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Hunger Games: a critical movie review

I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story  came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next, there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story. Suzanne Collins 

I was thinking about this interview the whole time I was sitting in the movie. It hung over me as I watched  the adaptation of Collin’s first book in the Hunger Games series. The book series does a masterful job of giving us a world where children are taken from their homes and put in gladiatorial games to keep the “peace”. But the movie left me wanting. There seems to be something lost in the translation. The message that one gets from reading the Hunger Games is the horror of a world where violence for children is a way of life. The kids in District 1 are even trained till the age of 18 to be killing machines. It is not hard to see how Collins is showing a generation, who has grown up on video game violence and reality-TV idiots, that life is not fake. Relevant magazine sums it up  well,

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hunger Games is an annual event that recruits children for a public fight-to-the-death in order to win a year’s supply of food from the wealthy Capitol for their district. Though this concept is a new level of savage, even the series’ most adolescent fans can see the links between the dystopian world of Panem and our own. The book makes no secret of the fact that its Capitol and 12 (or 13) districts represent the deteriorating remains of today’s United States. It depicts an exaggerated version of the country’s wealth gap, society’s celebration of vanity and indifference to violence, the poorer classes’ growing unrest and distrust, even reality TV’s perverse and inescapable obsession with watching people destroy themselves and each other. In a time when social causes can become trends and Occupy protests can dominate headlines for months, it is no wonder America was ready for a Katniss Everdeen to step forward.

This was so timely in the book and yet watching the movie this was lost on me. This message seemed to get lost in the medium of film. There, on the screen, is the same violence that every movie, video game and TV show has and it did not seem different. Collins does such a good job in the book of making each one of the characters in the arena come alive before the games start. You know them better, so that as the teens turn on each other, you can feel the weight of their deaths. In the movie there is not time for this, we don’t get to spend time with the characters and so as they are killed there is not emotion, no connection. The horror of what has just happened is not felt because I don’t know them enough to care. This is the biggest fault of the film and its greatest failing of the source material. The message is definitely watered down and almost lost unless you have read the books.

The editing of the movie was so frantic at times that I was at a loss as to what was happening. In important scenes I could not get the full effect of what was happening because the cuts were too quick. In may ways this hurt most of the death scenes. You could not focus long enough on one scene to have what just happened sink in. This again hurts the message of the material since the reality of what is happening just flies by and it has no real impact on those watching.

The other thing that really struck me was the jarring difference in the movie between the gritty reality of the districts and the CGI Capitol. The capitol looks fake. It has no reality to it at all. I always expected the Capitol to look like a smaller version of Coruscant from the Star Wars films, but what we got was something that looked like a city from a Star Trek: The Next Generation episode. Now this does work to the advantage of the film by reinforcing the inauthenticity of the Capital and it’s way of life.

Suzanne Collins presents a land literally dying to move beyond the limitations of district, of class and of gender. Though the Capitol has lumped them together—just another dead body in the arena, just another worker down in the mines, just another little girl picking in the orchard—Collins subtly shows the reader that each person has potential, and is deserving of the chance to exercise it. Her choice of protagonist—a young female from a poor district—is evidence of this message. Even the wealthy, superficial stylists, game makers and Capitol representatives evoke sympathy from the reader—eventually, we recognize all of them have become pawns in an elaborate game that neutralizes the power of personhood.

In the end, the movie is a good adaptation of a book, but not great. The film on its own does nothing to really impress me. The female casting is spot on, but the male casting left a lot to be desired. They are not given enough to do and it is sad since they do have an integral part to play in the story as it continues. This is most clear in Peeta.

Perhaps the most righteous character we find in this story is the beloved “boy with the bread.” Peeta Mellark is kind to a fault. He is giving. He is slow to anger, but quick to defend others. When we first meet him, he’s risking a beating to provide bread for Katniss’ family, wanting nothing in return. While even our heroine at times relies on her powers of manipulation or allows despair and anger to direct her actions (and her bow), Peeta is a glowing example of counter-cultural authenticity and radical love. In Peeta’s famous monologue the night before the tributes are sent to battle in the arena, he expresses his intent to maintain “his purity of self,” even though behaving otherwise could be easier, even safer for him. “I don’t know how to say it exactly. Only … I want to die as myself … I don’t want them to change me in there. Turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not.”

The problem in the film is that this is lacking. He is never given a moment to truly shine because there simply is not enough time and he lacked the screen presence to really pull it off. He and Gale are mere window dressings for young girls to gawk at.

President Snow talks about hope in the movie, he says, “Hope; it is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective, a lot of hope is dangerous. Spark is fine, as long as it’s contained. So, contain it.” Unfortunately the film constrains any real sense of hope by watering down the message and leaving us wanting more in all the wrong ways.

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