‘The Hunger Games’ Off to A Pedestrian Start

by Eric Melin on March 23, 2012

in Reviews,Video Reviews

This review originally appeared in shorter form on KSNT-NBC, KTKA-ABC, and KTMJ-FOX, Kansas First News.

the-hunger-games-movie-poster-2012The young-adult book series by Suzanne Collins that has taken the country by storm gets its first movie adaptation as The Hunger Games hits theaters this weekend.

Jennifer Lawrence headlines The Hunger Games playing Katniss Everdeen, a young girl from a poor coal-mining district somewhere in North America in the near future. (The nation is called Panem.) She is one of 24 children forced to fight each other to the death in a wilderness combat zone manipulated by the wealthy ruling class. It started as a punishment for a quashed rebellion 75 years prior, but now the annual Hunger Games are a country-wide spectacle, watched by all on TV. Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta Mellark, the boy from her district who is chosen and forms a kind of alliance with her during the game.

Although the movie does an impressive job setting up the complicated premise and background of Lawrence’s character, The Hunger Games is not as smart of a satire as it thinks it is. Certainly it has a PG-13 rating to consider so it can’t be as dark and sadistic as the controversial Japanese sensation  Battle Royale, but even the little-known Series 7: The Contenders had more to say in 2001 about the sickening depths to which people will sink for reality TV. (It also has a way more satisfying ending.)

The Hunger Games is 142 minutes long and at times it feels every bit of it. I had a similar experience watching this as I did watching the Harry Potter series, having not read those books either. Sometimes it feels as if you are seeing the Cliff’s Notes version.

the-hunger-games-tucci-lawrence-2012What is the most intriguing about The Hunger Games is how cartoonish the ruling class is portrayed with their garish, brightly-colored outfits and wigs (Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci have some hilariously memorable coiffs) and their ridiculously ornate facial-hair stylings (Wes Bentley brings the word “flaming” to a new level with his endlessly curling beard). Meanwhile, the poor people of District 12 look like they walked straight out of a Dorothea Lange photo essay.

This overt characterization creates problems on both sides. The uber-rich games announcers played by Tucci and Toby Jones get to have all kinds of fun hamming it up — and its so over the top that its funny just watching them do it — but when some of them have soften up a bit (like Banks and Woody Harrelson‘s turn-on-a-dime alcoholic mentor character), it isn’t believable at all. And because the movie doesn’t really have the time to go into how exactly Panem oppresses its people, the psychological hold that President Snow (Donald Sutherland) has over everybody isn’t elucidated. This creates problems for our heroes because it would seem they have nothing to lose but their lives (which I was told by a fan of the book is not true).

the-hunger-games-elizabeth-banks-jennifer-lawrence-2012As much as director Gary Ross sticks with the strategy of giving the audience Katniss’ POV almost exclusively, you would think that some of the survival scenes would hold more punch. Considering its  Most Dangerous Game-like premise, there are a whole host of moral dilemmas and frightening possibilities not explored in The Hunger Games. Maybe breaking POV once in a while to give us some scenes with the other contestants (dubbed “tributes”) would have deepened our connection with Katniss and made the other teens’ deaths more strongly felt.

One particularly hallucinogenic moment, however, is delivered quite effectively in cinematic terms., as Katniss temporarily loses touch with reality. Also, since Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss pretty close to the chest, it is interesting to guess her motives at any given moment.

josh-hutcherson-jennifer-lawrence-the-hunger-games-2012The art direction and costumes do a lot to tell the story, and Lawrence is very good as the tough-as-nails heroine, but for all of its life-or-death situations, unfortunately, the movie isn’t really all that tense.

The tyrants who run the games can’t even agree on the rules. Changing them is supposed to deliver more dread and higher stakes, but at times it seems like one too many easy-way outs for the characters. Are we supposed to believe that in 74 years, nobody else forced to play this game ever rebelled in this way?

Ultimately, The Hunger Games is not a bad film, just a fairly bland one. Maybe The Hunger Games series will deepen with further adaptations, but the series is off to a pretty pedestrian start.

Eric is the Editor-in-Chief of Scene-Stealers.com and writes the Screen Stealers column for The Pitch. He’s President of the KCFCC, and drummer for The Dead Girls and Ultimate Fakebook. He is also Air Guitar World Champion Mean Melin. Eric goes to 11. Follow him at:

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{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

1 jillian March 23, 2012 at 4:09 am

Ive read the series and agree in the fact that they failed to make more sense for non-readers that see the movie making it disappointing for readers also. There were major details and deeper stories behind the characters changed or missing in the movie, and in my opinion some extremely irrelevant things added/ left in. For instance the things you mentioned like the capital is over the top (it actually wasn’t as mmuch as in the book), the control over the districts and why/how nobody revolted, and the turning points/personalities could’ve easily made sense if they hadnt left out crucial details, characters, and background info.i bet you had no idea gails dad dies with katniss’s, or that her and gail were sort of a thing and she feels exttemely torn between the two!

