I read The Hunger Games for the first time in December of 2009, after spending a blissful summer as an intern at the Horn Book, where I was happily inundated with ARCs of new YA books. It was impossible to ignore the excitement of the entire staff after they read The Hunger Games and by the time I finally got around to reading it later that fall I was impressed by the momentum of the plot and Katniss’s strength as a narrator. It was refreshing to encounter a female heroine who exhibited traits traditionally associated with men; her physical strength, her rationality, and her inability to express emotion are all attributes that set her at odds with the highly sensitive and expressive Peeta, who we see reacting to the same experiences as Katniss throughout the book.
After finishing all three books, what struck me most about the series was the fact that Suzanne Collins had written a serious examination of human nature as it relates to violence for teens, offering younger readers a hard, unflinching look at the moral complexities of war. There was no glamor in her depiction of the realities of violence and oppression and this to me is largely what makes the books so worth reading, for people of all ages.
Needless to say, I was extremely curious to see how the film would depict the violence that is so central to the story without glorifying it and transforming it into the very thing the book is critiquing—that is, violence purely for the sake of entertainment. The relationship between violence and media is at the heart of the book, but while the book is able to offer an intelligent critique through Katniss’s first-person narration, the movie had the difficult task of showing the violence Katniss witnesses without glamorizing it or romanticizing Katniss’s experience.
In anticipation of the film’s midnight release last Thursday, I attended a Panem Party with fellow fans. While drinking Effie Trinkets (cocktails fashioned out of pink lemonade and vodka) and adorned in costume, we discussed what aspects of the book we were most eager to see on film. On our trek to the movie theater we found members of the group eerily falling prey to each of their character’s costumes—Effie scolded people for their bad manners as Seneca Crane schemed, Haymitch got steadily drunker and Cinna looked stylishly on in silence.
As is usually the case with midnight showings, by the time the movie started sometime after midnight I was so worn out with excitement that the movie passed in something of a blur. I definitely plan on seeing it again in order to make a more astute assessment but I can happily report that I thought the book’s adaptation to film was a success. I thought Jennifer Lawrence’s performance in particular helped make the movie the success that it was. Katniss is a tricky character to portray on film as most of what we learn about her thoughts and feelings in the book comes from her role as narrator. In fact, one of Katniss’s major struggles as a character is how difficult it is for her to show how she’s feeling. Her first challenge to overcome as a tribute is figuring out how to make the viewers empathize with her because she so often has the appearance of a bored robot. Jennifer Lawrence did an admirable job maintaining Katniss’s strength and silence without sacrificing her humanity.
I was also pleased by the way the film handled the violence. The most violent scenes in the movie were not graphic or gratuitous but were depicted as Katniss would have experienced them—quick and difficult to make out in the chaos of the moment. Violent scenes with more emotional resonance were slowed down to give them the time they deserved, such as Rue’s death.
I was relieved that the film was able to hang on to some of the realism of the book—nothing felt overly Hollywood-ized or cleaned up to look better on screen. The shots of District 12 in the beginning were appropriately grim and many of the darkest moments in the book–Katniss’s horrific burns, the scene with the tracker jacker hive—maintained their stripped down feeling of reality. The only scene that lost some of its horror was one that I was certain they couldn’t get away with on film, when Katniss and Peeta are chased by mutts only to realize that the creatures are mutated versions of the other fallen tributes. So much of what makes the Capitol so sinister is their ability to use extremely sophisticated technology to mutate living creatures and this was lost in the film adaptation by its failure to incorporate the dead-tribute mutts and the fact that it never explained how mockingjays came about and therefore why they’re significant as a symbol for District 12. I’m hoping they’ll delve deeper into that topic in the subsequent films.
It was fun to see the Gamemakers at work behind the scenes during the Game and to overhear some of Seneca Crane’s conversations with President Snow–neither of which we get to see in the book–and the shot of Seneca Crane turning to find the bowl of poisoned berries was pure cinematic genius. Stanley Tucci was so good as Caesar Flickerman that I felt like the whole theater was as blindly charmed by him as the audience in the movie.
In thinking about the movie’s immense success, I was disturbed to hear the news that some fans expressed confusion and disappointment that several characters in the books are not white. This is horrifying on many levels and I feel like the best response I’ve read so far is this article, which reminded me that it’s something of a landmark that a film that’s as popular as The Hunger Games has not only a female lead but characters of color in leading roles, and in spite of what some bigoted fans might think that is something to celebrate.