So, I joined the throngs of people this weekend who packed into movie theaters around the country to watch Katniss Everdeen, she of the fiery-lady fame, open up a can of whoop-ass on her fellow Hunger Games tributes, and pull in the third-highest opening weekend ever. ($155,000,000!) My pre-movie concerns were thankfully in vain, and while the adaptation was not perfect, it was deft, faithful and pretty darn enjoyable.
There aren’t spoilers here for anyone who has read The Hunger Games, but if you haven’t read the book or seen the movie, consider yourself warned.
First and foremost: Jennifer Lawrence was cast perfectly. From her emotional Reaping scenes to her fight scenes with her fellow tributes, she has the multi-faceted talent needed to successfully bring Katniss to the big screen. I’m relatively certain that every person who left the theater this weekend was either in love with her or just desperately wanted to be as cool as her, which is a feat in itself, considering Katniss is not exactly the most likable character ever written. Lawrence carried the film on her shoulders, and never had any major missteps. Her scenes with Rue, Prim and Peeta all carried the emotional weight and gravity they needed, and I think she did a wonderful job embodying Katniss’s complex feelings about the Games in the interview and training sequences. It doesn’t hurt that the woman looks fantastic with a bow and arrow. (This isn’t to say that I didn’t approve of Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Gale; they both did a fine job, but the film was Lawrence’s for the taking, and take she did.)
Relatedly, the supporting cast of the film was strong, particularly Elizabeth Banks as the Capitol PR maven Effie and Stanley Tucci as Games host Caesar Flickerman. Both of them brought levels to their respective characters that I wasn’t expecting at all; Banks made Effie into the perfect mix of semi-villainous comic relief and deeply-buried humanity, and Tucci nailed Caesar’s charisma. (And those teeth. My gosh, I couldn’t ever look away from his massive white, prosthetic teeth. They had a life of their own.) Additionally, Donald Sutherland as President Snow spoke volumes with his limited screen time, though I do feel that Wes Bentley’s performance as Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane was overshadowed by his immaculately-styled facial hair. Props to non-actor Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, too.
Honestly, the supporting cast was great right down to Katniss and Peeta’s fellow Hunger Games tributes. Cato (Alexander Ludwig) was appropriately menacing and brutal while Rue (Amandla Stenberg) yanked on viewers’ heartstrings until they nearly broke. All this to say: kudos to the casting director/team for the film; they did an excellent job.
My favorite sequences from the film were the Reaping, due mainly to Lawrence’s ballsy performance and the delightful lack of background music (I liked that the filmmakers didn’t use music to get me to feel what they wanted me to; rather, I was left to my own feelings and not spoon-fed), Rue’s death and subsequent funeral (Jennifer Lawrence can not only cry convincingly, but she has that rare gift of being a beautiful crier) and the aftermath of Katniss blowing up the Careers’ food supply. The high-pitched ringing that dominated the soundtrack, along with the fuzzy audio afterward was an extremely smart touch; Katniss has gone temporarily deaf, but the audience doesn’t need told.
In terms of the film itself, I think that the director, Gary Ross, treated the material with the appropriate amount of reverence reserved for a blockbuster young-adult literature series, and his choices kept the movie in the dark territory it belonged. It’s not like The Hunger Games is a bright, cheerful little book, and thankfully, the movie didn’t pretend it was. The fight scenes were brutal, particularly the bloodbath that opens the Games and Cato’s swift killing of the District 3 tribute who was guarding the Careers’ supplies. In the same breath, the movie did tone down some of the more extreme violence from the novel, but if that hadn’t happened, the film would have been guaranteed an R rating, so I’m fine with the level of violence.
The movie also thankfully kept Gale’s screen time to a minimum, another of my major concerns. There was talk about adding a mini-storyline for Gale, as per this article, but thankfully that idea was nixed. Gale plays a much bigger role in the next two books, so it’s not like Hemsworth won’t be earning his pay. Another concern I had with the film was how they were going to tackle Katniss’s long internal monologues. (Thankfully, they didn’t use voiceover; we all know how terribly that can go.) While the film’s creative team was at a definite disadvantage, adapting a first-person novel where the narrator is excessively in her own head, they did a good job with what they had, opting to use subtle score and cinematography choices to relate Katniss’s thoughts in more abstract fashion.
A benefit to adapting Collins’ novel, though, was that the piece was never overly detailed. The Capitol, for instance, is described, but only in relatively vague terms, allowing the filmmakers the leeway to let their imaginations run wild and free, crafting gorgeous CGI-ed set pieces for the chariot parade and the Gamemakers’ control room. (Relatedly, I loved the opportunity to see what the Gamemakers were doing and saying while Katniss was in the arena. Since the novel is first-person, readers never got the chance to see that, and the movie is better for it.)
Some negatives: the ending was a bit rushed, especially considering the amount of time spent on Katniss and Peeta’s pre-Games activities, and some of the dialogue could have been massaged into not sounding quite so cheesy. (Ah, who am I kidding? It’s a young-adult dystopian romance novel; it’s practically built on cheese.) I also wished that the generic wolf muttations from the end of the movie would have retained the inherent creepiness of their book counterparts, those intelligent wolf-things that walk on two legs, have flexible wrists and possess the eyes of dead tributes. But for the most part, the film was a solid adaptation of a much-loved book, a feat much easier said than done. Though I am not really a fan of the next two books in the series, I am excited to see what this team can do in the future.