In which two people review the new-to-DVD The Hunger Games, one who hasn’t read the books, and one who has.
HAS NOT READ THE BOOKS:
It’s becoming more and more clear just how big the hole is in the world of pop culture that was left by the ending of the Harry Potter series of movies and books. Its commercial success is obvious, but I don’t think enough was made about how good the movies were. There were just that – good – no more, no less, but the fact that they were good is pretty impressive. There were some ups (the idea of having an entire movie be nothing more than a two-and-a-half hour Act III was nut-bustingly awesome), and downs (the first two movies, which almost entirely served as fan service, as opposed to movies that could stand on their own), but overall I think that the filmmakers can look at their Harry Potter box sets, which they were able to purchase at only ten percent above cost, and, as a collective, be proud of what they had done.
The reason that the high quality of the Harry Potter series is so impressive is because they also had to write the book on how to do this shit at the same time. Harry Potter kicked off a trend of children’s books no longer being twenty pages, with mostly pictures, but instead forcing children’s books to be long, intense, intricate stories. This makes it even harder to turn into a movie (I’d much rather have to figure out how to fluff up Where the Wild Things Are than try to condense down just a single book of this magnitude), and that was proven to be the case in the first two movies, which almost serve as Harry Potter’s first season, as we patiently waited for them to work out the kinks. Starting with the third (and best) movie, the Potter franchise figured out, and it was almost entirely smooth sailing for the rest of the series. It needs to be said that the quality of those movies at no point mattered to the box office receipts. The fans would have shown up whether they were any good or not (see: Twilight, nothing else as that’s all the evidence you need, etc.)
One of the things that makes The Hunger Games so frustrating is that the filmmakers clearly don’t give a shit about the book that the Harry Potter series wrote to show them exactly how to something like this. The Hunger Games clearly has no problem taking over the commercial hole that Potter left (it grossed more than any single Potter movie), but we as a nation continue to wait for the Film Franchise Based on Long-ass Kid’s Books that will fill the quality hole that Potter left behind. Maybe The Hunger Games needs to be given the benefit of the doubt, and that they, much like Potter, need a movie to figure this out. Or maybe The Hunger Games was always going to be more similar to Twilight than Potter, knowing that the fanbase will always show up no matter what, so fuck it. Throw something on the screen so we can finish early and do some of those Hollywood designer drugs that all of us Hollywood types are always doing.
The Hunger Games almost immediately establishes itself as one of those movies that is going to rocket through everything, while at the same time seemingly doing or establishing nothing. I have never read the books, but this is a common trait with adaptations, where the screenplay is less about telling a story and more about checking all of the things off of a checklist that they think the fans will demand to see. As a first time Gamer, though, it comes off as very patronizing, not to mention super boring. Long time Gamers already have a built in affection for these characters. I do not. I care nothing for these stupidly-named peasants. And I shouldn’t! Not when I walk into the theater. Why would I? Do it for me, director! Make me care. I know you can’t, buddy. Those statements were all rhetorical.
What makes matters worst is that the movie suffers from what I’ve never called The Act II Shuffle. What does that stupid bullshit mean? It means that if you took all of the scenes from the first act, and all of the scenes from the third act and set them aside, you could shuffle all of the scenes from the second act into any random order, and nothing would change. Basically, everything that happens from the moment they find themselves in the Games, to the moment the producers get bored and create giant dogs out of nowhere to speed things up, nothing consequential happens. Neither the story, or any one particular character arc, progresses in the slightest. It’s a series of tiny little adventures, each one with fewer stakes than the last. There’s rarely, if ever, any stakes involved in anything that happens. Part of that is because I never gave a fuck about anyone. Part of it is that it’s a Last Man Standing game, so I already know who’s going to win right from the first minute of the movie. But the biggest reason that there’s no stakes is that THE AUDIENCE ALREADY READ WHAT WAS GOING TO HAPPEN. They’ve been through the story before. They can’t be surprised, and even if they could, they wouldn’t want it anyway. Fuck me. The filmmakers don’t care about me. I can go watch some artsy-fartsy French film about the shadow of a tree in an empty park. This one’s for the fans.
Ultimately, the one man responsible for taking this mediocrity and making it worse is director Gary Ross. Ross has had varying degrees of success in his past, a past that includes writing and directing Pleasantville, which remains to this day a movie that I will vehemently defend as one of the greatest films of the nineties. Maybe Ross made a bunch of decisions that sunk the movie. Or maybe he was told by a movie studio that he was the most unnecessary person involved on the project, like a thirteen year old babysitting a twelve year old. His job was to sit down, shut up, and imagine that sweet Hunger Games cash that would soon be rolling in. Whatever the situation, somebody decided to shoot this movie with all of the Steadicam shots we were tired of ten years ago, which, whether they meant to or not, is going to date the shit out of this movie ten years from now. Not only are the Steadicam shots poorly done, but they are absolutely without purpose, with some of the Steadicams filming an actionless person talking, and then moving quickly to nothing. Just some ground or some air. It’s as if there was a loud buzzer on the set which, when it would randomly go off, would send the camera guy into a seizure, and add some action to the film.
Before I watched the film, I thought the only thing that would piss me off about it was how much it sounded exactly like Battle Royale. I barely care about that anymore. A remake of Battle Royale could be cool, and there’s enough interesting stuff here, apart from the kids-killing-kids shit, that could have made this at least a compelling counterpart to Battle Royale, if not its own stand-alone thing. Instead, what we got was big budget tripe, made by a bunch of people who probably could have done something interesting, if there wasn’t so god damn much on the line. Maybe next time, guys. Maybe next time.
