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'Games' Leaves You Hungry For The Book

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In reviewing a film like The Hunger Games, it is nearly impossible not to judge the final product on the merits of its success as an adaptation. In this case this is unfortunate, because had The Hunger Games not worried so much about being a rote translation from page to screen, it might have proven to be a good – even important – film. But if the question were asked, “is The Hunger Games faithful to the book from which it is adapted?” I would have to answer with an emphatic “not at all.” Which is odd, considering author Suzanne Collins co-wrote the screenplay.

Before you mount a defense, keep in mind that there are many ways for a movie to be “faithful” to the book on which it is based. The most common way is to try to keep every fan happy by documenting, as best you can, everything that happens in the narrative from beginning to end. The most problematic outcome of this approach is you can very easily lose the essence of what makes the story so good, concerning yourself more with what happens rather than why things happen.

Unless you have acute revulsion to all things pop culture, you probably already know that Collins’ novels are a fantastic mix of disturbing, smart, thrilling and passionate storytelling. There is much in them to be taken away about the sickening nature of violence in our society, the absolute corruption of absolute power, and love, loss and sacrifice for a higher purpose. They are horrible, beautiful works. Set in the dystopian future in a nation called Panem (once North America), the terrifying presence of the Capitol rules over twelve outlying districts with an iron fist. In retribution for a rebellion against the Capitol 74 years ago, it was decreed that each year all districts shall offer up one male and one female tribute between the ages of twelve and eighteen to be transported to a large outdoor setting called the arena. There, they shall fight to the death until one lone victor remains. Katniss, played in the movie by Jennifer Lawrence, is a no-nonsense sixteen year old from District 12 who knows her way around a forest and is pretty handy with a bow and arrow. When her younger sister, Prim, is selected for the games, Katniss volunteers to go in her stead. This is an unprecedented move in the poorer districts, where participating in the games is practically akin to volunteering for suicide.

As stated earlier, this is difficult and important territory, and it’s disheartening indeed to find that the film version, directed by Gary Ross (Seabiscuit), even at two and a half hours, practically skips over all of these themes and instead gives just a rote recapitulation of the narrative’s main points. The most aggravating casualty by far is how little time is actually given to the development of the story’s two pivotal relationships, between Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the mousy tribute from District 11, and Katniss and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), the boy tribute from District 12.

There were still things I liked about The Hunger Games. There were appropriately terrifying moments, such as the Reaping scene, spookily devoid of any music, and the first bloodbath over supplies when the games first begin. The performances for the most part were spot-on, though why on Earth the costume designers decided to make Haymitch look more like Owen Wilson than Orson Welles, I just don’t understand. There are times, also, when a genuine moment of human connectedness happens, and you can tell that there is a greater movie underneath the surface just dying to get out, but the moment passes and just like that, we are on to the next thing.

However, the biggest sin the movie commits by far is practically glorifying the violence the books set out to vilify. Without Katniss’ internal monologue to tell us everything she is thinking, the film seems utterly devoid of any feelings of remorse or horror at all that is thrust upon our heroine in the arena. A few brief moments of anguish are never really explained or expanded upon. So what we get is almost the exact opposite of everything The Hunger Games stands for: a show about kids killing each other, without any of the messy guilt to get in the way.