Film review: The Hunger Games

posted at 8:00 am on March 24, 2012 by Ed Morrissey

The Hunger Games takes audiences to a future, decades after an apocalyptic war, where the North American continent consists of one nation, Panem, run by a dictatorial regime in the Capitol.  The rest of Panem consists of twelve districts, exploited by the wealthy and indolent ruling class in the Capitol, which both intimidates the districts and entertains them through the annual Hunger Games, a Survivor-type reality show that takes one boy and girl from each district and forces them to kill each other, until only one “tribute” is left alive.  Katniss Everdeen saves her younger sister chosen in the lottery for District 12 by volunteering, after which she and her friend Peeta get whisked to the Capitol for a couple of weeks of training, high-class living, and media saturation.  When the games begin, will the odds be with Katniss and Peeta?

The film comes from a popular young-adult novel of the same name by Suzanne Collins, but if you haven’t read it (I have not), you’ll still be familiar with the story, because it’s so derivative it’s hard to know exactly where to start the comparisons.  There are elements that remind one of “The Lottery,” the famous short story by Shirley Jackson, films like The Running Man and Rollerball,  perhaps a dash of The Handmaid’s Tale and a bit of The Truman Show, and almost every post-apocalyptic dystopian fantasy ever filmed or even contemplated. The people in the districts come straight out of The Grapes of Wrath and Matewan, while the Capitol looks more like a more lively version of the Eternals in Zardoz, whose wealth is only exceeded by their garish and conspicuous consumption, and equally exploitative consumption of the “tributes” who will play in the games.  (Elizabeth Banks’ Effie Trinket looks like she was airlifted from a Tim Burton shoot.)  The obvious Roman gladiatorial references get even more heavy-handed treatment with the names of the characters in the Capitol, like Caesar, Claudius, Octavia, Flavius, and so on.  The tributes even have to learn to kowtow to the wealthy in order to gain patrons that might assist them during the course of the games, which makes the exploitation about as subtle as a sledgehammer.

It takes a long time to develop the story, while at the same time providing little coherent explanation of what exactly all of this means.  The motivation for the deadly Olympiad is explained as a reminder not to rebel, but the idea of randomly killing the children of serfs for the sport of the obscenely rich doesn’t sound like a convincing way to keep a population under control.  It takes forever to get past all of the incoherent back story to get to the game itself, where Katniss’ backwoods upbringing comes in handy for her survival.  The game is bloody and violent, although most of the violence (with a couple of exceptions) is blurred and quick-cut, presumably to preserve the PG-13 rating.

Watching teenagers and children kill each other (at least one looks to be about eight or nine years old) prompts the question of why children and teenagers would get chosen for this in the first place by a dictatorial regime, other than the author’s need to write a book for young adults.  I’m sure it’s meant as an allegory for war as well as class exploitation, but it’s both ridiculous and grotesque. Given that The Hunger Games provides us nothing about almost all of the other 22 children in the games, it feels like they get treated by the film much the same way they get treated by the ruling class — as cannon fodder for their own purposes. The end of the film feels very anticlimatic, with a last-minute twist one could see coming a mile off, and from which the story almost immediately retreats anyway.  Nothing changes as a result of the events in the movie, not even character growth.  It literally feels like a complete waste of time when the credits roll.

The cast does a good job overall with what they’re given, but Donald Sutherland and Wes Bentley are wasted in their parts.  Stanley Tucci has fun in his over-the-top portrayal as the emcee Caesar Flickerman, while Woody Harrelson has less fun with the more substantial role of Haymitch,  former Hunger Games survivor and the assigned “mentor” to Katniss and Peeta.  The movie rests on the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, but she’s not terribly compelling or interesting.  Lawrence doesn’t display much emotional range, offering the same steely-eyed glare for most of the film. The cinematography makes extensive use of the modern shaky-camera and ultra-close-up “documentary” techniques that supposedly gives a film a realistic look, but mainly drives people up the wall.

The audience with whom I saw this was largely composed of teenagers, and they seemed to enjoy the film a lot more than I did, so take that into consideration.  It’s rated PG-13, which surprised me a little with the occasionally graphic violence in the film.  It’s far too intense for children, but teenagers would probably handle it with little difficulty.  The odds may be with them to find this enjoyable, but anyone older will have seen all of this before, and done better.


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Burke on March 25, 2012 at 1:29 PM

I don’t know if the author has stated whether this was an allegory against “evil capitalists” or that this came from some sort of socialist/collectivist worldview.

