A few days ago, my brother and I got into an online fight about the movie adaptation of the Percy Jackson books. I saw the movie before I read the book and I thought the movie was cute enough (my brother was horrified) and the subject interesting enough to get Jeffrey and I to read the books. There is no doubt that the movie and the book are vastly different and that the movie takes a lot of license with the story and the characters. This didn't bother me, because I'm not emotionally invested in the books. I like them. I think they're a great way to get young readers interested in Greek mythology. But I don't have any kind of deep-seated soul response to them, so the movie adaptation's lack of fidelity doesn't bother me.
Not so for The Hunger Games. From the moment I heard they were adapting this book, I bemoaned Hollywood. Was I placated that Suzanne Collins, the author, was part of the screenplay-writing team? I was not. Did I blow a gasket when they cast Jennifer Lawrence, a BLOND (the horrors) as Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the novels? I did. Let us not speak of my disgust when they announced Lenny (Yes, He's Hot, But He Isn't Cinna) Kravitz, okay? It's best for all of us.
As time went on, and interviews came out, I found myself feeling a little better. Ms. Lawrence, at least, seemed to grasp the darkness of the book, the deep desperation of the characters, the hopelessness of the situation. She said in several interviews that she was adamant that the movie not just be an action movie with some dystopia thrown in. (These were not her words, but I'm taking some license and saying that's what she meant.) The director, Gary Ross, also seemed to understand exactly what it was he was trying to make. EVERYBODY seemed to know what was going on, with the exception of Woody Harrelson. I saw enough interviews with him to grind my teeth and say, "Nooooo. NOOOOOOO!" (My fears were justified...more on this later.) In any case, I waffled back and forth about it until finally, last night, Will forced my hand by surprising me with tickets and taking me out on the town for dinner and a movie.
First, the good (SPOILERS...SPPOOOOOIIILLLLEEERRRS):
- Ms. Lawrence was fantastic. Just...transcendent in her fear and sorrow and numbness. Her voice was perfect as Katniss and her body and her dirty fingernails. The moment before she enters the arena, she was actually shaking. And not the "Oh, look, I'm an actress and I'm shaking" shaking you see so much. This was "Oh, my god, I'm about to die and have to kill people and folks are going to be watching it all on TV howdidigethere???" shaking. The rest of the cast (with one exception) was also good. I was worried about Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, but his blandness (sorry, Josh...) served him well here and he actually wasn't bland when he needed to be not bland. Emily Banks as Effie? Perfect. Stanley Tucci as Caesar? Perfect. The casting was great, I have to say. I bought each of the actors as the characters they portrayed right down to Paula Malcomson (I remembered her vaguely from Caprica, another dystopian bit of entertainment) as Katniss' mother. EXCEPT for Woody Harrelson. (More on that later.)
- The world of the Districts and the Capitol was so well-articulated. The dirt and poverty of District 12 was visceral; I found myself wanting to wash my hands. (In fact, there's a great scene where Katniss is getting ready for The Reaping and washing herself in a basin part by part which juxtaposes very nicely with the stark industrial bathing she goes through at The Capitol.) I was a little thrown off by the District 12 clothes. Apparently, after the war, everybody in Appalachia started wearing the clothes they found in their great-grandmother's attic, because it was all prim calico dresses and heavy shoes with socks. But I understand that it was important to create an "old" feeling in the Districts (I noticed that during the not-in-the-book riot in District 11 after Rue's death, the citizens were all overalled-out...) so that the insanely over the top colors and styles of The Capitol were jarring, both to the characters and the viewers. I was happy with the costuming and styling of The Capitol folks, and happier with the arena, which was a perfect mix of woods and rivers and the weird computer grid sky.
- I was afraid of two things going in as far as plot was concerned: I didn't want the movie just to be an action movie and I didn't want the love story (such as it was) between Peeta and Katniss to be center-stage. Neither of these things happened. It's true enough that the tension in the movie never let up. I spent the majority of the movie in a little ball in my seat and from the moments right before Rue's death until the (beautifully played) scene with Katniss and Peeta and the berries, I covered my eyes with my shirt a great deal--and I've read the book, like, a million times. The love story happens almost exactly the way it did in the book and when Will looked at me and said, "So, is she just kissing him for the cameras?," I said, "EXACTLY." Which didn't satisfy him at all. The love story isn't meant to be satisfying. It's meant, really, to be one more complication in Katniss' life, I think. The only time when I said, "Ufff, really?" was at the very very end when Liam Hemsworth (who is cute and all, but not really a force to reckon with) as Gale looked a little puppyish at Katniss and Peeta holding hands.
