The first Living in Cinema rule for literary adaptations, also known as The Da Vinci Code Rule, says that a movie shouldn’t feel like it takes longer to watch than the book upon which it is based took to read. Clocking in at almost 2 1/2 hours and feeling even longer, The Hunger Games is kind of a bust by that measure. On the other hand, the movie version is in many ways a modest improvement over Suzanne Collins’ nothing of a novel. On balance, the movie is adequate. Unless they have wildly different visions of the characters in their heads, fans of the novel should be pleased since, if anything, the movie is mostly faithful to a deadly fault.

In the unspecified future, the land once known as North America has been divided up into 12 districts surrounding a Capitol located somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. There used to be 13 districts, but one was destroyed during a nationwide rebellion that was ultimately crushed by the well-protected Capitol. As a punishment and as a regular reminder of their defeat, each year the remaining districts are required to offer up one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 as chosen by lottery. The 24 Tributes are then gathered in a gigantic, natural-seeming but carefully orchestrated arena for The Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death which only ends when there is one survivor left.

Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class) stars as 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen who lives in rural coal mining District 12 with her mother and her 12-year-old sister Primrose. When Prim is selected by the lottery, Katniss offers herself up as a volunteer in Prim’s place. Josh Hutcherson (Bridge to Terabithia, The Kids Are All Right) meanwhile plays baker’s son Peeta Mellark, Katniss’ District 12 co-competitor.

Lawrence is solid as Katniss, giving life to a character who isn’t very well defined in the book. As a writer, Collins has some good ideas but her execution is largely colorless and flavorless. Luckily Lawrence saves the day with her own natural charisma. Given little to do, she floundered somewhat in X-Men: First Class, but as Katniss she is compelling and sympathetic.

Hutcherson isn’t so lucky. As written in the book, Peeta is supposed to be naturally charming and likable, but in the film he’s dull and characterless and there is zero chemistry between him and Katniss. This renders large swaths of the film something of a slog.

In supporting roles, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci are all suitably colorful and they go a long way toward filling in the blanks left by the mostly bland teen contestants. It’s too bad they’re not on screen more.

By far the film’s biggest problem is the irritating cinematography. They went for jittery and hand-held in an effort to lend urgency to what’s happening on screen, but it just calls attention to itself and distracts from the few moments of drama that actually work. The action sequences which should be thrilling are instead disjointed, confusing and over all too quickly. There is one good bit (as in the book) involving a nest of wasps, but the other action scenes are mostly unmemorable

The things that worked well in the book, generally work well in the film. There are some genuinely moving moments, particularly the sequences between Katniss and Rue, a little girl from another district whom Katniss protects. This was the strongest part of the book even if it was all too brief and the movie would’ve benefited from milking this relationship a little more.

Meanwhile, some of the weaknesses in the book are patched up, but a couple of deadly ones are carried forward intact. There are a couple of twists involving mid-game rule changes that serve the plot and heighten the drama, but they don’t make a lot of rational sense. The film handles the twists more gracefully than the book, but they’re still awkward and silly.

It’s true, I’m not at all the target audience for this film, but I really went in with the best of intentions and modest expectations. Maybe if I hadn’t just read the book last weekend, the screen version might’ve felt more fresh and exciting. As it is, The Hunger Games just seems like a perfunctory cash-in on a popular young adult novel. It doesn’t detract from the original, but neither does it add much. The raw material is there for something truly exciting, but it’s never taken advantage of. Maybe the story catches fire in the 2nd or 3rd parts, but I doubt I’ll be around to find out.

11 Responses to “The Hunger Games (2012)”

  1. Good to see I’m not the only one who didn’t loved THG.

    i saw it on Thursday. I thought it was good, but not all that great and engaging as most people and critics are saying THG is.

    BTW, no praise for Lenny Kravitz as Cinna? Dude was pretty good for the few minutes of screentime he had.

  2. And unlike Rodrigo I think it was every bit as good as most of the others are saying it is. Like Craig, I am surely not the “target audience” of the film (and book) yet I was mostly riveted by the intelligent script, the Orwellian dystopia that is magnificently visualized by the stunning set design, and intricate emotional underpinning that smartly intrudes on this study of an out-of-control media and political oppression. I did NOT read the book, but was coached before and after by my friend and movie colleague Broadway Bob, who read all three books and appraised me of the changes, including the big one at the end. Without mentioning it, I’d say Ross and company made the right decision. Lawrence conveys the right kind of transparency and Stanley Tucci is particular superb among the supporting players. There are admittedly a few seeming plot holes that seem to assume that everyone who walked in the theatre has already read the books, but there is ample detail and the futuristic canvas is exceptionally vivid. The pacing is quite effective, and a lengthy running time flies by, assisted in large measure by some stunning set pieces. Composer James Newton Howard does his best work in years. In the end, it’s the emotional element that grabs you by the throat.

