Oh the agony of being a fan! Specifically a fan of those gotta-read serial books that recapture a youthful ardor for deep, long reading that we’d mostly thought gone in these quick-burst internet times. I’m speaking of Harry Potter, of Game of Thrones, and, most pertinently to the moment, of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games novels, the first of which, called The Hunger Games, has just been turned into an at times thrilling but too often frustrating feature film.
The agony part comes when, all popcorned up and sweaty ticket holding, one is finally in the theater after a long and arduous wait, ready to watch whatever magic has been conjured from such treasured pages. In The Hunger Games’ case, there isn’t much joy to be expected — this is a brutal, unrelenting story about a dystopian future world in which children from once-rebellious outer districts are forced to compete in to-the-death gladiatorial combat for the delight of the cruelly whimsical denizens of a wealthy, oblivious Capitol. But there is certainly the hope that the filmmaker, in this case director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), has figured out how to present the story in a way that satisfies what fans already have living large in their heads. It’s a tough assignment, and also a nerve-wracking experience for the fanboy viewer — what if they get this wrong or omit this or elide that? Then the whole thing will be ruined! Not just the movie, but in some strange way the book too, the whole thing of it will be tainted by a manifest motion picture that just didn’t get it right. We board this expectations rollercoaster over and over again, sometimes to be pleasantly surprised (Harry Potters 3 through 7.0), but other times, all too often in fact, end up dismayed (The Golden Compass).
The Hunger Games falls somewhere in the middle of that spectrum. Ross has admirably not gone for any tween/young adult easiness in his film’s aesthetic — the serious stakes are evident in the opening scenes’ shaky, danger-boding camera work, in the altogether aching, haunting, and rousing music by T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard. Ross chose his lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence, well too. As our heroine Katniss Everdeen, Lawrence once again satisfyingly digs into the guts of a tough girl from mountain country, though it should be noted that Katniss is nowhere near as fully realized a creation as Winter Bone’s Ree Dolly. The architecture is the same — hunger, impoverishment, frustration, toughness masking a fatalistic woundedness — but Katniss is far more storybook, she’s kissed with a kind of flinty luck that perpetually eludes Ms. Dolly. In the beginning scenes of The Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers herself for the competition, which each year pulls a boy and a girl from ages 12 to 18 from each of the twelve districts of the post-America land called Panem (bread, see), because her 12-year-old sister has been selected in the lottery and Katniss, being both big sis and defacto mom, is desperate to protect her. So she whizzes off with her male counterpart, the thickly-built baker’s son Peeta (heh! Like bread, see!), to the Capitol to prepare herself for the games. Up to this point the film has been somber and, at times, verges on poetic. There are small bits of action, like Katniss staring at a dress on a bed, laid out for her to wear to the selection ceremony, that hum with a quiet, anxious sadness. Ross is taking this material seriously, this is no kiddie fable.
But then, alas, we arrive in the gleaming, fascistic city, and things, for both the characters and the viewer, begin to fall apart. What only made sense in a threadbare sort of way in the books, namely the tenuous idea that the annual conscription of 24 children to be ritually slaughtered would cow rebellion rather than violently stoke it, becomes gapingly ridiculous in the movie. The awfulness of this enterprise is so ludicrous, so beyond the rational bounds of a world that, despite some crazy plastic surgery and ridiculous hairstyles, looks mostly like ours, that the film loses any shred of credibility. Suspension of disbelief is easier in books, maybe, when there is comfortable room for historical exposition and inner-monologue ruminating. In the Hunger Games movie, like in so many of these popular book adaptations, everything instead feels hurried and rushed. And unfortunately we really need the particulars of why the Capitol does this, really need to feel the oppressive and year-after-year impossible weight of it, to understand or accept that this is just allowed to happen. We’re asked to take a lot on faith in the movie, and it ultimately proves too hefty a request.
I could discuss the various minutiae of the film and what it gets right and wrong for pages and pages, but with the non-diehard Hunger Games fans out there in mind, I’ll just say that the way the film strains its premise is, unfortunately, not its chief sin. No, that dishonor goes to what happens when Katniss and her twenty-three foes enter the fighting arena. This is a PG-13 movie and Lionsgate clearly hopes that teenagers come to see it in droves and droves (and they will), so we can’t really, with any business savvy in mind, find fault in some gentle whitewashing. But boy if Ross and his producers don’t, in an effort to appease censors and whoever else, totally denude the story of its most important aspect: This shit is supposed to be awful and gory and terrifying and so graphically and matter-of-factly dreadful to behold that it shakes us to our core. But instead Ross cuts away from the most visceral violence. Small spatters of blood replace total flayings, heads are smashed off screen, and an all-important spear impaling is barely glimpsed. Collins’ ultimate intent in writing her novels was to make us question our society’s lust for destruction, but in order to horrify our systems we must first be exposed to all the bare-bone brutality the scenario can muster. But Ross shies away, he demures. Katniss is an expert marksman with a bow, and yet none of her arrows land with a thwack. Ross takes it easy on everyone, far too easy, and so the story is sapped of its most potent, most shocking, and most necessary aspect. The Hunger Games don’t, actually, seem all that bad. Sure they’re scary and kids are dying left and right, but none of the unrelenting stress and terror that Collins built in her narrative is present in the movie. Yes, I’ll say it: This movie should be a hell of a lot more violent than it is.
So, yes, alas, this film does omit and elide. Not just where violence is concerned, either. As this is a trilogy of books, and a planned quadriology of movies, some important groundwork needs to be laid to make the rest of the tale make sense. And I’m just not sure that Ross (who co-wrote the screenplay with Billy Ray and Collins) hits the necessary notes. Does the performative nature of the budding romance between Katniss and Peeta (the likable if unmemorable Josh Hutcherson) really resonate the way it needs to? Do Katniss’ ultimately revolutionary actions feel as big as they’re supposed to? Sigh, no, they don’t. As if to stamp out the worry that not enough is being explained, Ross often cuts to the control room where the Games are being orchestrated by their callous overseer (Wes Bentley, ever-so-slightly hamming it up), and while I suppose that may be an expository necessity to keep neophytes following the thread of the story, it mostly seems like distraction, like a sloppy way to explain things that, in Collins’ book, are revealed more gracefully.
The Hunger Games is an entertaining, bracing picture, but I couldn’t help but leave the theater ruefully thinking that it could have been so much more. Maybe this is just the sour, anticlimactic feeling of a much-anticipated movie only competently doing its job rather than gloriously — which is to say that maybe people who haven’t read the books will outright love it — but for me, and I suspect for many longtime fans, this film will resonate with a vague chord of disappointment. Sure they get many things right — the movie sounds and looks terrific, despite some wonky, lower-budget-than-expected special effects — but the film is direly lacking an essential grim animus. It’s the bloody soul of the story that’s missing, I think. When the righteous, cataclysmic revolution finally comes (and it will), will anyone know why? And, far more importantly, will anyone care?