- Lenny Kravitz is hot. He does a good job playing Cinna, although the part was greatly diminished, which leads me to...
The not so good:
- There was a lot left out of the movie or sort of moved around from the books that I'm not sure mattered: how Katniss got the mockingjay pin, the fact that the mutties had the eyes of the dead tributes, a lot of the exposition as to how Katniss got her name or became a hunter. These things were sweet or intriguing or horrifying, but none of them really mattered intrinsically to the plot, and I told myself that since Collins was helping with the screenplay, she should know what was vitally important and would fight to keep it in. Scenes with President Snow (I pictured him bald and snakey, but Donald Sutherland did such a great job as him that I take that back...and that NEVER happens in a movie to me) and Seneca the game maker felt weird to me if only because the book is in first person from Katniss' point of view, and I felt that they took a little away from the central action. BUT I also understand that this is a movie device. Movies rely on rests in the action so that the movie goers don't fall over. I'm just not sure that the take-aways were the best way to rest. Another quibble is the relationship between Cinna and Katniss. In the books, it is very close, borne from his kindness and care and understanding of her. Cinna sparks revolution in Katniss and in all of the districts and I knew that, because I read the books. Will didn't, however, and so when Katniss is all hugging on Cinna before the arena, Will was highly skeptical. It was a jump he just couldn't make without more cinematic backup and I agree with him. More Lenny is always good, but more Cinna would have made this movie better. Which brings me to...
- which was any scene with Woody Harrelson, which I could have done without. I'm sorry, I've got much love for Woody, the old pot-smoker, but his portrayal of Haymitch and the way Haymitch was written durn near about kilt me. In the books, Haymitch is a depressed, alcoholic, bitter, broken, mentally ill ghost of a man. He won the Hunger Games, and it left him not a golden boy gone to seed, but a man with a soul so damaged that all he can do is drink the missing pieces away. This is IMPORTANT. It is important for Haymitch to understand that either way, Katniss and Peeta are doomed to death. Even if one of them wins The Hunger Games, that one will be ruined for life. The interviews I read with Harrelson before focused on how he wanted Haymitch to have a drug problem from the Capitol and I wanted to shriek then, and from his first appearance on the screen, I rolled my eyes so hard that they almost fell out of my head. At first, I thought they were going to play Haymitch as some sort of effete socialite, with his highlighted hair and almost-lispy voice. Then he kicked Peeta in the chest with a bare foot (what? really?) and no, he was really a bad ass, y'all. Then he showed up at breakfast all cheerily hungover and handing out advice and I realized that not only was Harrelson not really Haymitch, Haymitch wasn't really Haymitch. Haymitch was played as comic relief, and the thing is, his character wasn't funny in the book. He was sad. Other reviewers have quibbled about how the characters from The Capitol are played for laughs, but honestly, they are supposed to be vapid little nothings, so that didn't bother me at all. What bothered me was that the twisted darkness inside Haymitch that lead him to vomit at a banquet and pass out during the Reaping and allow himself to be invested in Katniss and Peeta despite his better judgment in the books was toned down to the level of that uncle you have that shows up drunk at Thanksgiving and embarrasses everybody in the movie. Haymitch is, to me, one of the most important characters in the series, and for him to get such light treatment and for the director and writers to allow Harrelson such freedom with the character as to obliterate him really makes me mad.
- Like, that was the only part of the movie that made me so upset that I wanted to write letters or throw something at the screen.
- Except for the glimpses I had of Stanley Tucci's real teeth behind his falsies. Bad editing, that....
Bottom line, if I close my eyes and pretend that Haymitch was played by, say, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, I loved this movie. I can forgive the gaps and leaps when I hear Will say that he wants to read the books now so that he can understand what it is that he missed. I can still hear the mockingjay whistle that Katniss and Rue used as their signal. The violence was violent without being gratuitously sloshy (although I wanted to shake the family that brought a horde of eight-year-olds to the movie...kind of missing the point, y'all.) The camera work was brilliant: unsteady and blurry and only crystal clear and focused when Katniss is feeling some strong emotion, which I thought was a great touch.
I'm not sure if the movie gets across the main ideas of the book. I'm not sure if any movie could: anti-consumerism and government control and the casual way in which horrors are accepted by our society maybe can't be addressed by the movie industry. It's like one hand cutting off the other.
BUT I was impressed enough by the first movie to hope that the second movie will do a better job at addressing these issues and so, I will waiting for the second one with bated breath.