I adore The Hunger Games trilogy. I can't say enough good things about it and I can't recommend it enough to people. It's dark, yet uplifting, painstakingly detailed, poignant, and never overdone. So as the movie release neared, I was a bit apprehensive about three things: love, violence, and gravity. I didn't want manipulative, overdone romances between Katniss and Peeta or Gale. I didn't want "cool fights" that left people wowing because I don't want anyone amazed or gleeful at a kid's death. And I didn't want eye-porn glory shots that diminished the dignity of the story. Happily for me, none of this happened.
[img_assist|nid=190|title=Jennifer Lawerence playing Katniss Everdeen|desc=Image courtsey of Lionsgate, Murray Close / AP Photo|link=none|align=middle|width=500|height=281]
Beware of some spoilers below...
There's a big hullabaloo right now about The Hunger Games, with its high body count and kid-on-kid violence getting a PG-13 rating while Bully gets slapped with an R for a mere handful of F-words. I do think it's ridiculous that the MPAA is making the documentary so difficult to get to the audience that most needs to see it, but I'm hoping moviegoers don't take it out on The Hunger Games and that parents decide to take their kids to both as both could start some interesting conversations. But on to the movie...
As far as film versus book, I'm going to tentatively say that readers will be satisfied. I know I was. It was doggedly faithful to the book, plot-wise. As far as the small details, I saw almost everything I wanted to. Though I did miss some lines from the book (I really wanted "when he sings... even the birds stop to listen." Such a sweet quote), there was nothing that ruined my experience or significantly altered the plot (I'm looking at you, Almost Every Harry Potter Movie). The romance was actually toned down from the book, keeping the focus tightly on the game, which I was alright with. I was more afraid they'd ramp it up to eleven (see Spinal Tap) to satisfy shippers. It was all very appropriate and in perspective. And there were no unnecessary additions. In fact, the things they added or changed ended up really enriching the story.
I thought having the mockingjay pin be something Katniss actually got from Greasy Sae and gave initially to Prim, who gave it back, tightened things up and gave it more emotional resonance as Madge (the original giver) didn't have much impact as a character in the books. The pin was no longer a reminder of a District Twelve tribute Katniss never knew, but a reminder of her family and why she ended up doing everything she did. It was more personal. I would, however, have liked for them to keep the story of how the mockingjay came about and what it meant. But maybe we'll get that in subsequent films when more dissatisfaction with the Capitol leaks out.
I got a nerdy kick out of the peeks into the control room with Seneca Crane. I loved the general fleshing out of Seneca (as well as Wes Bentley's epic beard. But everyone loves that). We don't see much of him in the book and it was nice to see someone with such an impact on Katniss have a meatier role. And the rather creepy rose garden chit chats with President Snow added a foreboding edge, really setting up the next two films. The District Eleven riot added to the film as well, though it was nowhere in the book. It was kind of an improvement for me as that reaction made sense with what they lost and definitely gave a better reason for the game change of letting two survive, with the motivation of preventing disquiet by showing mercy rather than just "viewers want romance, so let's get those crazy kids together!"
I've seen some criticisms around for how the characters don't talk enough about how unfair everything is, that they don't have long verbal reactions to the horror going on not only with the games but the poverty the Capitol keeps everyone living in. For my part, I don't think they needed to. There are two more films for protesting against the Capitol and pointing out it's evils. At this point, in this film, as in the book, Katniss and Peeta are just trying to figure out how to make it through while not compromising themselves, and are not analyzing and bemoaning their existence. They've lived in this world all their lives and know nothing else and might not even be aware things could be better. This world is presented, not chewed on exhaustively. Yes, this is a horrible, repulsive "game" and this universe is woefully unjust. We can see that for ourselves. We don't need to be spoon fed that through dialogue.
I've also seen some grumblings that there's not a huge number of awesome, beautiful, majestic shots here. But I also like that. Katniss is not impressed by the capitol's riches nor in the mood to stare in wonder around her and neither should we be. I don't think Gary Ross wanted us to ooh and ahh. I think he just wants to pull us in, make us live it, not pull us out of the moment with glory shots. And he did that masterfully for me.
As for the violence, he showed good taste there. There's no way around all the death, but there's no need to make it look daring or edgy or linger on it to prove a point that's already made by the very nature of the story. There are no "cool fights" with varying speeds or artfully spattering blood or lingering shots of the dead with sad music. Honestly, it cut through so quick that you barely saw, which I thought was a good choice. It made it intimate, kept it in Katniss' point of view. What we saw, throughout most of the movie, was what she would reasonably see. I have to give the film kudos in general for keeping POV so tight on any character it focused on. It drew me in and made me see what they saw and feel what they felt on seeing it. Bravo, Film! Yes. This review is turning into a verbal tongue bath and I'm not even done yet!
The casting also turned out perfectly. That's true for every character, but especially for Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss. When the news came out, I knew she'd be perfect. You can rarely lose with an Oscar nominee. But I'd also seen her in Winter's Bone, which is also a dark and disturbing film about a young girl doing what she has to in an unfair world. Honestly, she was a much darker mirror of Katniss there, strong and grave and forced to grow up before her time, raising her siblings with a mother who had succumbed to catatonia. But Katniss is a bit more clever and world-wise and, dare I say it, a little sunnier.
I particularly loved how Lawrence's Katniss changed when speaking to Prim as opposed to her mother, how animated and happy she became, as if wanting to present a more perfect world for the girl than the one she lived in. Perhaps that's because she is the mother, bringing up a little girl who's the apple of her eye along with a ghost of a woman she can barely respect. Her expressions were so telling, while still never verging into over-acting, that viewers barely need the narration of the books to tell us what she thinks about her lot in life. Either way, in both the book and film, Katniss doesn't waste time brooding. She does what she must.
Film or book, she's an excellent heroine for teenage girls to get to know - clever, hard-working, unpretentious, often-selfless. But she's also grave and emotionally closed-off, keeping her from verging into a perfect and consequently less real person. She's not just a survivor because she's learned skills, but because she takes action rather than whine and sigh.
On a final note, the visuals were very grounded and realistic outside the Capitol. The colors were dingy, the clothes were worn, the people seemed worn out as well. And even though the Capitol was grotesquely bright and opulent, it was never presented as beautiful. I didn't leave stunned by pretty pictures or amped up on fights, but feeling kind of hopeful yet haunted by what I saw, which is really as it should be.
On a lighter note I, as well as a good number of the audience, laughed when a trailer for the final Twilight came on. I'm kind of a gleeful Twilight hater (just love to hate it) and seeing images of Bella zipping around triumphantly with her new red eyes while anticipating Hunger Games really hammers in how silly and inconsequential a story it is. Let's just hope the young girls of the world put away the Twilight and pick up The Hunger Games. Let's also hope they bring tissues. Me, I forgot and had to sit there sniffling and wiping my eyes with my sleeve. So may the tissues be ever in your pocket (See what I did there?).