What’s the Story?
In a distopian future, each of the twelve districts of Panem (America) must give up one male and one female “tribute” to fight to the death for the amusement of all. Twenty-four kids enter, only one leaves. From the shitty District Twelve, Katniss and Peeta get to go to the Capitol, train, and fight in the Hunger Games.
What’s the Problem?
Quite little. This is an adaptation of the book (which I’ve read, which will colour this review), and on the whole it did an excellent job of conveying what was in the book: the crappy districts, the opulence of the Capitol, the bullshit reality TV interviews, the brutality of the Games, etc.
Setting up District Twelve
That said, they spend a long time in both book and film setting up Katniss in the forest at the start when, really, we want to get to the arena already. As it turns out, there’s a bunch of stuff before the arena that’s important and worthwhile; it’s just that none of it is in District Twelve. All we need to know is: this place mines coal. It’s shit to live there. You could do that with a couple of establishing shots.
It might also help if your supposed-to-be-plain-looking girl was actually plain looking to start. You know, mess her hair up, smear dirt on her. Then tidy her up for the wow-factor when she reaches the Capitol.
Also, at the start of the film they love the Jason Bourne shaky-cam. Maybe it’s supposed to be gritty and real or something – that’s what people usually use it for – but it doesn’t work here because it’s so damned shaky. As in, I couldn’t tell what the camera was pointed at half the time. This isn’t during battle or anything, either – this is Katniss walking down a street. There’s no reason for the camera to shake that much. It’s not like the cameraman is running to keep up. It’s not like there’s action and he’s trying to capture it all. It’s a simple shot.
To be fair, I think it gets better once they go to the Capitol. Maybe that was the plan – that the camerawork was awful in D12 but smooth and lovely in the Capitol to show the difference. Thing is, the differences are obvious anyway, and probably would be more obvious if you could actually see what was in D12.
I think in the book they’re called muttations – creepy mutant versions of animals that the Capitol loves to throw together. In the book, they’re some cat-dog hybrid with the eyes of the dead Tributes (leading to questions like, “Did they take the brains or the bodies of the dead tributes and clone them, then put them in these weird cat-dog beasts?”).
In the film, they’re bulldogs with squinty eyes.
In neither medium are they really useful. The Games were already wrapping up; you didn’t need beasts to convince the heroes to go in for the final confrontation. The beasts are good psychological warfare from the Capitol in the book because it shows you how messed up they are, but in the film they’re just bad CGI monsters that serve no purpose.
It Works Better as a Book
Okay, this sounds like a poor reason to dislike a film. Heck, I like films. But in this case, the story works better as a book for the pure reason that it takes longer. You spend longer with Katniss in the Games and have more time to wonder about what will happen next, who’ll die next. You get a better feeling of isolation and lonliness, a greater sense that death could come from anywhere at any time.
In a film, you just keep waiting for the next action setpiece. You become impatient for the next fight, whereas in the book you want Katniss to avoid the next fight because you’re more invested in her plight; you’ve had more time to wonder, “What would I do if that were me?” You don’t have that in a film.
What’s the Solution?
I honestly think that the Hunger Games would have been brilliant as a six-part miniseries. It would have to be straight-to-TV, obviously, but the episodic structure would give audiences more time to identify with Katniss and talk about what they would do. The first couple of episodes would be getting to the Hunger Games and training, and the last couple would be the Games themselves.
I can’t recall an adaptation this faithful since Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – damn near every scene in the book is here; all of the important information is here; and the film itself is a good’un. While some aspects aren’t explained that well in the film (what, for instance, is a mockingjay?), they aren’t vital to the plot so it’s okay. The film is like a pared-down version of the book and while it’s not as tense (owing to the medium, not the film), it’s worthwhile.