As a bit of a book nerd, I’ve had a fair amount of experience when it comes to watching film adaptations of books I’ve read previously. These experiences have led me to the following conclusions about the best big screen adaptations of beloved books:
1.) The best adaptations work in conjunction with the book, serving as a companion piece to the written word;
2.) In keeping with that companion-like relationship, the best adaptations create a film that can be enjoyed by those who did not read the book but which is deepened by the knowledge brought to the table by those who love the source material;
3.) Maybe most importantly, the best adaptations ask the viewers who have read the book to respect the companionship of print and film.
The Hunger Games hits the mark on all three of these points and as a result, what you have is an excellent film that lives up to (and sometimes betters) the book it based upon.
The Hunger Games takes place within a futuristic America that has been divided into twelve districts and a massive capitol. Each district has its own specialized industry and the further you are from the Capitol, the poorer your district is. As penance for an uprising which took place 74 years ago, once a year a ceremony called “The Reaping” is held in which each district gives up one girl and one boy ("tributes") between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in a fight to the death known as The Hunger Games. During this particular Reaping in District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) sees her younger sister, Prim (Willow Shields), selected and volunteers to take her place, a feat that has never before happened in District 12. Katniss is paired with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s boy whom she has a history with, and the two are whisked away to the Capitol. After training with their mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and competing for the attention of wealthy sponsors, Katniss and Peeta are sent into a diabolical arena along with 22 other tributes from which only one person can come out alive. But as if their very lives weren’t enough, we soon find there’s more at stake than meets the eye.
From the outset, it is clear that director Gary Ross wants to make sure that no one confuses his film with a certain teen-oriented series of books and movies which may or may not involve shiny vampires. There’s very little prettiness to The Hunger Games and I mean that in the best possible way. It is without question a stylized, purposefully shot film that employs a variety of camera techniques and post-production effects that go beyond what you might expect from a blockbuster film of this type but none of it is done with an eye on just making the film look “cool” or “glamorous.” Instead, these elements are used in order to deepen the experience, to enhance the tone, and to lend significance to the content. In the early going, Ross uses a handheld camera approach which results in the often maligned shaky, first person look. This is something I’m sure he’ll be skewered for in other reviews but I personally loved it. This technique brings you firmly into the lives of Katniss and her fellow District 12ers while also further differentiating The Hunger Games from the Twilight saga. It might be a little too much when it’s all said and done but I give Ross a ton of credit for doing too much and trying too hard rather than just allowing the film to rest on its laurels, as it were. What I mean is this: this is a movie that was going to make $200 million no matter what and it would have been easy to just take the money and run. Instead, Ross shows early on that he’s intent on crafting a good film, not just riding a cash cow. It’s a bold move that works well in my book.
On top of the camera work, Ross brilliantly uses a color wash to illustrate the stark contrast between the Capitol and the outlying districts. District 12 looks like rural Kentucky, complete with dilapidated buildings and bland colors. It’s a sad, depressing place that fits the descriptions within the book to a tee. On the other hand, the Capitol is a world of luxury, debauchery, and bastardized beauty. The people of the Capitol have lost all connection with the realities of the outside world and that shows in the print. When Katniss and Peeta step off of the train in the Capitol, it’s almost like when Dorothy takes her first steps into the colorful world of Oz. This vast difference between the two areas is not only a big part of the book but also a key to the tone of the film. It’s a nice touch that I don’t think every director would have gone with.
Perhaps my biggest fear with regard to the screen adaptation of the book was that the gravity of the situation and the violence within the arena would be lost when translating a book to a PG-13 movie. We’re talking about kids being called upon to kill other kids while the wealthy look on and cheer. It would have been very easy for Ross and his team of writers to dumb down the impact of these scenes to make it more family friendly. On the contrary, he quickly shows that he understands the seriousness of what is transpiring on screen and manages to show a healthy respect for the weight of his subject without allowing his film to become a true, R-rated blood bath. I cannot commend Ross and his team enough for finding ways to illustrate the awfulness that is the Hunger Games while simultaneously keeping the violence from becoming too graphic. In doing this, not only does he make the film acceptable for teens and tweens (the core audience), he also allows The Hunger Games to become more about the characters than about the action and gives his actors some room to shine.
I think of Jennifer Lawrence as one of the very best young actresses in Hollywood and I was stoked about her casting in the role of Katniss. There’s an edge to Katniss that Lawrence exhibits beautifully and maybe more importantly, Katniss has to give off an air of reluctant charisma; she’s not so much charming as she is appealing because she’s NOT genuinely charming. Lawrence nails this quality as well. I expect more will be asked of the star in future films in this series but this is still an excellent start for her. Hutcherson struggles to find his role early in the film but I think his character comes together well as the action unfolds and the awkward chemistry he and Lawrence share is perfect for the scenario in which these two characters have been thrust. But as good as the two young stars are and as much as this franchise will become all about them as it progresses, the surrounding cast is the stabilizing force behind The Hunger Games. Ross surrounded his leads with some of the best supporting actors money can buy. Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley, Toby Jones, and even Lenny Kravitz all have their moments. More often than not, though, the film is stolen by Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, or American Treasure Woody Harrelson. Harrelson in particular is tremendous in his somewhat limited screen time and for me, his character is vital to the success of the film. Haymitch provides both comedic relief and rock-solid-if-slightly-inebriated support for Katniss and Peeta and it’s a much deeper role than one might expect going in.
The Hunger Games isn’t perfect and there were a few marks missed along the way. I wasn’t as emotionally invested in the relationships (particularly the one between Katniss and fellow tribute Rue) as I thought I would be and many of the action sequences are somewhat lackluster. But on the whole, this is an exceptional example of how to adapt a film from a book and displays much more significance than we are used to seeing from a blockbuster of this nature. It is quite faithful to the source material and personally I think most of the changes (especially the way in which Ross uses the game commentators in place of Katniss’ introspective thoughts) were not only necessary but actual beneficial to the narrative. This is a wonderfully made film that grows on you after leaving the theater and sets the table beautifully for the sequels which are to come.