The premise bears some similarity to Battle Royale, which constantly comes up in comparison. And like that movie, we start with title cards explaining why exactly we're about to watch a bunch of kids fight each other to the death: here, because the government is essentially punishing its citizens for having once rebelled and, not wanting to repeat that ghastly war, believes this will serve as a constant reminder that they are the ones in charge. Plus, it makes a great TV show, am I right? One reason The Hunger Games is clearly superior to Battle Royale is that it is uncomfortable to watch. Battle Royale is sick and twisted, but it's also entertaining, reveling in its blood and gore and death with an onscreen death countdown. By contrast, The Hunger Games is brutal and disturbing, making it abundantly clear how fucked up the very idea is.
Gary Ross deliberately chose not to make a slick Hollywood blockbuster, the sort of film the Capitol would make, instead going the handheld-camera route, which gives the film realism and immediacy. I know some people aren't fans of the shaky-cam, especially for action sequences, but I found it to be incredibly effective, especially once the PG-13 Games begin and all you need is a split-second of blood spurting or neck snapping to imagine the rest of the horror. It's not as if the whole movie is shot like a documentary, though; in fact, many of the scenes in the Capitol feel more static and steady, and the television coverage is appropriately slick. District 12 is dirty and Appalachial, and the Capitol is shiny and grotesque, the citizens in garish clothing and makeup, cheering the honor and glory of dying for entertainment and retribution. I also loved the editing, with quick cuts for key flashbacks and the focus on small details with loaded meanings.
While all of this is designed to tell the story from Katniss's perspective, the movie is actually third-person omniscient, without the narration of the books, and it is all the better for it, for several reasons. The third-person perspective actually makes the goings-on even more horrific because we see it all for what it is. We see everyone's reactions. We see pointless brutality, and we react accordingly. It's not filtered through Katniss's resigned acceptance of the world she lives in. The third-person POV also allows us to see more behind the scenes of the Games. What happens in the Gamemakers' control room? What is Haymitch actually up to during the Games? And, most importantly, what about President Snow and Seneca Crane? Probably the movie's greatest strength in what it brings to the table that the books couldn't is a brilliant setup for the rest of the story, giving us Snow's perspective on what is going on with Katniss and the Games. I would have liked to see some more of the other districts—although the one glimpse we get of another district really packs a punch—especially given the reality TV aspect, which actually isn't nearly as played up as I expected it to be. While we do get Katniss's experience of being a reality TV star, I wanted to see more of the sense that the other citizens were viewing her as entertainment. Instead, that job falls to the blue-haired Caesar Flickerman, who also provides necessary exposition to make up for not being inside Katniss's head. But the movie's other greatest strength—and, let's face it, it actually has a lot of greatest strengths—is Jennifer Lawrence, who is so fantastic that we don't need to be inside her head to know what she's thinking. It's all in her face. She completely embodies Katniss in all her pride, strength, conflict, love, sadness, prickliness, artifice, and all the rest.
As a result, we really are with Katniss on her journey, and we feel what she feels. I was practically an emotional wreck after the Reaping, and I didn't know how I could survive the rest of the movie. As the countdown to the Games began, I honestly felt like I wasn't ready. I wanted it to stop. I was not prepared. But, like Katniss, I had no choice. As the slaughter began, I flinched, I cursed, I cried. And by the end, only Taylor Swift could calm me down.
Although there was some fear about the movie's soundtrack, rest assured that there are no pop songs before the credits roll. James Newton Howard's score is emotive and moody, but the sound design also makes incredible use of silence and buzzing, once again helping us feel what Katniss feels.
It seems that I've spent the entire review talking about the movie as an experience, and, since I did go to a midnight showing, it really was an experience, but I think that's what's so amazing about it, that you feel like you've been transported to Panem and it's terrible and you can't get out. The movie follows the book almost beat for beat, but I felt like it could have been an hour longer, just so everything could have more impact. I have minor quibbles here and there with story changes and cuts and special effects and characters who didn't seem to get enough screentime (Cinna, Foxface, even Haymitch, unless I'm misremembering how much he's actually in the first book), but I think that, in the end, this is close to the best adaptation we could have hoped for.
If they stay with this creative team, I think Catching Fire will be fucking amazing and Mockingjay will destroy us all.
[But if you've seen the movie, click for SPOILERY DETAILS!]But if you've seen the movie, let's talk about it in SPOILERY DETAIL! (Warning: spoilers for entire trilogy!)