However, if she meant it this way, the books seriously undermine that message. Besides Katniss’ individual storyline, the central themes of the books are about an out of control central government that lives large while the people of the districts barely get by.

Personally, I think that this is more illustrative of our current situation, where Washington DC has not felt the pain that the rest of the country feels because they are taken care of within the central government bubble.

This is the way communist regimes are as well. The top of the central government live in luxury while the masses starve. See North Korea, China, the Soviet Union, etc.

I saw the Hunger Games trilogy as the story of a revolution of people against an authoritarian and repressive central government. If it was meant to be something else, the author failed massively.

iwasbornwithit on March 25, 2012 at 2:32 PM

I have not read the books, or seen the movie… so take what I suggest with a grain of salt.

From reading the comments, it seems that Hollywood took an anti-authoritarian story, and twisted it ever so slightly to an anti-capitalist story to match their worldview. No wonder the socialist web site I linked to earlier liked it. And “progress” marches on…

dominigan on March 25, 2012 at 2:51 PM

Not at all like the two reviews I’ve heard from people I know who have seen the film. Both, who attended with groups of 6 or more, (a 60 year old woman and a 25 year old man), liked the movie. Of course, they did have the advantage of having read the book. It’s an easy read.

bertielou on March 25, 2012 at 4:39 PM

This is a long discussion of a couple of important ideas and response to some comments brought up here. Sorry for the length.

Each of the three books of the Hunger Games trilogy are unique and each serves a purpose. Book 1 is not a political missive, it is not “about” anything. It tells the story of Katniss’ life, the life of people in District 12 and then the story of the hunger games. First two readings I struggled that Katniss wasn’t analyzing and interpreting what was happening around her more, but Collins wrote her that way for a purpose. The story is told through what happens, Collins is not Ayn Rand with 20 pages of explanatory prose for the tiniest amount of plot. The books intentionally hold back on interpretation and explanation. Katniss lives in a world that is awful and by the end of book 1, she begins to discover that there’s a reason why her life is awful and it has to do with the government. The books are about this discovery, this movement of awareness, and it’s meant to be a slow discovery.

In terms of liberal vs. conservative, Collins did a masterful job not pigeon-holing herself–there’s room for you to see both sides. But a suggestive example from the books that doesn’t really make its way into the movie is the idea of the black market where folks in town make/grow/hunt and buy/sell with each other. The clear image is that free exchange is helping them survive and that the government is always lurking around the edges making laws banning this activity, but not quite enforcing it. The government is mildly benign and life is hard, but not unendurable. Once Katniss and Peeta win the Hunger Games, however, things change, the benign goes away and there is both a revealing of the true character of the government as well as a retrospective re-framing that pretty much all of the difficulty Katniss faced in life came from the government as well and she just hadn’t realized.

Some ideas about earlier comments:
Are the books derivative? Of course, how many great stories or movies can you name that aren’t based on earlier works or themes? It’s telling the story of youth in any poor, oppressed place that grow up just thinking life is hard and endure it but eventually figure out life is hard because some other people are making it hard.

Why are the people hungry? Think of history. You don’t get to go deer hunting or turkey hunting, it’s called poaching and you get thrown in jail for killing the King’s deer. You can call it overtaxing and growing rich off the sweat of the workers or a bloated bureaucracy living off what the productive workers provide, but the government takes so much, provides so little and creates a work/regulatory environment where thriving is basically impossible, unless you’re connected to the government.

Can you see the movie as a stand alone?
You could see Harry Potter movies without reading the books, you could see Ender’s Game movie (upcoming) without reading the book, but you are in the tiny minority and the movie isn’t really designed for you. When hugely successful books are brought to screen, they count on a certain amount of the story being carried into the theater. Ideally the movie is good enough to get you intrigued to want to know more. If not, they’re ok with that.

So how good is the movie?
I’d give it a 7 1/2 out of 10. I love the books and part of what makes them so good is that the story needs to develop slowly, over time. When it gets packed together and the pace gets accelerated, a story that is fundamentally about transformation gets turned into a fast-paced sequence of events that can’t quite carry the same weight. If you let the books carry most of the weight of the story and just use the movie to “see” what it could look like, there are some great parts and much of the drama and weight of the story comes across powerfully.

Katniss is way too healthy and pretty looking for someone who has been barely keeping her family fed for years. I get you need an attractive star, but the books are all about how unlikeable Katniss is and even by book three she’s still way more of a pain in the butt than the movie portrayed. But, overall, she’s not bad and kind of works in the role. Abandoning the book’s version of Haymitch for Woodie Harrelson was a bummer, a fairly happy, supportive drunk is the exact opposite of what Collins wrote and it doesn’t work for the story.

