I never got into the Harry Potter phenomenon, either by reading the books or watching the movies. I never read any of the Twilight books, and only saw two of the movies when they were being made fun of by Austin’s Master Pancake Theater comedy troupe. And even though I saw all of the Lord of the Rings films, I didn’t really find them particularly enjoyable. But I can’t deny that I’ve read all three of the books in The Hunger Games series, or that I went to the first film’s midnight opening (along with virtually every teenage girl in the city). Unfortunately, although I went in with cautious optimism, I left with a little disappointment.
About seventy-five years ago, the nation of Panem was divided into thirteen districts and a capital city. But when the districts rebelled against the capital, a nasty war broke out and when the dust cleared the capital emerged the victor. District 13 had been completely destroyed, and the remaining twelve were subject to even greater hardship than they had known in the past. Most people are just barely able to scrape by, and it’s driven young Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) to supplement her family’s meager rations by venturing out into the forbidden territory beyond her District 12 border to engage in illegal hunting.
As a reminder of and punishment for their insolence, each year the capital puts on a brutal sporting event they call The Hunger Games. Each of the districts is required to supply one boy and one girl to be placed into a dangerous arena filled with all kinds of nasty creatures and deadly traps, and they are compelled to fight to the death using capital-supplied weapons and their own strength and ingenuity. These “tributes” are usually selected at a raffle called The Reaping, but when her sister Prim’s name was called, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) was the boy who was chosen, and because no one offered to take his place, he would be accompanying Katniss to the capital before being sent into battle.
It would be difficult for any film to live up to the anticipation generated around The Hunger Games, but certainly this one could have made a better attempt than it did. Since it’s based on a novel targeted toward the young adult audience (although I know many not-so-young adults who’ve also read it), it makes sense that the film has a PG-13 rating, but it’s also unfortunate because it means that the time spent in the arena is much less satisfying than it could have been, and it never approaches the brutality contained in the R-rated Japanese kids-killing-kids-in-an-arena movie Battle Royale. But surprisingly, it also really plays down the romantic aspects of the time Katniss and Peeta spent in the arena, and I’d expect the teen girls would’ve eaten that up.
The disappointment of what happens in the arena is matched by what happens before that. The film is just over 140 minutes long, but we don’t even see the arena until 70 minutes in, and that creates some serious pacing problems. If you’ve read the book, then you’ll find that you’re spending most of your time waiting for what you already know is coming, and then when it arrives, it’s not quite as good as you’d imagined it. The camera operator for the opening scenes in District 12 apparently suffers from some kind of neurological disorder because they couldn’t have been any shakier if they’d been filmed from aboard a small boat on rough seas. Fortunately, they managed to find a steadicam about the time that contestants boarded the train for the capital, so we don’t have to watch the whole movie that way, but if you’re susceptible to motion sickness, then some Dramamine might be a good precautionary measure.
There are plenty of other problems with the movie. There are a lot of times in which they deviate from the book for no good reason and without making any improvement to the source material (e.g., the explanation of how Katniss got the mockingjay pin). There are also elements of the story that you’ll understand if you’ve read the books, but that are kind of left unexplored in the film adaptation. Even something as basic as the name of one of the significant characters in the first half (Effie Trinket, as portrayed by Elizabeth Banks) is completely omitted. The climax isn’t nearly as climactic in the movie as the book, and many elements are much better left to the imagination than to have them shown to you.
If you saw and enjoyed The Hunger Games movie before reading the book, then the book will probably make it even better for you. On the other hand, if you’ve got the book fresh in your mind, then you might be better off skipping the film because it’s just not going to live up to what you imagined for yourself. And if you want more gore and less teen angst, then check out Battle Royale.