The Hunger Games Review

The Hunger Games
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland

Superfans be easy. If your barometer for measuring the success of Hollywood’s The Hunger Games adaptation begins and ends with faithfulness to the source material, by all accounts it is one. If you can swing a bit of emotional transference, all the better — I suspect few who enter without a preexisting love for Katniss and Peeta will be moved by their exploits. This $78 million companion piece to Suzanne Collins’ young adult novel isn’t especially concerned with converting the uninitiated; it’s about cashing in on a fertile franchise. Cha-ching!

For the rest of you: Katniss Everdeen is a girl from District 12. In the future, America is divided into 12 districts under a totalitarian government. Once a year, at a grim lottery known as a “reaping,” two adolescents’ names are drawn to represent each district in a televised battle to the death known as The Hunger Games. Katniss, 16, has survived several reapings, but when her younger sister’s name is called, she volunteers to fight in her stead.

Directed by 55-year-old Gary Ross, The Hunger Games isn’t exactly brimming with angst and youthful energy. His craftsmanship is competent, but Ross puts too much pressure on the talent to sell Collins’ world and contributes too little himself. Where’s the scale? The novel pops with aesthetic opportunity, but Ross isn’t visionary enough to really capture our imagination. District 12 is a destitute mining community that counts starvation and black lung among the leading causes of death. Show us that. By skimping on act one atmosphere, the director undermines the comparative splendor of the bizarre and extravagant capitol city.

Ross routinely sabotages the emotional potential of Collins’ story and setting. The reaping in particular lacks narrative punch. Ross adequately animates the flesh of the scene, but as a storyteller he fails to find the soul. On paper, a family is splintered and an act of defiant bravery instigates a Herculean trial. Ross puts the impetus on the audience to feel the weight of that choice — artistically, he renders the scene with all the gravitas of mild indigestion.

And the cast — talented though its constituents may be — often feels curiously misplaced. Kudos to Ross for casting an anti A-lister like Jennifer Lawrence as his lead, but he negates any goodwill with clunky misallocations of more famous folk. Woody Harrelson sticks out like a sore thumb as drunkard slash mentor (in that order) Haymitch Abernathy. Harrelson’s half-hearted take on the character plays like a spacey stoner from a bad SNL sketch. Stanley Tucci and Lenny Kravitz are also underwhelming as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman and stylist Cinna, respectively.

It feels like an eternity before the games actually get underway, and it quickly becomes apparent (this is a criticism consistent with the novel) that any illusion of challenging the preconceptions of preteen storytelling disintegrates. Granted, there’s a bloody death or two, but mostly Katniss gets by with clever alternatives to direct combat — there’s something distinctly Home Alone-ian about watching her drop a hornets’ nest onto her would-be assassins. For Ross’ part, he frames the action just inelegantly enough to obscure any offensive violence.

Ultimately, what works about Hollywood’s The Hunger Games adaptation are the traits intrinsic to the novel. A worthy premise lends a compelling backdrop to a young adult coming-of-age sci-fi romance whatchamacallit — and Ross borrows those ideas wholesale. It’s all there. His is a relatively faithful transcription of the source material, and it’s a shame he does so little to distinguish his version. He fails to replicate the emotional oomph of Collins’ imperfect novel, and expands upon those imperfections with lazy visuals and uneven pacing. After all, when financial success is a certainty, there’s little incentive for a director to think outside the box.

Naturally, my complaints will carry little weight with the Hunger Games superfans, for whom this film was expensively and exclusively realized. If you count yourself among that elite group — read no further. This is your film. Enjoy it. — Colin

SCORE: 2.5 stars

  • I’d never even heard of Hunger Games before I saw the trailer earlier this year, and had no idea it was such a phenom.
    I liked this film. Really liked it. The pacing is terribly uneven, and it’s overlong and baggy, but it’s an interesting multi-faceted satire that carries its cleverness lightly (parallels with everything from the bread and circuses of ancient Rome to the Syrian uprising, taking in apartheid and reality TV on the way. Many ways in which societies can cruelly control or behave to each other are covered). And Jennifer Lawrence is again superb.

  • Goon

    (copy / paste from letterboxd)

    I had a genuinely open mind about this thing. I liked Ross’ Pleasantville, I enjoy Jennifer Lawrence. I even rewatched Winter’s Bone and Battle Royale to get me amped up for this thing this week.

    This is well reviewed? This is going to be massively successful at the box office? Do people need a Twilight alternative so badly that they will embrace this wimpy piece of shit? The script is thoroughly weak, everything feels artificial and stilted, nobody has any chemistry with anyone, it excuses its way out of most of its own violence in some very creatively pathetic ways. Many of its concepts and world-building elements are horribly explained, or not explained at all.

