“The Hunger Games” is the film adaptation of the first book in the best-selling trilogy written by Suzanne Collins. Written and directed by Gary Ross (with screenplay assistance from Collins), “The Hunger Games” is the story of Katniss Everdeen, (played by Academy-award nominee Jennifer Lawrence), a sixteen-year-old girl who lives in the lowly and poor district 12 of the futuristic “totalitarian nation of Panem,” as Wikipedia puts it. Against the rules of her country, Katniss and her best friend, Gale (a hunky Liam Hemsworth) hunt in the forest which lies just beyond the fence of her district in order to provide more food for their families and to prevent them from starving. In order to keep its citizens in line, Panem’s president Snow (an accurate and cringe-worthy performance by Donald Sutherland) keeps with the annual tradition of the hunger games. At a ceremony known as the reaping, two children between the ages of 12 and 18 (one male and one female) are selected from each of the twelve districts to fight to the death in an arena designed by the capitol, until one lone victor remains. The games are meant to chastise the citizens of Panem for the rebellion that took place against the nation’s capitol seventy-four years ago.
When Katniss’ younger sister, 12-year-old Primrose, gets selected for the hunger games, Katniss volunteers on her behalf. Her male counterpart who is chosen is none other than Peeta Mellark, the baker’s son who once generously gave a starving Katniss a piece of burnt bread, a gesture of kindness she never knew how to thank him for. The two teens, along with the other district’s selected tributes, go through rigorous training and try to impress the games’ judges with their newly acquired skills. Coached by district twelve’s only past winner, the always-drunk Haymitch Abernathy (a strong performance by Woody Harrelson), Katniss and Peeta are unsure whether or not the odds will be ever in their favor come game day.
Adaptation from novel to film is an inherently tricky matter. Literature has the advantage of being able to delve into much greater detail than film, catapulting the reader into the world of the novel, bringing characters to life in a way that even IMAX can’t make up for. In particular with a trilogy as evocative as The Hunger Games, a book series that seemingly made young adults (and even regular adult adults) completely disregard their own lives and worry only about the goings on of Panem, it becomes increasingly difficult to imagine whether or not the transformation from book to film will be successful.
For example: Could Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark ever live up to the boy we’ve imagined in our minds for the last 1,155 pages?
The answer is yes and no. Hutcherson (“The Kids Are All Right”) is a fine actor. He may not be as handsome as we wanted him to be, but perhaps this was intentional. He’s physically weaker than Gale, maybe even weaker than Katniss. Emotionally, he’s an open book. His undying love for a girl who barely even spoke to him before their misfortune at the reaping makes him both admirable and pathetic at the same time. His unwavering devotion to her, however, could melt any girl’s heart.
Another choice made by the filmmakers which has received a lot of media attention (see this MSNBC article for more details) due to fan backlash is Rue and Thresh’s ethnicity. In the novel, they are described as having a darker skin tone, but Collin’s doesn’t outright say that they are black. The actors chosen for the roles are black, and there have been some fans sounding off on message boards and blogs with racist remarks, such as saying they didn’t realize these characters were black. Some of the fans expressed resentment at the fact that they cried over Rue’s death in the novel, and they wouldn’t have if they had known her race. (In this fan’s opinion, it sounds like these small-minded teens should perhaps be rounded up for a reaping of their own.) Regardless of fan expectations, it is interesting to see this choice being made for the film, same as it was to see the choice to cast Hutcherson and Hemsworth in their respective roles. On screen, Hemsworth is far more desirable, as is his silent and strong portrayal of Gale. But there is something to be said for Hutcherson’s eyes. The way he looks at Lawrence’s Katniss is very convincing. You can feel the heat between the characters, despite the PG-13 rating cutting down the make-out sessions between the two.
Speaking of a PG-13 rating, let’s address the violence, or lack thereof. The book itself was brutal. The film did a decent job of cutting out just enough to make it appropriate for the intended audience, which is young adults aged 13 and up. However, the cruelty and brutality of the games is part of what made the novel so powerful and heart-wrenching. Seeing Rue pull out a tiny arrow from her body as she closed her eyes and slipped away was sad, but reading about her having a javelin harpooned through her body was an entirely different level of devastation. It is understandable why it was tidied up for the film, but it puts the power of the story back in the novel rather than carrying it all over onto the big screen. The connection between Katniss and Gale is outlined in the first few chapters of the book, and briefly touched upon in the first few scenes of the film. It’s hard to imagine anyone saying no to the dashing Liam Hemsworth (“The Last Song”) in his proposal to run away with Katniss, but their situation in district 12 is difficult. It becomes even more challenging when she volunteers to take her sister’s place at the reaping, but seeing Gale haul a screaming Primrose away on his shoulders as Katniss steps on stage is a haunting moment from the novel mirrored perfectly on film. It should also be noted that Elizabeth Banks does a superb job of breathing life into her character, Effie Trinket. It seems as though she and her costume designer studied the novel diligently in order to achieve an accurate and humorous portrayal of the eccentric capitol woman. The filmmakers chose to cut a puking Haymitch from the reaping stage, but other than a few minor details like that, the film rings pretty true to the plot outlined in the novel.
However, one significant element missing from the film is Katniss’ inner thoughts, an element that Lawrence’s powerful acting can only do so much to make up for. Compared to Bella Swan’s constant internal dialogue in the Twilight Saga films (which are nowhere near as well done as “The Hunger Games,” by the way) there isn’t much insight as to what Katniss is thinking and feeling throughout the whole process of the games. A lot can be implied, sure, but the book digs deeper into what emotions are racing through her heart and mind. For example, how frequently she thinks of Gale and feels almost a sense of guilt when playing up the relationship between herself and Peeta. How her and Peeta’s relationship was more for show than a reflection of her true feelings, or so she thought. Her battle between caring for Peeta and resenting him for his feelings towards her, and ultimately her decision to do whatever it takes to survive, no matter who she hurts along the way is definitely present in the film, but explored in much greater detail in the novel.
And where was the cool capitol contraption that Katniss stuck her finger into which immediately dried and styled her hair perfectly after taking a shower? That would have been impressive to see on screen.
In the end, it is pretty safe to say that no matter how much you love a book, the movie will never quite live up to your expectations. It can be just satisfying enough to make you happy, but ultimately it still leaves you wanting more. Nothing will ever compare to being a part of the games the first time with your nose tucked deep inside the pages of Suzanne Collins’ novels. That being said, we will still anxiously await and line up around the block for the midnight release of “Catching Fire.”