By Heather Havrilesky firstname.lastname@example.org
“The Hunger Games” only leaves you hungrier – and that’s the point
“This is the time to show them everything. Make sure they remember you.” These words of advice given to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) right before she’s introduced to the enthusiastic fans of the upcoming televised death match, might also have been whispered to director Gary Ross, he of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Taking on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy is certainly no small feat. Capturing the complex allegorical themes depicted in Collins’ book, portraying the anguish and ambivalence experienced by its heroine, doing justice to the impersonal elitism as well as the very personal violence and horror of this story: These would be enormous challenges for any director.
Of course, The Hunger Games will likely be declared a tremendous success on the basis of its box office receipts alone. Devoted fans of the books will be thrilled to see its characters on the big screen, and many will likely pay to do so more than once. Those who haven’t read the books may find themselves so transfixed by the dystopia depicted here — the manipulations of the state, the elitist savagery of urban sophisticates, the rage of the underclass – that they’re ready to declare this a good movie.
And The Hunger Games is a reasonably enjoyable movie, compared to most teen fare. How can it not be? You start with this fantastical story, rich with modern themes, featuring a compelling, fiercely lovable heroine. It’s a can’t-fail franchise: The book makes you want to see the movie, and the movie makes you want to read the book. When the next few months are over, book sales and ticket sales of The Hunger Games are sure to be astronomical.
Sadly, though, considering the richness and complexity of the source material, The Hunger Games falls far short of its potential. This could’ve been a transfixingly horrific, deliriously great film, something on the scale of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan or Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. While watching the bad cuts and dizzying action sequences of The Hunger Games, where it’s so hard to track the action that eventually you no longer care, I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Children of Men where Theo (Clive Owen) and his new friends are being chased through the woods by bandits with clubs and fire bombs. Suzanne Collins’ story is filled with similar scenes of suspense and brutality that would translate into heart-stopping sequences in the hands of a daring, artful director. Likewise, when we’re first treated to Ross’s flat Wizard of Oz pans of the denizens of The Capital, with their bright clothing and terrible hairstyles and sick, cynical laughter, I found myself thinking of how Aronofsky transformed the relatively mundane microcosm of New York City ballerinas into a hideous underworld of envious, fire-spitting she-demons through Nina’s paranoid perspective. And when Katniss encounters her fellow competitors (called tributes) in the woods for the first time and it comes off with about as much edginess as an episode of “Gossip Girl,” I naturally thought of how Jackson used breathtaking close-ups and horror-style zooms in Heavenly Creatures to bring the intimacy and contempt of two young girls to the boiling point and beyond.
A truly risky, inspired director might’ve taken the raw material of The Hunger Games and worked it into a mesmerizing, accomplished film. Instead, what we get is stiff, clumsy storytelling, with camera work that alternates between stagnant and dizzyingly frenetic. Even in the final action sequence of the movie, it’s impossible to see who is grappling with whom, who is gaining any advantage, or how anyone involved is reacting emotionally. Then we cut from this jerky, blurry close-up to a long shot that offers the opposite extreme: We’re too far away from the action and there’s so little contrast and color to the scene, that it’s as if we’re watching inert figures perform on a stage from the back row of a rainy amphitheater. Scene after scene, the layers of Katniss’s struggle to survive are reduced to jerky action and simplistic, leaden dialogue.
Obviously the brutality and horror of The Hunger Games has been softened somewhat to increase the likelihood that millions of tweens and teens will flock to the theaters to see it repeatedly. The challenge, of course, is to keep the interpersonal stakes high, pump up the suspense, and paint as vivid a portrait as possible within the limits of what a PG-13 audience can tolerate. Even though we may not see a lot of bloody violence, we should be able to feel the threat of it. We need to understand the ambivalence and dread that Katniss feels, and that her fellow tributes feel.
Oh, and we should probably know who these people are while we’re at it. Instead, we experiences most of the tributes as flat characters, with even Rue (Amandla Stenberg) presented as a likable, empty shadow, and Cato (Alexander Ludwig) delivering the same sneer in every scene, the dystopian version of that old “Welcome to the OC, bitch!” bully archetype. And we’re treated to repeated flashes of Gale’s (Liam Hemsworth) concerned face throughout the movie without even beginning to understand or appreciate his relationship to Katniss.
In fact, we get the sinking feeling about halfway through the movie that, not only is this a film that almost seems designed to feel empty without purchasing and reading the book, but we spend the final moments being set up for the next movie. All of the promise and emotional stakes set forth at the start of the story are for naught. Without spoiling anything, several foreshadowing remarks, in which characters tell us directly what their main focus is, never pay off. And in the final scenes, we’re not treated to anything remotely resembling an emotionally gratifying resolution. For a very long movie that’s essentially about physical and emotional torture not to provide some basic level of emotional connection at the end is simply unforgivable.
This ending, when paired with the uninspired, underwhelming filmmaking and half-baked character development throughout, makes The Hunger Games that all too common specimen these days: a reasonably enjoyable movie that could’ve been amazing, even unforgettable. Ironic, isn’t it, that an allegory about crass commercial exploitation of pure souls would itself succumb to such crass commercial exploitation? The sad thing is, when the ticket and book sales are tallied, Ross and Collins and Lionsgate will be hailed as heroes and they’ll never know how far short of memorable they stopped. Because for once, we don’t want to be strung along for the next installment. This is not television, this is the movies. This is the time to show them everything.