    But Jennifer Lawrence is a star and the sole saving grace of the film, a single blade of grass in a field of Astroturf. She wrestles bad dialogue to the ground and strangles what little life she can out of its sad little frame with subtle facial expressions and the right intonations.

    So celebrate all you will at the prospects Katniss will upend Bella as the teen girl role model of choice. It doesn’t change that this is an objectively bad film, suitable perhaps instead as an teen series for the WB Network…. if only they could afford the effects, costumers, and wasted character actors. The bad line readings, generic teen dreamboats and thorough tonal awkwardness are ready to air.

  • cap

    How is objectively bad film getting north of 80% on rottentomatoes? What the hell does “objectively bad” even mean? And why do I feel that when Goon doesn’t like something it has to automatically go to “I hate this piece of shit so much I want to tear my eyes out”.
    I liked it quite a bit. Didn’t know antything about the book or the film beyond the trailer, but enjoyed myself thoroughly (even though I had some problems with the games portion of it). Lookin forward to the sequels.

  • Even leaving aside the latent misogyny, there’s something desperately embarrassing about grown men who manufacture paroxysms of rage at teen culture touchstones like Twilight. I mean, to a point where you have to conclude that they are genuinely a bit weird in some way.

    What has The Hunger Games got to do with Twilight anyway? Nothing. Oh wait – they’re both popular with females. A-ha…

  • alechs

    @ DavidM

    The media has hyped The Hunger Games as the young adult franchise replacement for Twilight. The validity behind this claim is probably debatable and beyond me but the comparisons have been a general topic when discussing the film.

  • Goon

    “And why do I feel that when Goon doesn’t like something it has to automatically go to “I hate this piece of shit so much I want to tear my eyes out”.” Are you on Letterboxd? Go take a look at my reviews there and tell me you ‘feel’ correctly. Or don’t. Most movies I don’t like, i just shrug ofytf and move on from. If I absolutely hate, I more likely rant, and all you’re paying attention to are the rants.

    “How is objectively bad film getting north of 80% on rottentomatoes?” I don’t know, how does a 45% Rotten Tomato film get nominated for Best Picture? I say objectively bad, because most bad movies.. I can see why people like them. This, I don’t get it at all, because nearly every element of this film is between mediocre to feeble and it doesn’t explore anything in even an “interesting mess” way.

    Okay, so ‘objectively bad’ is the wrong word.. if people are still liking it anyways. but I used the term to mean that unlike other movies I dislike, I believe this is unjustifiable to like. Nothing works beyond an “I guess?” level.

  • Goon

    The only connection to Twilight is that people find out they are both popular teen fiction, and they are seeing a similar audience line up for it, it affects a number of people’s expectactions, and when it is better, and especially when Katniss is such a better role model than Bella, I think it might push more people to lay off it or promote it as a Twilight alternative.

    I am willing to believe the books are good, and I’m sure someone who has read the books might enjoy this more because they can probably carry with them the details and fill in the blanks.

  • cap

    When you go from ‘objectively bad’ to ‘it’s unjustfiable to like it’ it kind of reads the same. It’s still going beyond your opinion into a realm of some undeniable truths. You want me to justify my positive feelings about Hunger Games? I connected with the main character. I liked some of the ideas in the movie (regardless of wheter they are original or not). I felt the tension leading up to the games and was on the edge of my seat when they finally started. I liked some of the action once we got to the games (like the bee scene or the landmines scene). How is all that ‘unjustifiable’? Am I WRONG for liking these things. Are they not there and I just THINK i like them, but really I don’t?

  • Goon

    “Am I WRONG for liking these things.”

    I think your opinion is wrong :P

    I’d prefer for you to expand though rather than just listing what you liked.. why did you feel the tension, why were you on the edge of your seat. i can’t debate if I don’t know your “why”.

    I feel it’s just too damn condensed for its own good. There’s no depth to any of the characters. Sure the leads are appropriately strong willed, but all the other kids are cartoonishly evil or not taking it seriously at all, there’s no build to any of them as threats for a final battle, and no appropriate build to any of the ruling class as people to root against/as oppressors, other than that they dress ridiculously. Threats and gifts show up randomly, problems and injuries are addressed and moved on from immediately.

    It takes itself too seriously to be fun, and its not committed enough to the seroiusness of the event to work as good drama. The violence is whitewashed, every character is glossed over. I can only see connecting to Katniss because Lawrence acts through her expressions more than she does with the absolutely horrid dialogue she is given.