I'm not sure whether I like starting the movie with Caesar and Claudius. On the one hand, it does bring the reality TV aspect to the forefront, but on the other hand, District 12? Luckily, it's a very short scene and not the start of a frame story, which is what it looked like, which makes it all the more odd a choice to be the first scene of the movie.
PRIM! Everything with Prim was so wrenching, and Katniss and Prim were so great together, and I loved the subtle ways they showed that their mother had basically shut down and Katniss was taking care of the family.
Oh, Gale. YOU ARE SO TALL. That is basically what I get from this movie. Liam Hemsworth is fine in his limited appearance, but without Katniss's narration, her feelings about Gale are as good as nonexistent. Our whole audience was laughing every time the movie cut to Gale's reactions to Katniss and Peeta because it just seemed so hilariously one-sided. I'm kind of glad the love triangle wasn't really played up, though, because this story isn't really about that, and it only invites more ridiculous comparisons to Twilight.
So, seriously, I was practically a fucking mess after the Reaping. Effie was wonderfully awful, mouthing along with the terrible propaganda video, making this all seem like it was the greatest thing ever, and then, God, I love how everyone just sort of backs away from the person whose name is called, as if they're afraid that if they're too close, they'll go in too. AND PRIM TUCKED HER SHIRT IN HER DRESS OH MY HEART HOW WILL WE SURVIVE MOCKINGJAY. Prim and Katniss screaming and crying and nyeeergh. I loved how almost irritated Effie was that Katniss had volunteered, like it had ruined the show, it was so unexpected and not the way things were supposed to work down here. I liked the way they did the bread flashback in little pieces, although I'm not entirely sure how clear that is to someone who hasn't read the books until you get to see it in full and it's made explicit.
Effie was wonderfully awful and hilarious the whole time ("They don't even get dessert, but YOU GET DESSERT!"), always missing the point. I liked how she was SO made up that you could sort of see that she was fake, that there might be a real person underneath all that. Although I didn't really get that impression from the other Capitol citizens, who looked like aliens even without wacky-colored skin.
Haymitch! Oh, Woody Harrelson, I know I always pictured Haymitch as more old and grizzled than he actually is, but you were great. I loved that we got to see him courting sponsors during the Games, and it was neat that he gave Crane the idea to change the rules. Something like that, I wonder whether Suzanne Collins actually thought of when writing the books but never found a place to put in. There is nothing to contradict that idea in the books, I think, but the books generally imply that the Gamemakers came up with the rule change on their own for the sake of entertainment, which makes them look like big dicks, whereas this version makes Haymitch look good.
I actually really liked Josh Hutcherson as Peeta! Especially in the interviews with Caesar, he was so charming and likable, but he was also able to be all sad and sacrificial in the arena. Sure, when he was all, "I watched you go home every day. EVERY DAY. I WATCHED YOU. WAAAATCHED YOU. LIKE A CREEEEEPER," it was weird, but it was sincere, like that moment of seeing Katniss in the rain had really affected him, how could he have this bread and she didn't have any, it wasn't fair.
Oh my God, Caesar! That blue hair! That GIGANTIC SMILE! ALL THE VIDEOS OF CAESAR PLAYING BEHIND CAESAR. It was gloriously over-the-top, and I loved his explanation of tracker-jackers. It's like, "Oooh, MAYBE THEY'LL DIE! It'll be so exciting!" And let's not forget that horrible fucking "The TRIBUTE becomes the VICTOR" video that is about a KID BEATING ANOTHER KID'S HEAD IN WITH A BRICK. WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU PEOPLE. This is what I'm talking about, how we see it as awful, plain as day.
I WANT CINNA TO BE MY FRIEND. Again, like Haymitch, nothing like what I imagined from the book, but Lenny Kravitz was great, warm and protective. I wish we had gotten more; I don't remember how long he's in Catching Fire before he's dragged away to his SHUT UP HE IS PROBABLY ALIVE SOMEWHERE WE NEVER SAW A BODY.
And speaking of fire, I thought the fire looked totally fake, and it might have been okay with the two dresses because it's supposed to be weird fake fire, but I wish the fire in the arena had looked more real, although you could make the case that was also weird TECHNOLOGICALLY ADVANCED MAGICAL FIRE or something. Come on, how hard is it to just set things on fire?
