The Hunger Games: Great Action Flick, Lukewarm Book Adaptation

Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games

Before I started reading the books three years ago, Katniss Everdeen, the strong girl protagonist of The Hunger Games was already coined as the anti-Bella – Twilight‘s star – of young adult literature. That alone was reason enough for reading the first book. I got hold of The Hunger Games a month before book 2 Catching Fire was released (November 2009), read book 2 in a heart beat, then waited patiently for book 3 Mockingjay to be written and published in August 2010. All three books put to rest, rumors sprouted left and right that a movie was in the works. I was both excited and apprehensive. A movie about kids killing kids, what was the intended audience? With 27 million books sold to date, the book’s audience is obviously much wider than the young adult crowd. The book’s themes resonate with adults as well. The movie came out rated PG-13 last week – quite an achievement if you’ve read the book’s gory scenes. To say that I was eager to see it is an understatement but I left the movie theater puzzled. It took me a few days to process and now, here is why I think the movie was a fantastic action movie but only a so-so book adaptation.

Plot Redux

The premises of  The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic world called Panem where people are segregated in 12 districts, each one specializing in one economical endeavor as in macro-economics 101: coal, agriculture, jewelry, masonry, fishing, etc. All these district are starved (some more than others, it depends on how much gross income they bring in to Panem’s basket) and subjugated to the good will of the Capitol, a state that brutally governs everything. For good dystopian measure, citizens of the Capitol live a lavish and extremely superficial lifestyle. Obviously Katniss comes from one of the poorer districts where hunger is a daily issue. Each year, 2 kids ages 12 thru 18 from each district are picked in a Reaping ceremony to fight to the death in a custom-made arena. It’s called the Hunger Games. Jolly uplifting and thrilling material for a page-turning dystopian novel.

Social Discourse

Throughout the book, government hovercrafts, helicopters, troopers or other security agents control every move of the district’s people. They analyze their every actions. They remove them at will. This is a world where freewill doesn’t exist and people live in fear. My first thoughts were 1984, Brave New World, The Giver, THX1138 or Logan’s Run. I do not want to live in this world. I expected the movie to live up to the gloominess of the book’s Panem. I wanted to feel suffocated by the governmental control.

Yes in the movie we see coal miners and their families skulking around District 12 like a sweaty hard-knock life MTV clip. Yes when it rains Katniss sits outside getting drenched and a schoolmate throws her a burnt loaf of bread. Yes District 12 people look grimy and unkempt. But wait, why does it look like people are still getting by?

The book reads: “Starvation’s not an uncommon fate in District 12. Who hasn’t seen the victims? Older people who can’t work. Children from a family with too many to feed. Those injured in the mines. Straggling through the streets. And one day, you come upon them sitting motionless (…) and the Peacekeepers are called in to retrieve the body.”

From watching the movie, I don’t feel that level of hardship. I don’t see the starvation. I don’t know what the consequences of rebellion can be – avoxes have been axed from the movie. I don’t see teenagers adding their names to the books of the Capitol’s Reaping every year to earn more food rations for their families. I don’t see a 2-level society in District 12 where the mayor’s daughter Marge (axed from the movie) is barely at risk of seeing her name drawn in the reaping as opposed to kids who live in the Seam like Katniss. I don’t see Katniss wolfing down food in the Capitol because it’s, well, a lot of food and something she’s never had. I barely hear about District 13’s uprising and how that whole district was crushed and destroyed to the last. That’s pretty big, given what’s to come in books 2 and 3.

Instead what we see a lot of is the extravagant fashions and hairstyles of the Capitol. The government’s decadent and loud society is displayed on such a marketing pedestal that a Capitol Couture website follows movie fans dressing up like Panem actors. Just so we’re on the same lines, we’re still talking about a sad tragic world where kids fight to the death in gladiator games. Yet one of last week’s Capitol Couture headlines reads “You think Seneca would have a fit if Katniss wore these to the games?” Really, what’s worse: the world displayed in the book where people watch kids killing each other in reality TV or our world where clever marketers glam up outfits worn by kids on death row? Gee, I wonder.

Wait, that’s not the pinnacle of The Hunger Games as great pop culture entertainment. The movie was released with a Capitol website The Capitol where you can register on Facebook or Twitter and become a “citizen of one of the districts.” Surfing a sexy Hunger Games wave, a KQED columnist wrote a piece called “The Hunger Games: A Guide to Your New Obsession” where he proudly stated, after registering on the Capitol website, that “just in case you can’t tell from the above identification card, I’m from the nicest district, which specializes in luxury. I’m really fancy. Find out if you’ll be surrounded by gems and wine and lace with me or slaving away in the coal mines at thecapitol.pn.”

Fancy jewelry versus slaving away in coal mines? I know this is a lighthearted approach – it’s a pop culture column – but to me it shows how much the movie misses the mark in its message, all muddled up in thrilling action and reality TV scenes. In fact, commentators take what they want from the movie, drawing parallels with the Occupy movement, the New Testament or the presidential campaign. A lot of people see it as a rip-off of the Japanese pulp novel Battle Royale by Koushun Takami but that’s another debate. By stripping the movie of much of its social discourse, the movie directors have made it a catchall action movie where everybody can customize the experience to his or her own agenda and I think that’s a missed opportunity.