  • cap

    Well it’s kinda tough to explain something that hits you on an emotional level. I think most of that just comes from the main character to me. I felt the tension because I cared about Katniss. And when she was standing in that tube and looked completely terrified I felt that fear too (and even Lenny Kravitz nodding couldnt calm me down… and it usually does). And I was at the edge of my seat because it was very simple and thrilling scene. 24 kids stand next to each other and you know that in couple of seconds they’ll start killing one another. And when they do start killing each other in that vary first sequence it definitely hit me (even with the violence toned down because of the rating).
    Now some of the things you listed I agree with. The ending did feel anticlimactic because of lack of a true villain and the whole dogs thing. And ridiculously dressed upper class of rulers didn’t do anything for me either. But on the other hand I found it refreshing that in the age of over-complicated plots of modern blockbusters Hunger Games stand apart as very simple concept that doesn’t get bogged down with too many supporting characters and subplots. It’s all about Katniss (and to smaller extent Peeta). And I liked that.
    So just to be clear… I had some problems with the movie and it’s definitely not a 4/4 (or 5/5 or whataver system you use). But it was entertaining and engaging. And I’m really curious about the sequels and what the story will be about, since they can’t just use ‘we’ll do the same thing only bigger and better’ template.
    Probably didn’t explain it well enough, but big part of liking/disliking movies goes beyond rational analysis for me. Jennifer Lawrence is hot and I want her to have my babies. There… I said it.

  • Goon

    More later, but for now very strongly encourage watching this video review:

  • Colin

    The video review hits the nail on the head. Mediocre fan service. I also agree with Goon’s points, but the 1/5 rating feels like knee-jerk antagonism.

    My long standing gripe with the Harry Potter films is that they’re borderline incomprehensible to the laymen. Hell, I read the books and still don’t know who half those magical motherfuckers are. A great adaptation stands independently. The Hunger Games isn’t and doesn’t.

  • Goon

    “but the 1/5 rating feels like knee-jerk antagonism.”

    I don’t feel that way. I don’t think the movie did anything right except for Jennifer Lawrence, and I was never entertained during its entire run.

    I only had that incomprehensible problem with Potter in fits and starts, and especially toward the end of the series. The early Potter films are easy to make sense of even if they’re not fantastic. The latter ones for me anyways, get by on a lot more technical points to make up for the stuff that I couldn’t make sense of. If only the Hunger Games had the cinematography of say, Half Blood Prince, I might be willing to score it more points.

    Hunger Games isn’t bad the same way most horrible movies are bad, but I got so little enjoyment out of it I can’t in good conscience rate it any higher.

    I didn’t entirely NOT care about Catscratch Maybelline’s adventures, she’s the only thing that got me through. I think its a shame she just isn’t rewarded with a more fleshed out film and better words to express what is going on behind Lawrence’s eyes. I couldn’t feel the terror of her going into the game, probably because the first act is so particularly bad, I was impatiently waiting for them to hurry up and start killing each other.

  • Goon

    General question:

    If you had the technology and means to create this artificial environment battle dome with computer generated monsters and fireballs… are you going to make it awesome, or are you going to make it look like… some boring old forest. Not even like, the weird forest in Mortal Kombat where Johnny Cage and Scorpion meet, or some forest with monster trees, or a Tim Burton-y looking forest but like… the forest in Vancouver they shot Battlestar Galactica in because they had no money?

    if this is artificial (and I was never quite sure watching the movie if it was or not) what are they eating and drinking? Are those bees actually there? I’m generally confused. The X-Men Danger Room makes more sense compared to this…

  • Colin

    Agreed on the early Potter films being easier to follow. I also agree that that series is shot better. Where I think Hunger Games trumps Potter is in its comparable lack of arbitrary story details and superfluous supporting characters.

    Per your question, Goon, the arena is a real, tangible environment that the game makers have control over in order to force reluctant players into combat. That shit was not very well explained.

  • Goon

    I’ve had the audiobook of this for almost 6 months now but never listened to it. Ironically despite hating the movie I’m very curious to listen now to find out what is going on.

  • Goon

    “comparable lack of arbitrary story details ”

    I guess “comparable” is the watchword. A lot of Hunger Games feels pretty random. I can’t believe an event like this would ever be bet on with odds on favorites, with all that goes on and all the outside interference and gifts. Do people bet on Survivor or Apprentice?

  • Goon

    “Per your question, Goon, the arena is a real, tangible environment that the game makers have control over in order to force reluctant players into combat. That shit was not very well explained.”

    Listening to the audiobook, it’s saying that the arena is real, but sometimes its a desert, sometimes its an arctic wasteland…

  • Colin

    The arena is physically relocated every year, at least that was my understanding.

