The film version of The Hunger Games is a fine example of the contemporary Hollywood franchise picture. It features a cast full of next-big-thing breakout actors supported by old-pro ringers having a blast with funny wigs. It conjures up an intriguing new fantasy world without overdosing on world-building (like John Carter) or mythology (like Green Lantern.) More importantly, it manages to capture the propulsive energy of Suzanne Collins’ novel. Adapting a great book into a good movie is not an easy task, and the makers of Hunger Games deserve credit just for the bad decisions they didn’t make. (They didn’t Twilight the movie into a romantic “triangle;” they didn’t turn Peeta into someone who could even remotely be construed as a badass; the kids still kill each other.) But there is one important aspect of the original novel that is almost entirely absent from the movie: The darkly funny way in which Collins directly accuses the audience. As in, us. Weirdly, by turning the book into such a fan-baiting crowdpleaser, the movie version of Hunger Games seems to oddly miss the point of its own source material.
Every great YA book series of the modern age has an origin story. Think of J.K. Rowling writing on napkins, or Stephenie Meyer’s vampire dream, or Christopher Paolini being twelve. The story goes that Hunger Games came to Suzanne Collins while she was channel-surfing between a reality show and footage from the Middle East wars. That’s why the book, despite its reputation, is not just a junior-high remake of The Most Dangerous Game.
The events in the Capitol constitute one of the most bleakly funny satires of the media this side of The Daily Show. Katniss is primped. She gets better clothes. She learns to give a good interview. Notably, one of the big turning points for Katniss — the first appearance of the “Girl on Fire” dress — has absolutely nothing to do with her own skills and everything to do with how her handlers present her. It’s a portrayal of the very carefully planned creation of a media star — a storyline that can’t help but seem meta now that the actress playing Katniss has jumped in just one year from her own metaphorical District 12 (Winter’s Bone) into hitting the red carpet and hanging out with talk show hosts.
In the movie, these scenes are a lot of fun, but they’re somewhat… empty. The “audience” of the Capitol is mostly faceless people applauding. Even worse, the decision to focus so strongly on President Snow has the effect of dampening the satire. The great Donald Sutherland plays Snow as a combination of the Emperor from Star Wars and a James Bond villain. What we’re seeing, really, is a dramatic oversimplification of Collins’ moral universe. In the book, Katniss is the hero, and everyone except for her family is the villain. In the movie, Katniss is the hero, and everyone else is misguided, and Snow is the villain.
Basically, The Hunger Games in movie form has become a superhero film. Katniss’ arrival in the Capitol is her origin story. Cato is the minor villain she faces in the first movie — think Scarecrow in Batman Begins — while the real villain lurks around the outskirts, building up lots of tension for the sequel. That’s not a bad thing, and Hunger Games is a fine superhero film. But by making the moral stakes so obvious, the movie basically becomes exactly the sort of simplified media narrative that Collins was originally criticizing.
The film is even more problematic when it moves into the Arena. One of the most interesting things about Katniss’ time in the Arena — as rendered by Collins — is that she isn’t just trying to survive. She’s also trying, in her own way, to please the audience: A key aspect of the Games is the presence of the sponsors, who send in helpful presents if they’re enjoying a Tributes’ performance. To that end, Katniss has to pretend that she is in love with Peeta. Much of the central tension of her time with Peeta in the Arena comes from the fact that what she’s doing has little to do with what she’s thinking. When she kisses Peeta, it’s not really a big swoony moment. She’s playing the game. Really, they’re having a reality-TV “showmance” — it just so happens that one of them didn’t get the memo.
This notion of performing — of Katniss playing the romantic hero, the way that Russell Hantz played the villainous mastermind on Survivor or Kelly Clarkson played the Everygal ingenue on American Idol or The Situation played the douchebag on Jersey Shore — is a central aspect of the book’s appeal. And the film has almost none of it. There’s a funny sequence where Haymitch prods her — “You call that a kiss?” — but the kiss itself is treated as a swoony moment.
To say that there is no romance in The Hunger Games isn’t quite accurate. Katniss herself is confused throughout the first book about her own feelings for Peeta — even if those feelings thankfully play a distant second to her constant concern for staying alive. But the movie pointedly chops out the payoff to this whole subplot: The moment at the end of the book when Katniss inadvertently admits that she was playing it all up for the cameras.
“It was all for the Games,” he says. “How you acted.”
“Not all of it,” I say, tightly holding onto my flowers.
“Then how much? No, forget that. I guess the real question is what’s going to be left when we get home?” he says.
“I don’t know. The closer we get to District Twelve, the more confused I get,” I say. He waits, for further explanation, but none’s forthcoming.
“Well, let me know when you work it out,” he says, and the pain in his voice is palpable.
That is a hell of a way to end a book: With betrayal, and confusion, and bitterness. The movie has not one bit of that exchange. Our last view of Katniss and Peeta are of them waving to District 12, while Gale looks on smiling. Meanwhile, back in the Capitol Command Center, cranky old President Snow glowers.
It was probably always going to be impossible for a Hunger Games movie to really follow through on Collins’ bread-and-circuses satirical edge. In his review of the movie, the AV Club’s Scott Tobias accurately compares the book’s bloodsoaked satire to the films of Paul Verhoeven, and it’s been a long time since any major movie studio has given a big budget to a director as dark or weird or fundamentally R-rated as Verhoeven. Moreover, The Hunger Games as a film franchise could very well wind up making billions of dollars. Audiences don’t like being morally implicated. They like love stories, and shaky-cam action, and villains played by Donald Sutherland, and funny wigs. (It makes you wonder what the filmmakers will do with Mockingjay, one of the bleakest conclusions to a sci-fi franchise since Alien3.)
Hunger Games is one of the very finest and most interesting funny-wig movies of the modern age. But by translating Suzanne Collins’ angry, fascinating, gloriously accusatory novel into a nicely-paced action picture — the kind of movie where a starving girl from a bleak mining district wears a nice leather jacket when she goes out hunting with her handsome Hemsworth pal — the movie version of Hunger Games winds up being a well-packaged, unchallenging studio product. Caesar Flickerman would be proud.
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