I've made it no secret that I am eternally impressed by "The Hunger Games" book series by Suzanne Collins. In fact, all of the dystopian fiction I've consumed since reading this trilogy has been held up against the story of Katniss Everdeen and her rise from poor, starving girl from the backwoods of District 12 to inadvertently inciting a rebellion against the Capitol of Panem. When news came that this series would be made into a movie, my only hope was "Please don't screw it up, Please don't screw it up." And I am happy to report that they did NOT screw it up.
From the trailer, this movie looks like any flashy, showy, big-time summer blockbuster (even though it was released at the beginning of spring - eh, nit-pickiness there). Vivid effects, awesome background music, intense voice-overs - the whole enchilada (oh, and that little issue of playing up the love-triangle that every young adult novel MUST have that is truly only secondary in this story). But the movie opens up with stark white lettering on a black background that briefly describes the point of Panem's Hunger Games. Then, they cut to a seemingly innocuous interview of Seneca Crane (head Gamemaker) conducted by Caesar Flickerman (oh, Caesar Flickerman - how you amuse me so). That part's flashy and self-important - all the smugness that the Capitol has to offer and prides itself on.
And then - cut to the absolutely bloodcurdling scream of a young girl.
District 12 - Katniss Everdeen comforts her little sister, Prim, who is about to endure her first Reaping - where her name is entered for the first time as part of the selection of the Tributes for the Hunger Games. No music, no effects, no flash - just a terrified twelve-year-old girl waking from a nightmare and being reassured by her older sister. That is where "The Hunger Games" works so well - in the emotional, gut-wrenching punch of the premise. And they go for it right from the start.
I'm not going to give a play-by-play account of the movie, but that opening scene struck me very hard. Maybe it's because I have younger sisters and a niece now, but the entire sequence in the lead-up to the actual Reaping was something I won't soon forget. It was so simple in the storytelling - just showing the humble people of District 12 trying to get by with what they have, with a special focus on Katniss and Prim. It makes the moment when Effie Trinket draws Prim's name out of the Reaping bowl so much more. Because we love Prim and we know that Katniss loves Prim and we see how much Prim depends on Katniss for physical needs and emotional support and this is not going to be an easy movie to sit through.
Keep in mind - almost no background music in about the first twenty minutes of this movie. It doesn't need it. At all.
I want to say a few things about the casting of this movie. First of all - whoever got Donald Sutherland to play President Snow needs a bonus. In the books, President Snow is the creepiest, freakiest guy ever (and with all the creepy, freaky stuff in the Capitol, that is saying something) and Sutherland plays him to the hilt. There is a little bit of an attempt at being the kindly grandfather of the Capitol, relishing the festivities surrounding the Games, but underneath that exterior is something cold and menacing - especially toward anyone who mucks about with the Games. You know how Alan Rickman totally owned the role of Professor Snape? Donald Sutherland does the same thing for President Snow.
I also enjoyed the addition of the scenes between Snow and Seneca Crane where Snow berates Crane for certain things that happen in the Games (mostly things that Katniss does out of sheer human decency). Those things didn't happen in the books because the books are 100% told from Katniss' POV, but the movie pulled them off well.
Speaking of additions to the movie - the scene where Haymitch is in the Capitol and sees a boy chasing a girl with a toy sword was wonderful. Because there's a boy in the Hunger Games arena who has a real sword and uses it to cut down other Tributes (even gets Peeta with it at one point). So many things in this movie hearken to a line in the book, after Katniss volunteers to take Prim's place. Speaking of the people of District 12 - "They take the boldest form of dissent they can manage. Silence. Which says we do not agree. We do not condone. All of this is wrong." (The Hunger Games, chapter 2, page 21, Nook version). The Districts may have to take part in the Games, but they don't have to like it. Many of them wish for another way.