HAS READ THE BOOKS:
It’s taken me years to stop being a fanboy about the things I love. If a movie was based on an existing thing that I already enjoyed, I would sit in the theater opening night with my arms growing more and more crossed the more the film strayed from the story I knew to be great. As I grow older, and have grown to be a pseudo-successful minor league critic, that tendency has gone away. I can actually start out as a blank slate, not jumping at every chance to become angry if a minute detail was left out or a character cut. For instance, it doesn’t bother me that the Walking Dead TV show changes the storylines from the comics, it bothers me the writing is terrible and those people can’t act for shit. And it bothers me that I will continue to watch the show because I love the comics and zombies that much.
If the original content that is being adapted to film is more complicated than the Giving Tree, things are going to be changed. So much goes on in a book that a single movie just doesn’t have time to deal with it all. Characters get cut, or melded together to streamline the process while less important scenes are left out to give more attention to the moments that affect the momentum of the story. At least that’s what I assume is the driving force behind most changes in an adaptation. At least that’s what I’d like to assume, that all decisions are based on a logical plan and just not a fuck it all free for all change shit just for kicks mentality. But that’s rarely the case. So often you can clearly see the changes that are there to make the film shorter and make sense in the short amount of time the filmmakers have to give the same story that a book has an infinite amount of time to deliver. It’s rare that a movie adaptation holds up to the original source material, but I don’t think that’s a fanboy statement. It’s because the filmmakers are playing a dangerous game and paying attention to the wrong shit.
The first thing to go in almost every adaptation is character development. Those unimportant hang out scenes where the characters are getting to know each other, and the audience is getting to know their interactions and motivations are left on the cutting room floor for time. The crazy thing is, in movies that are based on nothing there is still excellent character development. But how could that be?! How could a movie based on nothing have the time to show intricate relationships between characters or below the surface goings-ons if they still have to get to that big set piece where all the action happens? Because they fucking don’t have to get to anything until they feel like it! We need more based-on movies and less straight adaptations. We need filmmakers to care less about built-in audiences, and more about delivering a cohesive and entertaining product. X-Men 2 was based on one of the best X-Men comics, “God Loves, Man Kills” and it’s also the best of the X-Men movies so far. That’s because they took the ideas put forth in the comics, and changed it to still make sense in the movies. They didn’t rely on preexisting fans to just understand Magneto and the X-Men teaming up is a big deal, they went over it. Hunger Games failed in this aspect over and over again. (expect spoilers to happen below)
One of the biggest failures of the movies was to lose the first person narrative. So much of the conflict in the novels is not just from the Games and the Capitol’s power over the Districts, but Katniss’s internal struggles with literally everything around her. She’s in an interesting protagonist in the books because she’s a socially awkward, untrusting, self-sufficient, selfish girl. Her selfishness comes from the need to survive, and the knowledge that caring about others too much can hinder that. Over the course of the Hunger Games she learns why that’s not always the best, and we get to see the character grow and then we grow closer to her. The biggest internal struggle in the book has to do with Peeta. If you only saw the movie, you have no clue that for the majority of the Games, Katniss is using their faux-romance as a tool to win sponsors and get further in the Games. She fights any real connection, and is torn between growing closer to someone she probably has to kill and memories of Gale her best friend back home (played in the movie by Thor’s younger brother who reads his way through the few scenes he has). That struggle with her feelings about Peeta set up one of the major conflicts that continues through the trilogy, and sets up the love triangle scenario the entire world loves. Without us seeing her thoughts on the two boys, the people behind the movie robbed themselves of a Team Peeta/Team Gale bloodbath that Twilight benefited so much from. Which seems pretty dumb since they obviously want the Hunger Games to fill the spot of both Twilight and Harry Potter. Trying to be both pretty much decided it could only ever be a mediocre film. Another big internal conflict ignored is Katniss’s relationship with Haymitch, her mentor. Woody Harrelson could have beautifully played the drunk, cruel but caring, tortured mentor that Haymitch is in the books. Instead due to scene shortening and staying surface level, Haymitch came off as sort of sarcastic and that’s about it.
All of that is just a microcosm about was wrong with the Hunger Games movie. The filmmakers obviously just wanted to recreate certain scenes they saw as important as they missed the point almost every time. The violence was also curtailed to a point that surprised no one. Yes it’s a PG-13 movie, and yes it’s kids killing kids, but they could have gotten away with more than they did. That was really the only potential to make the movie stand out from its ilk, and the people behind the scenes tried to hard to make it what came before instead of stand alone. In the trend of creating movies based on known franchises, they tried to double down and add the Hunger Games to both the Harry Potter and Twilight series at least in spirit. When it comes down to it, the Hunger Games movie is a paint-by-numbers of what not to do with an adaptation, but that doesn’t matter. I’m not so naïve to say I wish it wasn’t about the money, I just wish it wasn’t ONLY about the money and they still cared about delivering a quality film in the process. What’s worse than the studios doing what they do, is knowing my low opinion is going to anger fans of the book. I’m a huge fan of the book, which is where part of my critique comes from. The people behind the movie not getting what drove the novels. But the majority of my critique comes from being a fan of movies in general, and the Hunger Games was a lazy unambitious film that coasted so much it under-utilized the talented people attached. -MG