I feel like the Rue scene in the book is a pivotal, hugely transformative piece of the story and they did it pretty well in the movie. The whole idea that someone fighting in the Hunger Games would take the time to prepare a dead body (by putting flowers on it) was an act of “rebellion”. This is one of the first places where Katniss acts intentionally to tell the game masters what she thinks of what’s going on. Earlier when she shot the apple out of the pig’s mouth, she’s just surly, mad and saying she doesn’t care. But here, she’s making a statement and even thinking about the people watching in Rue’s home district. The book gets to work with it slowly, but the movie had to cram all of it into a few minutes and it suffered for it.

The jiggly camera was awful, way too many closeups, a few too many shots of silly people in the crowd and a few too many changes that didn’t help (Haymitch, Cinna), but overall a pretty good movie made from a very good trilogy that is worth reading, rereading and sitting with for a while.

Rickoxo on March 25, 2012 at 4:40 PM

Watch this video interview of Suzanne Collins about the writing of these books. It explains a lot.

http://www.scholastic.com/browse/video.jsp?pID=1640183585&bcpid=1640183585&bclid=1745181007&bctid=1840656769

jldhx on March 25, 2012 at 5:41 PM

The hip intelligentsia of the forties and fifties knew that Communist Arthur Koestler was really writing about the urgency for social justice and revolution when he wrote his book “Spartacus.” And hip Marxists today understand the subtext of this new story as well.

I’ve seen and read a lot of movies and books about liberal dystopias–from “1984″ to “Darkness at Noon” to “First Circle” to “THX 1138.” This is not one of them.

Burke on March 25, 2012 at 1:29 PM

A small point, it’s Howard Fast, not Arthur Koestler, who wrote Spartacus. Arthur Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon, which you mentioned.

I think you’re right about the left seeing this book as supporting their side. To a leftist, any class-based oppression is either due to capitalism or religion (no religion in the world of the Hunger Games). It’s amazing how arrogant and deluded leftists really are. They’ll do exactly the same things that they claim the oppressors do, but it’s O.K. since it’s in the name of the people. Basically, it’s hatred of Western civilization that motivates them.

Since leftists control so much of our media, educational system, and government, a USA modeled after the Hunger Games is possible. I just hope we can avoid it.

Gladtobehere on March 25, 2012 at 6:54 PM

My daughter has read the trilogy and wanted to see the movie. I thought it was pretty good. My daughter enjoyed it and that’s what mattered most.

However, I noticed something quickly which prompted a discussion with my daughter that night. Panem, this crumbled America, is missing two very important things: God and the Constitution. This prompted a discussion with my daughter where I told her bluntly: This country is less than a hundred years from being Panem because God is considered the enemy and the Constitution is considered a list of suggestions.

Leftists who want to cling to this story as affirmation that capitalism and those mean, homophobe, racist conservatives caused the conditions of the 12 districts may need to evaluate things a little closer. Any right leaning government is going to be pro-God and keep the Constitution as the law of the land.

Mr. Mike on March 25, 2012 at 8:12 PM

A small point, it’s Howard Fast, not Arthur Koestler, who wrote Spartacus. Arthur Koestler wrote Darkness at Noon, which you mentioned.

Gladtobehere on March 25, 2012 at 6:54 PM

Thanks, Gladtobehere. I mixed up the title, but not the book or author. Koestler wrote “The Gladiators” (1939) which was all about the Spartacus revolt, and the subtext of that book was a communist one. That’s the book I was thinking of. Of course, as you point out, Koestler also wrote “Darkness at Noon” (a year later).

Burke on March 25, 2012 at 8:27 PM

Watch this video interview of Suzanne Collins about the writing of these books. It explains a lot.

jldhx on March 25, 2012 at 5:41 PM

Thanks. That was interesting.

Burke on March 25, 2012 at 8:39 PM

Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson…ehhh I’ll keep my $$$ in my pocket.

NY Conservative on March 24, 2012 at 10:07 AM

Yep. I’ve had it with hollywood uberpolitical asswipes who insult me and then expect me to spend money on their movies. I’ve eliminated about 90% of my former moviegoing activities as a result, but I really don’t miss it one bit.