  • This movie should have been rated R. Not so they could just add more blood, but if they showed the death scenes it would be more heart wrenching and you would feel for the characters more.

  • anonymiss

    classic goon. :-) i mean that in a good way, he takes up causes like it’s his job

  • HerlyGirl

    I read the books, and I am sad to see this review, but very glad for it at the same time. I feel this might be the most honest review I have read so far, thank you.

    The books had plotholes and spelling mistakes – just like most teenie bopper novels do. What the books were good for is showing a dystopian futuristic society while making subtle comments on the WAY people are – when did Twilight EVER do anything of the sort?

    I was scared for this movie – and am sad to hear they didn’t focus on the differences between District 12 and the Captial, but that’s Hollywood skip the real commentary and turn it into an action-romance teenie-bopper flick that will make as much money as possible – instead of trying to teach everyone about greed, hunger, power and deceit.

    There was a lot of opportunity for some real creativeness especially with costumes and sets – guess I will have to wait until I see the Movie on Tuesday before I can agree that this was neglected

  • HerlyGirl

    PS Goon, people actually do bet on Survivor – I’ve heard of lots of Survivor Pools!

  • areader

    As a reader I was up in the air about seeing this movie I saw the trailer and didn’t know if they could do a good job with it. I went anyways, and since my expectation went through the roof it I liked it. Yeah it was very uneven paced and some pretty lame visuals and very lame killing scenes. With all the said I would love to see a sequel with a better director and see where the can really take this movie. Sad it started out half ass

  • Gary Ross really dropped the ball.

    From a stylistic standpoint it’s interesting to see the Prometheus trailer before The Hunger Games – talk about wetting your design appetite and being let down. Ross’s lead on art direction is a complete confusion; a mixture of styles from different levels of tech. and films. You have guards straight out of THX 1138 and a virtual command center out of Avatar (or Apple store). You combine this with steam-punk use of microphones, trains, costumes and stagecraft that looks leftover from the latest Battlestar Galactica series and it is all just visual throw-up. (The architecture of the capital city was restrained to the point of being uninspiring.)

    Ross fights with himself over the time spent pre-games and doesn’t fully commit to a solution hinted at in the actual film. Ross decided to put the baker’s son/ bread toss scene in flashbacks (key in book and story to establishing the lead’s relationship), yet if he would have done a more non linear story he would of been able to develop more effective interpersonal relationships while getting the games started earlier! A bolder director, and film team, would have cut the book up and used more developed scenes of pre-game moments to strength Katniss journey in the games themselves. It is so simple, allow Katniss’s questioning / learning during the games lead us to scenes of her hunting with Gale, getting bread from Pieta, dealing with hunger from her days as a young scavenger. Basically, I feel the filmmakers took a “PRETEEN film direction approach” and this decision handcuffed them in dealing with the clock.

    As a filmaker your first task is identifying what works on the page and what works on the screen – Ross should know better.

  • “Ross fights with himself over the time spent pre-games” visual evidence of this is the uncomfortable, unusual gait of the horse drawn chariot scene were the tributes are introduced. You can tell they knew this was an important scene but fought with themselves over the speed of the horses. (I bet they edited that scene 50 times against the clock but never against what is natural and dramatic) The final product is neither here nor there, just wrong, no one wins.

  • Vikke_AJ

    Hunger Games was a total waste of time. Uninspired is a good word to cover the whole film. From acting and story to the set design, the whole movie (just like so many films nowadays) felt so generic. It’s boring just to talk about it. I really don’t get the glowing reviews I’ve seen… another reason to disregard most of the “professional” reviewers.

  • Goon

    “classic goon. :-) i mean that in a good way, he takes up causes like it’s his job”

    hahahaha thanks :P Truth telling is its own reward.

    I finished the audio book. it’s a nitpickers dream come true but its also pretty good. I can see why it caught people.

  • Goon

    Tiny nitpick for both the book and the movie that bugs me:

    All these districts have been known as “District 5″, etc, for a very long time. They should have actual names, at least unofficial ones. With time any society known as “District 11″ would adopt some casual name for itself, whether it be “New Freeland” or “Bonerville”, still better than District 11.

  • oli s

    *13 districts… Get it right X_X

  • Amya

    READ PLEASE!! PEOPLE this is one of the GREASTEST MOVIES!! dont believe the BAD reviews.(IM MOCKING THE PEOPLE)OH THIS WAS A BAD MOVIE. WELL this was a GREAT COOL MOVIE!! IM a 11 year old and i dont need to tell people to GROW UP you CANT turn a book exactly to a MOVIE So people Grow up. THIS WAS A GREAT MOVIE!!!! TEAM PEETA!!!!