game, so what we saw throughout the game are exactly how she experienced it. In that aspect, the movie is faithful to the material.

A lot of stuffs were taken off from the book and all these creative licences, I totally understand. But in the book, Peeta supposed to be very in love with Katniss and there is little pretense of his love to her yet somehow, in the movie, his love for her is very questionable. It seemed to me that he too is playing along with Katniss for the affections of the audiences. Maybe it's the direction of the movie, a change of Peeta's personalities.

I would have like the movie better if I had not read the book but since I did, I somehow find it less fulfilling after waiting breathlessly for the movie.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff

In two minds about the violence. One part of me wanted to be more shocked with it and felt it two reserved. The other part fully realised how sick it is to want to sit and watch the slaughter of children. A very tough line to cross and I think he did a good job. I think how we react to the violence (I want more, I want less) does not say anything about the movie, it says more about us as viewer.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMichael

I read the books. They're addictive if not quality and sure are a heck of a lot of fun to read. The movie is an incredibly faithful adaptation which is great and I really enjoyed it a lot. I just wanted to comment on what Nathaniel calls "The Disney Effect." While it is something that is common in the story (the tracker jackers, the mutts) I just want to say that Katniss does kill one person point blank. SPOILER ALERT After Marvel throws a spear at Rue, Katniss kills him with one decisive arrow. It happens off screen and then all we see is mourning over Rue, which is fine, I just wanted to say that she definitely kills him, on her own, and by her own hand. Just saying.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBrady

@ Brady: yeah, as self-defense. And to survive the Hunger Games contest with only had to kill 1 person does not seem realistic to me. Other than that I really enjoyed the film.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commentertombeet

Seeing kids kill one another is awful, but the horror genre loves it I.e. Scream and so many others. No Jennifer doesn't outright kill anyone, but I don't think the lower districts have that strategy. The redhead I don't think killed anyone. The districts 1 2 and 4 are trained for this their entire lives so they are more ready to kill.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa

it's really not surprising that HG raked in so much this weekend, there's so much about it that appeals to a broad audience, especially younger folks who are most likely to go to the movies over the wekend

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterHG reader

I think the film version of The Hunger Games sacrificed development of character for development of the world and the overall feeling of the people of the Districts of Panem. It sacrificed the micro for the macro, and while this is a valid approach for the film of a first-person narrative novel, I think some of the plot suffered for it. The biggest mistake was glossing over the strategy aspect of prepping for the Games, specifically is it relates to Haymitch's sending of "gifts" and Katniss understanding what they mean. Still, a very good adaptation and a good film. I would maybe bump it up to a B+.

The use of sound, in particular the score, was great, and if they really push it, this could fill the action/blockbuster spot in the Oscar sound races. I also personally feel that if this doesn't get nommed for costumes and make-up, then something is wrong with the Academy. Not sure it'll get much more traction beyond that, though I'm sure Jennifer Lawrence's, and maybe Stanley Tucci's names will come up. It won't happen though. Not unless other major performances at the end of the year fall flat.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

Lawrence and Tucci will be in the discussion through awards season. Makeup feels like a lock. Score is a possibility with the caveat that Howard has peak John Williams productivity this year on baity films. Costumes could happen. Sound categories feel like a strong possibility.

I feel bad that the big flaw of Collins trilogy--the lack of context until the second book--was kept in the film adaptation. Little details from the later books were added in to build up the urgency near the end, but the context of what Panem is actually like was as non-existent as the first book. The Hunger Games is the Katniss show. From page one of the second book, it's all about how messed up Panem is and how the Capital keeps control of the people. More of that could--and should--have been in this film. Is it that hard to add in a quick scene where the Peacekeepers drag a young child out of a house for the Reaping? Or a shot of an adult being whipped in a stockade for who knows what reason?

My hope is that a lot of the details people missed from the actual games will be how they do Katniss' PTSD/flashbacks/nightmares in the later films. Only two of the things that haunt her made it into the final cut and only one is an image that keeps coming up.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRobert G

I guess I'm crazy to say it, but if the category isn't overly competitive (and since we know the box office is going to be insane for the next month, at least)...I wouldn't be surprised by Jennifer Lawrence scoring a Best Actress nomination.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterBia

I like Denny's comment about the macro for the micro. That's the big difference I saw between the movie and the book and I think it worked very well for about the first 2/3 of the movie, up until Katniss finds Peeta in the river. I loved that they showed the rebellion beginning in District 11 (although they left out the gift of bread which was so touching in the book) and I think that's something, Robert G, that did demonstrate the brutality of the system and its effect on the populace.

From the time Katniss finds Peeta, however, the film felt rushed and confusing. There were important developments from the book that were left out entirely or portrayed in the most unimaginative ways- from their time in the cave to the death of Cato to Katniss's reaction to Haymitch's news after the games.