I see the the book as a cautionary tale about totalitarianism, a story on humanity, a tale of warning against big brother (internet) controls and fascism. That’s why I didn’t like that the movie introduced a riot in District 11 after Rue’s death rather than District 11 sending Katniss a loaf of bread as thanks for helping the little girl in her last moments. That was an act of humanity and there aren’t that many in the story. In a word, I felt the movie focused more on the surface and less on character development, an additional layer that would have added intensity, emotion and complexity to the story.

The Actors

Too groomed. Too healthy looking. They look right out of a styling session. Whether it’s Peeta, Gale, Rue or Katniss, not a single one of the tributes look like they come from a world on the brink of starvation. I know it’s a movie and nobody wants to see starving child actors on screen. But could they not all look so attractive?

In the movie when Rue show up behind a tree and smiles at Katniss, she is cute as hell but her hair is too perfectly parted and styled to show she’s on day 2 of a brutal man hunt in the woods. Gale, in the first scene in the forest, I pictured him sort of a wild teenager, a scruffy woodsy guy boiling with anger against the government – not a good-looking quarterback with a short haircut. Peeta, well, he’s okay but I re-read the book to understand why he didn’t fit the bill either: “Medium height, stocky build, ashy blond hair that falls in waves over his forehead.” Looks aside, Peeta is a kid abused by his parents in the book. When he’s selected in the Reaping, his blue eyes show off the alarm Katniss has so often seen in prey. I didn’t expect his movie impersonation to  be so, well, confident.

Even Haymitch I did not agree with, though Woody Harrelson is a brilliant actor. I almost fell for his Haymitch when he showed up drunk in the train on the way to the Capitol but instead of maintaining an unstable and slithering attitude like the broken human he is, Harrelson’s Haymitch quickly becomes a solid pillar Katniss and Peeta can rely on. Not so in the book. Same empty feeling for President Snow. As much as I admire  Donald Sutherland’s portrayal, he’s not half as obscenely repulsive as the book’s President Snow.

And then, there’s Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. Apart from the fact that she’s not the Katniss I had in mind, I initially thought the girl had one look in her acting book and that was “offended.” Where’s the complexity, the range of emotions? Where’s the arrogance, the hostility, the sullenness? Then I realized it was harder for her than what I imagined. What I’m missing is the first-person account of the book because Katniss’s train of thoughts tell us a lot about her emotions and her reasoning. Without the subtext, Katniss is not an easy character to portray and to make up for the third-person view, the movie directors made her likable. Why should she be? I never found her likable in the book, I didn’t want to like her in the movie. The interview scene, in particular, struck me as way too easy for Katniss. She twirls in her dress on fire, giggles and wins the heart of the Capitol audience. Where’s the tension at the end of the interview when Prim comes up, where are Katniss’s sharp edges? We’ ve been given a duller Katniss. Hope the next movies restore her thorns.

I’ll give to Lawrence a strong acting moment for the scene when she volunteers for Prim. I felt my throat tighten and my eyes get watery at the despair that drives a young woman to sacrifice her life for her young innocent sister. Well done, really well done. I would have liked to feel that intensity throughout the movie. Emotions are too superficial or short-lived in the movie, like the relationships: Gale-Petta-Katniss, Haymitch-Peeta-Katniss, Katniss-Peeta.

And then, the focus on costumes ruins a lot of the movie for me. Where the New York Times describes Katniss running in the forest as something of the American Frontier, I see a healthy girl in designer leather boots and blouse running through a North Carolina forest. Nothing wrong with that image in the real world. Gosh I’d love to see more stylish girls run down mountain trails to escape the daily grind. Girls and the outdoors, perfect combo. But based on the book’s perspective, the movie’s take is too clean. Plus, if someone had taught Lawrence to walk through forests without crunching every single stick under her foot, she might be a more believable hunter. As is, she’s a Katniss in training.

The Music

The soundtrack is fantastic and that’s my problem. You don’t hear a single song of it in the movie. Not one. Not a single note  in 144 minutes. Only symphonic action movie music. I ask you: what would The Titanic have been without Celine Dion’s song? There are so many good songs on the score that it’s sad to realize they’re not in the movie. I was so looking forward to hearing Taylor Swift’s Safe & Sound, Arcade Fire’s Abraham’s Daughter, Kid Cudi’s The Ruler and The Killer or The Punch Brothers‘ Dark Days  set to the movie’s images. Dream on. You have to purchase The Hunger Games: Songs from District 12 and Beyond to hear them. If you’re going to hire the best musicians to come up with a soundtrack, might as well use the result in the movie. This I do not understand.

At The End of the Day

I think I’m going to stop here. I could go on for another 10,000 words and still not be done but this is a movie adaptation. Scenes from the book are going to be cut, that’s to be expected. Suzanne Collins was even part of the axing team, she knew what she was doing. She’s a TV writer after all and I’m just a reader.

In the heat of the moment, I thoroughly enjoyed the movie. It’s great entertainment, edge-of-your-seat stuff, a big production with good filming and no expenses spared. I would totally recommend it as a big Hollywood blockbuster, though I have to agree with the PG-13 rating. Not good for the 10-year old boy who was seating next to me holding his popcorn for dear life or the baby who cried through much of the movie in the front row.

As a movie inspired by a book, it could have been better but regardless, I’m looking forward to Catching Fire.

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Laure Latham

Laure is an author, environmental advocate, blogger, open water swimmer and now mother. She's passionate about inspiring families to enjoy the outdoors with their children, learning to unplug and living a healthy lifestyle, giving kids life skills and exploring the world around us sharing Family Friendly, Fun Ideas for the whole family on Frog Mom.

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