Harbingeing on March 25, 2012 at 10:24 PM

Rickoxo, great piece, thanks for taking the time to write up your thoughts!

ellifint on March 25, 2012 at 10:35 PM

Not at all like the two reviews I’ve heard from people I know who have seen the film. Both, who attended with groups of 6 or more, (a 60 year old woman and a 25 year old man), liked the movie. Of course, they did have the advantage of having read the book. It’s an easy read.

bertielou on March 25, 2012 at 4:39 PM

It is an easy read. I read about half of the first book at Target while waiting for a prescription yesterday. I’m going to skip the movie. There’s enough horrible stuff in the real world – I don’t need to see a bunch of kids hacking at each other for my entertainment. I’m getting old and uncool.

NealK on March 25, 2012 at 11:54 PM

Voter from WA State on March 25, 2012 at 10:22 AM

I don’t mean to insult anyone who likes the books or the movies, but based on what I’ve read (and I’ve read several reviews, summaries, etc. of the books and films the last few days, and most of the posts on this thread), the stories sound dull to me.

I like sci-fi, adventure stories, I read and enjoyed the Harry Potter books, and so on, but reading/watching stories about teens on the hunt against other teens in a televised reality show doesn’t spark any interest in me. Also sounds like an odd concept.

It kind of worked with the 80s Running Man movie, though, with Schwarzengger. But then, that was a 30- 40- whatever year old tough guy. I don’t know if I’d buy a 15 year old girl with a bow, and I’m not against strong female characters.

If this ever comes on cable television, I might watch it once to see what it’s like.

TigerPaw on March 26, 2012 at 12:05 AM

If it comes out of Hollywood, I don’t watch. Why help fund liberalism?

zoyclem on March 26, 2012 at 7:15 AM

I like sci-fi, adventure stories, I read and enjoyed the Harry Potter books, and so on, but reading/watching stories about teens on the hunt against other teens in a televised reality show doesn’t spark any interest in me. Also sounds like an odd concept.

TigerPaw on March 26, 2012 at 12:05 AM

It’s one of those stories that likes to have its cake and eat it, too. Superficially, it’s all about satirizing reality TV and savaging a government that would be heartless and fascist enough to stage such brutal “games.” Actually, though, the film runs like one long episode of “Survivor” and it attempts to be engrossing on this level in every way possible. I’m sure 90% of the audience are enthralled by the contest and rooting for Katniss to get the others before they get her, and the movie producers understand this perfectly. It’s like films where the outward message is to deplore violence but where violence is included in horrific amounts.

Burke on March 26, 2012 at 9:31 AM

I saw the movie with my wife, who read the books (I didn’t). She was pretty critical, I a little less so. It was just OK.
Did they ever mention why it’s only kids that got chosen for the games? Why no adults?

Also, the crazy handi-cam blurred shots are the bane of my movie going existence. It’s like the lazy man’s way to show “action.” It makes 75% of the audience sick and the “action” isn’t gripping anyway becasue you don’t know what the heck is going on. Like the climactic fight at the cornucopia, who can tell who is beating who up?! Everything is just one big blur until they pull back a little. Again, I think it’s just pure lazy film-making covered by the excuse of being “edgy”.

Free Indeed on March 26, 2012 at 10:55 AM

I saw the movie with my wife, who read the books (I didn’t). She was pretty critical, I a little less so. It was just OK.
Did they ever mention why it’s only kids that got chosen for the games? Why no adults?

Also, the crazy handi-cam blurred shots are the bane of my movie going existence. It’s like the lazy man’s way to show “action.” It makes 75% of the audience sick and the “action” isn’t gripping anyway becasue you don’t know what the heck is going on. Like the climactic fight at the cornucopia, who can tell who is beating who up?! Everything is just one big blur until they pull back a little. Again, I think it’s just pure lazy film-making covered by the excuse of being “edgy”.

Free Indeed on March 26, 2012 at 10:55 AM

They choose the kids between 12-18 because they can. It’s a show of power and that the districts are helpless compared to the might of the capital. It’s explained briefly that the ‘reason’ is cause the districts revolted once and when they were put down this tribute is a reminder of the shame of their revolt. But the president briefly says that it is cause they can.

njrob on March 26, 2012 at 11:27 AM

I heard Sutherland say during a radio interview this morning that “this movie is for the 99%.” I switched to my iPod at that moment and ceased being interested in Hunger Games.

Nick_Angel on March 26, 2012 at 11:31 AM

Finally. Glad that here at Hot Air I can find someone I agree with.

Everyone I talk to just LOVES the Hunger Games. I read all three books and found them to be lazy, shallow writing. It totally reminded me of George Lucas and Star Wars. Return of the Jedi came around and he couldn’t figure out what was worse than a Death Star so he worked in another one. Collins does the same with Book 2–”hey, let’s just put them in another Hunger Games!”

