Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” debuted in US theaters this week, to much hype and the attendance of many teenagers. For both of you who may be unfamiliar with this violent work of chick-lit, in a dystopian future, The Capitol forces each of the 12 Districts in the nation to send a pair of teenagers to fight to the death in the annual Hunger Games. Think “A Clockwork Orange” meets “The Running Man” and you get the basic look and feel of the movie. The book series was aggressively advertised as a sci-fi action novel – which it most definitely is not. The movie suffers from the same poor marketing, as it is being portrayed as an action film when it is in fact a drama of the much more ordinary sort. Which isn’t to say it’s not a decent enough movie.
A little while back I reviewed the book trilogy, both on my podcast and in a guest post over at the Two-Fisted Blogger. I’m afraid neither review was very favorable. Looking at it from the perspective of time, I see that both reviews were colored by a desire for the novels to be something that they expressly were not. I wanted an action novel, and I got chick-lit teen drama. Perversely, I was aching to see The Hunger Games made into a movie. Unfortunately I wanted an action movie, and I got a chick-flick teen drama. I suppose it serves me right.
Story (Pass/Fail): Pass
For what it is, the story holds together well enough. It is a straightforward tale of one girl’s life experience within an oppressive dystopian future. This kind of thing eschews conventional plot device in favor of using the narrative as a sort-of biopic about the main character. Genre fans will find every expected beat hit right on cue – no surprises there, Collins is an experienced screeenwriter. Viewers looking for conventional storytelling devices such as metaphor, foreshadowing, plot threading or anything more complex than simple narrative will be disappointed. Still, it executes by the numbers without any glaring faults.
Characters (Pass/Fail): Fail
It’s a good thing that Jennifer Lawrence has such a likable appearance, because she is on camera and in close-up quite a lot. Hutcherson delivers a sympathetic and strong Peeta with his customary charm and charisma. Bizarrely for all the time the camera spends focused on them, neither of the principle characters are given enough screen time to flex their emotions and reel in the audience in any meaningful way. The performances are almost uniformly of the strong, silent type. It works exceptionally well in the novel, but leaves the viewing audience unimpressed and unsympathetic.
Production Value (Pass/Fail): Fail
For the amount of money spent on this thing, you’d think it would feature some visual spectacle worth watching – sweeping FX shots of the area, the Districts, and the Capitol; devastatingly brutal fight scenes; bizarre and disturbing mutant creatures. Heck, I’d have been happy if they just held the camera still once in a while. It seems like the entire movie is filmed in close-up on the shaky-cam; this device seems to be in vogue right now, and I’m heartily tired of it. For a haunting tune that led every trailer, the movie makes no use of musical score in any memorable way, and closes with a strange song that seems unrelated to the rest of the film. It’s like the director went out of his way to miss every opportunity to impress the viewer with visual or audio spectacle.
Content (Pass/Fail): Pass
This is heavy stuff, watching teenagers fight to the death. Collins meant her story to comment on media obsession with violence, and the point comes across very effectively. Much of the novel’s subtext is lost, as is an attempt within the movie to inject some of that subtext, but what remains is worth noting.
Shelf Life (Pass/Fail): Fail
Saw it once. I’m done. The visuals aren’t strong enough to bring me back. The music is entirely forgettable. The story is captivating, once I adjusted my expectations away from the action genre. Honestly though, at two and a half hours to sit through a poorly filmed movie that eschews much of the value of the novel, I’d rather spend the six hours on the audiobook and get the full experience.
I suppose the key to enjoying this movie or the novel trilogy is to manage expectations. Understand that this is teen chick drama and not sci-fi action, and …. well, the book is quite good but I’m afraid there’s little to be done for the movie.