    I understand that this film will not appeal to everyone, and I respect that. My view here is a singular one, though I enjoyed the especially rare instance where my wife, Broadway Bob and every one of my five kids were as smitten with the film as I was. Now I feel like I must read the book. My going-on-sixteen-year-old eldest daughter Melanie asked that I get a copy for her this week.

    Broadway Bob is claiming the second book is nearly as good as the first, and that the third one is a misfire. Ha!

    **** 1/2

    Anyway, as always you pull no punches in your less-than-stellar reviews with the precision and persuasiveness of a lawyer, and I’m sure there are more than a few out there who share your disdain.

  3. Rodrigo, Kravitz was ok, but he wasn’t given enough to do. Cinna was one of the more interesting characters in the book and it would’ve been nice to see him more.

    All I can say Sam is to repeat that maybe it was a mistake for me to read the book last weekend. The satire of reality shows taken to an extreme felt old and tired and uninspired. In the book, they make a much bigger issue about class and how the poor districts are basically just fodder for the richer ones. This subtly echoes the current state of affairs where our volunteer army is disproportionately populated by the lower classes. The movie touched on this, but only a little and it’s a regrettable oversight. There was a clear and obvious distinction between the people of the capitol and the districts, but not between the districts themselves which were indistinguishable one from another.

    I didn’t care for the production design either. It seemed cheap and made up and not at all organic.

    The more I think about it too, this is essentially a dark, gritty story and it does not benefit at all from the PG-13 scrubbing. The necessary violence seemed almost inconsequential. I’m not saying it needed to be a bloodbath or an orgy of violence, and I understand the rating suits the target audience, but it felt kind of cavalier and slight.

    Though I certainly don’t hate the movie, I have to admit I’m pretty much at a lost to understand how anyone could have any enthusiasm for it at all, especially if they aren’t hard core fans of the book. Having said that, I’m glad you enjoyed it the way others seem to.

  4. I’d have to disagree with Bob about the books, Sam. I love the whole series but I think “Catching Fire” is perhaps the weakest of the three as it has a bit of a been there done that feel by having yet another Hunger Games. The third, however, is a whole different animal, and is all the better for it. The ending is killer, and not at all what you would expect. Collins really takes the series in unexpected directions.

  5. I don’t doubt it Mathhew. Bob can be a bit dismissive at times, and I’ve heard glowing reports from others. I do hopeI can read these.

  6. I finally got to see this film and tend to agree with Sam, although I acknowledge some imperfections, most notably — like Craig — the cinematography and, by implication, action sequences that seemed to cry out for better direction. The art direction/costumes worked for me.

    I’ll acknowledge that the script could’ve been improved upon, but in the end it’s still good entertainment with a message that resonates. The performances are good, particularly Lawrence, who shows she has chops, particularly in the early, less action-oriented scenes.

    Woody Harrelson did well in his role, as did others, but it’s Stanley Tucci that once again shows his talent and versatility. That boy is gonna get an Oscar someday soon.

    The Hutcherson love interest didn’t bowl me over, but I suspect a casting decision was made to have Lawrence’s character definitely the stronger of the two. Lenny Kravitz was especially enjoyable in closeup with his silver mascara clearly evident.

  7. I’m being a little hard on Hunger Games, I think. Somehow my expectations were raised by the widely positive reviews and it did not meet them. It’s far from terrible however and there were many things to like about it. It improved on the book in some ways, but also eliminated a lot of interesting details that made the book readable.

    I liked Lawrence and Tucci and Kravitz and Harrelson and Banks. I wish some of the other key characters had been more interesting.

    At any rate, this does a nice job of setting up the next film which has potential to be better from what I’ve heard of the book.

  8. I think of Hunger Games as a movie – not a film. Somehow it’s easier to like it that way.

  9. It’s like the book is a book, not literature. And I probably would’ve been totally fine with the movie-notta-film if I hadn’t just read the book-not-literature

  10. Where is Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind when you need it?

  11. It’s called Maker’s Mark

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