If she was looking for a series full of deep meaning and commentary she failed miserably. I can give some leeway in that this is “teen fiction” for the lack of depth here, but no one really gets her commentary unless she tells you what she was doing and then massages the trilogy’s narrative fit it. Frankly, I don’t buy it and the fact that she is raking in millions off of some altruistic, social justice trilogy just smacks of hypocricy.

Weak, shallow writing. Period.

thomashton on March 26, 2012 at 11:59 AM

I heard Sutherland say during a radio interview this morning that “this movie is for the 99%.” I switched to my iPod at that moment and ceased being interested in Hunger Games.

Nick_Angel on March 26, 2012 at 11:31 AM

But, but…that doesn’t even make sense. Why would Sutherland make such a ridiculous comment? I thought this film had nothing to do with criticizing a capitalist society–it’s actually a libertarian story with a strong conservative message. Oh, I know what it must be: Sutherland doesn’t understand the true meaning of the film like everyone else blogging here. Boy, talk about stupid!

Burke on March 26, 2012 at 12:39 PM

I have read the books (and given them to friends with teens in the household), and seen the movie. The movie is, of course, a shadow of the bok – haven’t seen very many movies (and I see a lot of them) where that wasn’t true.

Bonnie, Bulletchaser, Mathscience41 and Williamg all seemed to sum up my thinking on the Hunger Games. They may not be “great literature” but I see them as a little bit of …take your pick… a ‘gateway drug’ to the addiction of a libertarain leaning inherent distruct of big/powerful government or perhaps a little bit of a vaccine against the lefty indoctrination that they live in school.

That lefties like Southerland or Harrelson are in it, and are unable to see it other than through the lenses of their own horrible leftie delusions does not make it bad (pity they’re so deluded as to be unable to see what’s actually there).

Read them (understanding the intended teen audience) and see the film. It ain’t Shakespeare or Academy Award level stuff, but in the sea of leftie leaning hogwash out there, this one can at least be enjoyed

krome on March 26, 2012 at 12:59 PM

I heard Sutherland say during a radio interview this morning that “this movie is for the 99%.” I switched to my iPod at that moment and ceased being interested in Hunger Games.

Nick_Angel on March 26, 2012 at 11:31 AM

But, but…that doesn’t even make sense. Why would Sutherland make such a ridiculous comment? I thought this film had nothing to do with criticizing a capitalist society–it’s actually a libertarian story with a strong conservative message. Oh, I know what it must be: Sutherland doesn’t understand the true meaning of the film like everyone else blogging here. Boy, talk about stupid!

Burke on March 26, 2012 at 12:39 PM

It’s entirely possible that Sutherland doesn’t understand it at all. I just knew that I wanted none of what he was selling.

Nick_Angel on March 26, 2012 at 1:06 PM

I heard Sutherland say during a radio interview this morning that “this movie is for the 99%.” I switched to my iPod at that moment and ceased being interested in Hunger Games.

Nick_Angel on March 26, 2012 at 11:31 AM

Consider the source. Donald Sutherland is as far-left leaning as one can get. The fact that he plays the dictator of a totalitarian government was most likely lost on him.

As for Woody, I could care less about his politics – I just like him as an actor, particularly in “No Counry For Old Men” and “Zombieland”. And having read all three books (and I’m 50), I thought he did a decent job.

Weak, shallow writing. Period.

thomashton on March 26, 2012 at 11:59 AM

You haven’t read the Twilight books, have you? Now there’s some truly awful writing.

Ygritte on March 26, 2012 at 1:11 PM

Free Indeed, if you read the books, you’ll see that in book two, all the “rules” for the games go out the window, when deciding who is chosen to play (don’t want to be a spoiler for those who perhaps wish to read but haven’t yet)…as for those who have decided it’s all drivel, or just more D’s VS. R’s, well, that’s your perogative…I grow weary of all the, us VS. them stuff…I know how i interpreted the books, and I enjoyed them…sometimes a good story (IMO) is just a good story.

ellifint on March 26, 2012 at 2:44 PM

ellifint on March 26, 2012 at 2:44 PM

Fist pump

Ygritte on March 26, 2012 at 4:29 PM

ellifint on March 26, 2012 at 2:44 PM

Fist pump

Ygritte on March 26, 2012 at 4:29 PM

~~~~~~~~~

Thanks and back atcha!!

ellifint on March 26, 2012 at 7:18 PM

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