Loved how the crowd noise when Katniss first went out for her interview just turned into buzzing and she couldn't even hear Caesar's first question. The movie did a really good job of showing how Katniss is terrible at this shit and doesn't think of herself as pretty and hates being in the public eye. I look forward to watching Jennifer Lawrence's portrayal of Katniss as the Mockingjay! IF WE BURN YOU BURN WITH US.
I think our first of several audience cheers was during the talent displays when Katniss shot the apple and then BOWED. AMAZINGPANTS. I couldn't even hear what she said, so it was very convenient that Haymitch repeated it for us in the next scene ("Thanks for your consideration" oh snaaaaaap). Wasn't there something in the book about how giving her an 11 was actually out of spite to make the other Tributes hate her? Haymitch played it off like it was just good, the end.
Avoxes! They didn't focus on them at all, but they were there, being all creepy and not talking. I wonder if they'll do something with them in the later movies.
So, seriously, once the countdown to the Games started, I wasn't ready. I was like STOP THIS MOVIE I NEED TO GET OFF. I was bracing myself. And then the Games were on and it was a fucking bloodbath, and I just couldn't believe what I was watching, all these poor, vicious kids, and there was that one boy with curly hair who looked like he was, like, ten, and I thought he was going to die in the first wave and I thought he did but then he didn't BUT THEN HE DID AAARGH HE WAS LIKE TEN YOU ASSHOLES.
Survivalist Katniss tying herself up on trees to sleep = AWESOME.
OH MY GOD THE TRACKER JACKER SCENE WAS SO GOOD AND HORRIFYING. The hallucination effect was freaky as shit, especially the bit with Caesar walking through the arena, and they even stuck in a flashback of her dad's death! Aaargh. That whole sequence was so well done.
And then...RUE. Oh man, SO ADORABLE. Every time we see her in training, shyly peeking out from behind a corner or hanging from the ceiling or whatever...SO CUTE. And then in the tree! I don't remember how long Katniss and Rue have together in the book, but I feel like it was much longer than they got in the movie. It seemed like they had, like, two minutes together before she died. And oh man, Katniss does not fucking hesitate to put an arrow in Marvel, I think it is, and then Rue is there with a spear in her, and she asks her to sing, and Jesus God, I already teared up when she sang the lullaby to Prim, and I kind of wish they lingered more on the lullaby to Rue, it seemed like they only let her sing a line or two before cutting away, but then she went to gather the flowers, and that whole scene was weird because it's one of the great scenes in the book where Katniss starts turning against the Gamemakers, but even though Katniss does not say a word, you can see she just wants to give Rue's death some dignity, and when she gives the three-finger salute, we see District 11 giving it back AND I AM TEARING UP JUST WRITING ABOUT THIS SHIT.
BUT THEN WE GET TO SEE SOMEONE WHO IS PRESUMABLY RUE'S FATHER FREAK THE FUCK OUT AND START A RIOT AND TURN ON THE PEACEKEEPERS BECAUSE THEY HAVE HAD IT WITH THIS SHIT AND IT IS AWESOME. It's like, boom, looks like that spark is CATCHING FIRE.
Oh my God, the scenes with Snow and Crane! He doesn't like underdogs! I loved the whole dynamic there, with Crane wanting to put on a good show, that was his purpose, whereas Snow was far more concerned with keeping the population in check. He was so menacing without being eeeeeeeevil. And oh my fucking God, Crane's final scene was FUCKING AMAZING. It was like Suzanne Collins thought, "Wait, I don't have to concern myself exclusively with Katniss's POV? I HAVE A MUCH BETTER IDEA FOR HOW CRANE WAS KILLED." I don't know how it will affect Katniss's awesome effigy of him that was specifically based on his hanging, but, man, do I love the fuck out of it.
The Gamemakers' control room was totally sweet! It was cool to see them manipulating the arena and everything in it. It did take away a lot of the surprises in the book because so much of the greatness of being restricted to Katniss's POV is that you really have no idea what the Gamemakers are going to do, they're like these unseen puppetmasters. But here we see them basically playing with these kids' lives (Jesus God, when they force Katniss back from the edge of the arena by firebombing her into the path of the Careers and Crane is like, "Get a cannon ready," AAARGH DIE).