All in all, I just think that for the movie being almost two and half hrs.long.they could’ve done a much better job with depth, and if they can’t then they should consider splitting the.next 2 books in half esp since they’re even longer and kore detailed.

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2 Eric Melin March 23, 2012 at 3:52 pm

Thanks, Jillian. It’s nice to know that the movie not working isn’t completely based on whether you’ve read the book or not. I think maybe this series should have been adapted as a TV show, where they have more time for greater detail and are able to meter it out as needed episode by episode when that particular theme comes up organically.

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3 Brownie Points March 23, 2012 at 7:54 am

Couldn’t agree more. This series is a bunch of kids drama. I’m in my late teens, but I hate it when people go out and watch these types of mass produced movies and think that it’s the greatest thing ever made. I have read way too many books that are the exact same idea as this.

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4 Nate March 23, 2012 at 8:24 am

Actually, if you read the books, someone has rebelled in a way like this. The second book describes how Haymitch won his Hunger games and how he used a mistake by the capitol to his advantage. maybe you should do some more research. Theres going to be three more movies. They decided to use the first movie to set up the next three extremely well.

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5 Eric Melin March 23, 2012 at 10:37 am

Nate- I appreciate your comment, but I shouldn’t have to read any/all the books in this series to have enjoyed it. It’s a failure on the part of the storytelling that that the film doesn’t stand up on its own.

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6 Nina April 15, 2012 at 2:16 pm

I agree. I shouldn’t have to have read the books to enjoy a movie. It just so happens that this time I hadn’t read the book before seeing the movie (my ideal scenario as the movie often pales to the written word). I hate to bring it up but the lack of storytelling is what made ‘The Passion of Christ’ a major fail in my book. If you weren’t familiar with the story the movie made little sense. A movie is a visual story and they should assume so when adapting anything or there will be no empathy or suspension of disbelief. You are so right in saying that the movie felt like it was a ‘cliff note’ of the book. You should never have to read the book to understand the movie.

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7 ScottMichael March 23, 2012 at 10:50 am

Words nearly fail to describe how ignorant this review is (and I haven’t seen the film yet – will in a few hours). Obviously you have not read the books. The Capitol and residents are beyond cartoonish. That is part of the message. It is part of the not-so-subtle dichotomy between the Capitol and the rest of the country. Why they have an iron fist – if you were to read the book, the one District that tried was leveled and completely destroyed. Fear is the main focus and lesson of this trilogy.

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8 Eric Melin March 23, 2012 at 3:50 pm

See comment above. I love that you called my review ignorant and you haven’t seen the movie yet–classic!

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9 Jimmy March 24, 2012 at 12:41 am

Being a Harry Potter fan, I sympathize with those that didn’t have the same satisfaction as I did when seeing the movies. Looking at you Eric. ;) I appreciated what the HP movies did: attempted to relate the same feelings and story that the author penned. But I don’t think that I should put in extra work (reading a 3 volume series) to be able to enjoy the movie. I don’t expect the same for non-HP readers. If they didn’t like them, fine whatever. But I didn’t knock them because they didn’t understand certain plot points that weren’t properly represented in the movie. It’s not their fault, it’s the movie-makers’ fault.

No, haven’t seen Hunger Games yet. Too much hype and crowded theaters. I can wait. Just wanted to make the point that movie viewers have to separate the books from the movies. And if one is weaker than the other (what happens in most cases) than it’s unfortunate for those fans that aren’t sharing their same joy.

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10 Eric Melin March 26, 2012 at 3:03 pm

Jimmy- Thanks for the comment–curious to see what you think when you finally see it!

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11 Josh March 26, 2012 at 10:05 am

I find it funny that normally the tables are turned. When someone has read the books and then watches the movie adaption they tend to be all, “I like the books way better. This movie sucks. Wah.” But in this case, the book readers seem to be the ones defending the movie. It really must say something about the film-making. If you are haven’t trouble grasping the full spectrum of the story, I can see why you wouldn’t like it. And while i thought your review was a little heavy handed, I’ll have to take it with a grain of salt. Because the guy next to me fell asleep. As far as movies go, to make an interesting movie, AND explain what needs to be, in just over 2 hours must become taxing. And honestly, boring. I think what the film makers did, by going right into the action was a good decision, it’s a “young-adult” movie. I think the idea of a TV show is an interesting one, but again… it could be dull. It’s exactly the criticism the Star Wars Prequel Trilogy gets for explaining too much politics in a “kids movie”. Besides, seeing glimpses of the wavering government I think is very telling of the situation. Not a flaw in the movie making.