Coherent editing in fight scenes, huh. Yeah, that does seem to be too much to ask for these days.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAR

I guess my critique is more of a personal critique than a overrall, legitimate critique of the movie. I wanted the film to give more space for the characters to have an identity of some kind so I could be reminded of me or people I know. That would have enhanced the power and grittiness of the story in ways gory violence can't touch. But I always respect a faithful adaptation, which is what people are saying, so, alright.

also, people really had no problem sleeping in this movie where I would have been a nervous wreck.I don't think my body would have given me any other choice than to sleep with one eye open.

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPoppy

I don't think that she has a chance, Oscar wise, for this film. But I think that her being so great in this is going to help her get nominated for "The Silver Linings Playbook." She could tie Winslet as the youngest to get 2 nominations!

March 26, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMatt

very good

Oscar nod for art direction would be very fine, and I can see it as possible. Jennifer Lawrence was very good, but I don't think this screams Oscar nomination. I don't think so.
Btw, I read and loved the books, I loved the first one and a half hours more than I loved any film recently, and I'm fine with the rest. It felt a little like they fast-forwarded, but I wouldn't want the movie to be three hours long, and I wouldn't want anything from the part I enjoyed so much skipped, so it's absolutely ok.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

PS: Because someone brought up Tucci, I think the best supporting player was Wes Bentley. Forgive and forget that bullshit with the dancing bag in the wind (...though I actually that movie quite a lot, too. Especially back in the day...)

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

@Matt: no idea for what movie, it's probably not even in the planning now, but Saoirse Ronan will beat Kate Winslet as the youngest to get two nominations. But I must correct myself now, you were talking about lead acting nods only, right. Correction: Saoirse Ronan will beat Angela Lansbury as the youngest to get two nominations in any acting category!

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDominik

Engaging. Brutal, but engaging!
Wow. I was barely able to put this book down for a second after the first few pages got me completely hooked. Suzanne Collins narrative here has an immediacy to it that, when combined with the very dramatic life-or-death plot, is incredibly compelling. It's entertaining, and incredibly disturbing all at once.

March 29, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterPortugal

The gray first hour was great, but it was ruined for me a bit when I saw that Tom Stern had been in charge. Seemed less thoughtful when armed with that knowledge. All his movies are gray.

Oh, and it's the Ozarks in Winter's Bone, not Appalachia.

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Forgot to mention: one of the ways that the movie really improved upon the book was by flushing out Katniss's effects in the other districts and the Panem gonvernment's opinion of her. That was always a major omission in the books to the point that it strained credibility, in my opinion, and it was nice to get some explanation in the movie.

April 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEvan

Evan -- they are actually considered two parts of the same region. But yes, slightly different if we're nitpicking. I didn't know it was Tom Stern either!

April 1, 2012 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I think The Hunger Games could have been a lot better. I was hoping for wayyy more. The movie for my taste was too short, and all the amazingly cute/ loving/ adorable parts were cut out. For example, the part after they say that 2 can live, Katniss never even shouted Peeta's name. She just stood up and left. Although the reaping was amazing, and I loved how Josh was acting like a scared kid, I think the way Gale took away Prim was adorable. But even for that I have something to say. After Prim's name was called, Katniss randomly steps out of her line, lets the cameras focus on her, then yells out PRIMM!!

What happened to all those scenes in the cave? I dont know, they were never THERE!! What happened to all those kisses for the cameras, and the soup making, and the guarding at night, or any other thing that happens in the cave? they messed the cave part so badly, I was close to tears.

The fire, the dress, the interviews. It was s horrible how they ruined the best moments in the movie. First, he fire. It was so fake, I was really wondering what year the movie was made. Then the dress in the interviews. What a waste. It was suppose to be something completely different. All the tributes were suppose to sit on stage, and wait for their turn. Just by not doing that, they undid the following things: One, they couldn't zoom-in on Katniss's face after Peeta confesses. Two, how on earth will they get all the victors in the 75th Hunger Games to hold hands on stage?

Any ways, I could go on and on and on about things that they messed up in the movie. But overall, It was OK. Personally, I was disappointed. Other than that, I dont know what else to say. I waited for this movie for so long, and at the end of the movie, I had the expression of: WTF just happened?

April 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterOmer

Thanks for the review! It's always great to see a view from someone who didn't read the books, and who is just reviewing the movie for the movie.
You know, I think that the movie did its job very well in sticking to the book. Of course, there will always be those nitpicky fans who say "well Peeta didn't say this in the movie" or "Katniss didn't shoot her arrow into this person in the book" but, in reality, if they kept everything the same, it would have been a 5 hour long movie.
I think it also helped immensely to have Suzanne Collins be an executive producer. I'm sure there were changes that she made to say "this needs to be kept in there" or "it will be okay if we cut this out".
I'm interested to see if it makes any impact at the Oscars.

April 9, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSkye C.
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