Oh yeah - I was talking about casting. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was absolutely fantastic. Of course, Katniss carries the story (being as it is her POV most of the time) and Lawrence is certainly able to do that. She comforts Prim, she stands up to her mother, she mourns Rue (I'll come to that in a minute), and she is certainly a strong person. I've seen her described as a strong female character, which is true, but I don't see the need to denote her gender in this case. If Katniss was a male character, but with similar experiences and personality, I don't think the story would be one bit different. One of my favorite parts was during Katniss' interview - this whole time Katniss is shown as a strong, capable young woman. She's good with a bow and arrow and she doesn't take anyone's crap if she doesn't want to. But she has some little slip-up in the interview where she doesn't hear what Caesar Flickerman asks her and she goes "What?" and the Capitol audience laughs. I loved how that showed that Katniss was still nervous and scared and very unsure of herself, in spite of all the skills she has. That is a realistic character - male or female.
The rest of the cast was good as well, though I was a little miffed that Gale got so little screentime, yet he was one of the top-billed characters in the marketing (again, lame love-triangle - got to put butts in the seats, I guess). Good grief, Rue got more screentime and was a much more memorable character. Granted, Gale will probably have more to do in "Catching Fire," so I can't get too upset. Though, I'm not entirely sure about Peeta yet. Although, this may have more to do with the fact that, at this point in the books, Katniss isn't sure about him either (and by extension, neither is the reader). I did think the cave scenes were done very well, though.
I was going to talk about Rue and her death (yeah, the cute little girl who climbs trees and whistles to mockingjays dies. Sorry). That scene - holy cow, THAT SCENE. If you haven't seen the fan-created film of this scene, go watch it now and come back. I'll wait (yes, yes - Rue in the YouTube video is white when she should be black. Let's all whine, carp and complain about a fan-made clip). While I was seeing the scene in the movie, I did have that video in my head and, truly, I started to cry. Like, actually shaking and sobbing in the movie theater. I knew it was coming, but it still kicked me in the face. And the fact that there was no music in the movie version almost made it worse. Because, let's face it, real life doesn't have a grandiose soundtrack. This was really like watching someone in the real world mourn the death of another person (and Katniss' near-hysterical breakdown a few scenes later did nothing to stop me crying). I also loved that they showed District 11 in riots after Rue's death and Katniss' reaction because it helps to set up what's coming in "Catching Fire." Even though in the book, District 11 thanks Katniss for honoring Rue by sending her bread into the arena and that's one of my favorite scenes from the book, this is a change for the movie that I am okay with.
Few more things:
- It's a good thing I went to a matinee showing and there weren't a whole lot of people in the theater. Because I screamed a rather loud swearword when the muttations came leaping out of the forest at Katniss and Peeta. Then again, I'm pretty sure I wasn't the only one.
- I've seen a few articles about how parents aren't sure about taking their young children to see this movie and how it's too violent. Well, if you're going to take your seven-year-old, what kind of freaky weirdo are you? Seriously, it's got a PG-13 rating for a reason. The books themselves are marketed to teenagers, for crying out loud! That being said, the violence was portrayed in a way that I found to be very tasteful, given the circumstances. Anytime characters get into a fight and die, the movement is so fast that you don't see it. It's like one big blur and then it's over. You do see the Tribute lying dead on the ground and there is quite a bit of blood, but it's not gratuitous (this isn't Braveheart, folks).
- With all the viral marketing and what-have-you, something very vital is missing - why isn't anyone selling mockingjay pins? I have combed the stores and the internet and all I can find are half-assed homemade things on Etsy that really aren't worth it. I don't want a pink wig or a skin dye job like those nutty Capitol people - I just want a freaking little pin!
Bottom Line: Books and movies are two different mediums. What works in one will not do so well in the other. "The Hunger Games" movie kept to the spirit of the book while still telling one of the most compelling stories for young adults I've read in a long time. In fact, when I got home I started reading Catching Fire and I actually saw the actors in the movie in the scenes from the book. I seriously cannot wait to see how the next one turns out.
Bottom-Bottom Line: Book-to-Movie Adaptation: You're Doing It Right.