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12 Eric Melin March 26, 2012 at 3:08 pm

Josh- Check out Series 7 : The Contenders for a movie with a similar premise that actually delivered the sense of danger I think ‘The Hunger Games’ was going for. It also has a way more interesting ending–another place where I feel ‘The Hunger Games’ is tripped up by its need for sequels. Seriously, this book could have made a great cable TV series….

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13 brian March 26, 2012 at 8:15 pm

I, mostly, agree with your review of the movie. I felt compelled to post a comment on your review because i come from the rare perspective of not having not read the books. The major problem for me coming into, as well as out of, the movie was knowing that the main character was never in real danger of dying. I think the character arch of the Katniss was a bit lacking as well. I don’t, however, think that the major flaw of the movie was its set-up or delivery of the world. I felt a very historic vibe coming from the people of the Capitol, it reminded me of reading about Marie Antoinette. “Let them eat cake!” The blatant extravagance of the people made the film much more real to me. The movie isn’t great and that is mostly because it seems the source material was meant for a R rating. The shaky camera work during action didn’t help. It didn’t add gravity to the deaths it took away from them. The biggest problem i have with your review is that you seem to be hung up on her rebellion and the seeming lack of past rebellion. My problem is this: the movie clearly explains that the “game” is a direct result of rebellion. This is the whole point of the movie. If children are thrown into a controlled environment with no possibility of escape I don’t see how rebellion would be an option. I think that you are being a little nit-picky, if this is your major hang-up. By the way Battle Royale is a much better comparison for this movie.

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14 Eric Melin March 27, 2012 at 8:39 am

Brian – Great points. I was holding off on getting too specific because I wanted to avoid spoilers, but since you are addressing my specific comment about the ending, I believe its time to do so. So… SPOILER ALERT! If you don’t want to know how ‘The hunger Games’ ends, stop reading now!

OK, here’s the deal: For the ending to hold dramatic weight, ANYTHING else should have happened from the standpoint of the government changing the rules. That was a fatal mistake that will affect the rest of the series. The idea that they are all-powerful is gone. Now we know they can change them at will, so they hold no water any more. There’s no suspense; no stakes! Also, after 74 years of beating down the poor people since the rebellion, you’re telling me no contestant ever threw it back in the government’s face? After being demoralized and made to fight for their lives against their own oppressed comrades? And now, through the comments section, I find that Woody Harrelson’s character actually did something like that and that we’ll find out in a coming sequel. Great! So if that’s the case, why isn’t the government prepared for that to happen again? Again, not really all powerful. Their only defense against a tribute making them look bad is to change the rules on the spot right before they both swallow a suicide berry? Had ‘The Hunger Games’ had a more dramatically satisfying ending, it would have worked a lot better. I realize now that they are setting up future installments and again I say that sucks for the current one. Was Katniss old enough to remember Haymitch’s act of rebellion? If so, I’d sure like to have seen a flashback of that because it would have deepened both characters. All these things contributed to making ‘The hunger Games’ less than satisfying, which is a shame because it was off to such a great start.

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15 brian March 27, 2012 at 1:40 pm

I definitely agree with you that it makes the Capitol look weak. My only question is what could they have done to make Katniss pay for her actions in the game? If you believe that she was willing to die then threatening her life means nothing and makes her a martyr of sorts. If you kill Peter she wins and the hope that president Snow referred to earlier is still alive. I guess the outcome was the worst possible thing that the Capitol could allow and that is why the game runner was killed. Interesting discussion and it actually makes me enjoy the movie more. I do wish the movie was just a little tighter because it could have been marvelous.

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16 elaine March 27, 2012 at 7:27 pm

I am amazed at some of the comments here. I have read all three books and actually think that the movie makers did a good job of presenting the book on film The film makers were prevented from showing the true horror and gore of the Hunger Games themselves due to the PG13 rating. All of the characters in the movie were as I imagined them from the book. Peeta does not die in this book and his character is needed in the second and third books!! Without Peeta they would not have been able to follow the story of the next books!!! Why anyone would cricticise the film makers for closely following the book is beyond me!!

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