FOXFACE. You guys, not nearly enough Foxface! But let's face it, I kind of wanted Foxface in the background of, like, every scene, being foxy, no one even noticing her because she is just so damn clever. And Peeta calls her Foxface like MAYBE THAT IS HER ACTUAL TRUFAX NAME IN THIS MOVIE (seriously, someone who has never read the books will walk away thinking her parents named her Foxface). The Nightlock thing was too compressed, I think, even though I guess it's perfectly fine that she just ate some random berries...but the whole reason she steals them from Peeta in the book is because Peeta has them with food because he thinks they're food so she thinks they're food, right? Here, I guess she just...eats some random berries, which makes her...not that clever rather than too clever? R.I.P. Foxface.
(But oh man loved the scene after the Cornucopia slaughter when they meet each other and they're like, well, we could try to kill each other or we could go our separate ways, all right, let's do the latter.)
Can Jennifer Lawrence just shoot things with arrows all the time? I will watch it. Loved the extreme close-ups as she focused on shooting the apples to trigger the landmines. I don't know, seriously, can we give Jennifer Lawrence all the awards?
Errgh, when Cato snapped that kid's neck. This shit is so much harder to watch than it is to read about, you know?
Oh, Katniss and Peeta in the cave! I didn't remember while watching the movie, but in retrospect, I do miss the sleeping syrup. There's nothing more romantic than drugging your lover so you can go get medicine to save him!
Oh! So, the announcements! Not how I imagined them at all. I always thought they had much more fanfare, but they were sort of...dull. Like, "Attention, shoppers, clean-up in Aisle 2, also you're all going to die."
Holy motherfucking shit when Clove threw the knife at Katniss I ducked and then as they fought I was basically shifting in my seat because I thought I remembered that Thresh saved her so I was like WHERE ARE YOU THRESH WHY AREN'T YOU SAVING HER YET NYEEERRGHHH and then Clove was like Evil Monologuing and WHERE ARE YOU THRESH and then suddenly Thresh was there and killing Clove and everyone cheered.
So I think I always imagined the muttations as more like wolves than big scary bulldogs? As big scary bulldogs go, though, they were pretty freaky, although the CGI wasn't perfect. The execution in general, however, was awesome; when the first one just jumped out of nowhere, a girl shrieked. And holy shit, when TWO MORE JUST LIKE CAME OUT OF THE FUCKING GROUND OR SOME SHIT. I kind of wish they'd left in the bit about their eyes and the collars that implied they were actually the dead tributes because that just adds an whole extra layer of fucked up. And this was a moment when I really wanted cuts to the other districts watching this horrific shit as ENTERTAINMENT. We got a lot of the reality TV stuff from the side of the people making it, but not enough from the people watching it.
And oh man, Cato's final speech! That was not in the book, but I liked it, the whole "That's all I'm good for, right?" the sense that he may have trained to be a vicious killer all his life but it has actually fucked him up good. And they did pull back on his death scene, letting Katniss kill him after a minute or so rather than forcing her to listen to him scream the entire night. Movie's gotta move, haters gonna hate.
I think because they compressed the stuff with the berries, the big moment with the Nightlock seemed a little fast, even though it does seem to go that quickly in the book. But oh man, PEETA. Gosh, I really liked Peeta in the movie, which I was not expecting.
Out of all the little things that were cut and changed and streamlined and whanot, I think my biggest issue is with the end, probably because it was at the end and I had loved the movie so much until then that I was waiting for it to continue to please me in every way, and it fell a little short. My favorite thing about the end of the book is that Katniss and Peeta have to continue to fake their relationship after the Games or they are dead. And I don't think that's made explicit enough in the movie. Haymitch tells them to play it up in the interviews, and Snow comments on her mockingjay pin—oh God, I didn't even talk about the fucking mockingjay pin that is now just a random pin Katniss buys that has no significance until it is is given significance, it is a symbol because it is a symbol, and Snow's comment on it basically gives it its power, and maybe it works in the sense that Katniss sort of becomes the Mockingjay in a similar fashion, but it's weird because the mockingjay pin ACTUALLY HAS ITS OWN INDEPENDENT SIGNIFICANCE that was left out of the movie, but I think it will probably be fine in the end, probably—and then Snow menacingly watches them be a couple back in District 12, but I really wanted it to be clear that they had to fake that relationship because their lives were at stake. I don't know whether people who didn't read the books got that.
Wow, clearly, I had a lot of fucking thoughts. SO GOOD YOU GUYS.