Why the ‘Hunger Games’ was too calorie-lite

August 14, 2012 · and how to fix it 

I found the Hunger Games movie to be kind of disappointing. While I was watching it my mind wandered. I wondered how much time was left, and when we would get to the good stuff, only to realize the ‘good stuff’ had already happened.

So why was this? Why did the movie fail to really engage me, while the book had me gripped? I think it’s largely down to two reason.

** SPOILERS **

Both halves of the movie are off, in different ways. In the first half we see Katniss’ world of District 12, which should set the life or death stakes of the brutal world of Panem. People are supposed to be dying of starvation on the streets there every day, with no-one to help them. But that’s not in the movie. Everyone looks well fed, indulges in charity, can afford to pass up food opportunities.

In the book, we really feel the Hunger. In flashbacks, Katniss, Prim and their mother nearly die of starvation. Nothing comes for free, there is no charity but the government’s own brand of charity, which involves putting your name in the Reaping hat more and more times.

In the second half of the movie we enter the Games, where the problem is one of focus. In the book we are with Katniss through every moment, never exiting her claustrophobic viewpoint for a second. Everything comes to us filtered through her, whereas in the film, we exit constantly to check up on other plot threads, which seriously dents the story’s power to grip us and make us share Katniss’ sense of building threat.

Both these flaws lessen the stakes and the power of the story. The world of District 12 comes to us partially Disney-fied, the world of the Games is presented more as a reality TV game than live-or-die battle. The movie has filed off the book’s edges sharp edges, a kind of Hunger Games-lite, and in so doing has robbed the story of some of its ravenous bite.

Let’s look at those problems in more detail.

1- not enough hunger

Instead of hunger, what we get is:

- A vision of Katniss’ District 12 that summons up a pastoral, pre-industrial woodland America, not a dystopic slum barely surviving off government hand-outs. No-one is dirty, no-one is skeletally thin, no-one is begging on the street or dying in the gutters. All of these happen in the first few pages of the book, but are wholly absent from the movie. There is some talk of ‘don’t let them starve’ when Katniss says bye to Gale after the Reaping, but we’ve seen no evidence of it all- cue:

- When Katniss is about to kill a deer in the opening minutes, Gale scares it off, claiming she’ll never be able to sell it because the Reaping’s in town. Wtf? They’ve got the balls to cross the fence, but not to kill a deer and stow it somewhere for one day? Put it in the cold-cellar and sell it tomorrow! This may seem a small thing, but it sets the image of Gale and Katniss as people who can afford to pass up game. It makes them look like sport-hunters, when in reality they’re supposed to be desperate, constantly on the edge of starvation. I have no doubt desperate people would kill the deer and store it.

- In the Hob, some kindly/worried old lady gives Katniss the mockingjay pin, for no reason at all. This is totally wrong. Greasy Sae in the book was often generous with Katniss, but never for free. To give something for nothing is totally antithetical to the mood of District 12. This woman cannot afford to give anything for free, because she too is about to starve, like everyone else. So giving gifts just doesn’t make sense. Blah blah, it shows human spirit, etc, but at this point she doesn’t even know Katniss is in Games, so no reason to treat her specially. If this old woman showed this kind of generous human spirit every day, giving stuff for free- she should be dead! Terrible business sense.

- Even in the Peeta/bread flashback scenes, we don’t get a good idea of how close to death Katniss is. She looks a bit winded only, like she had a brisk jog in the rain. She should be emaciated, at least on her knees, looking startlingly close to death. That is how starving people look. Chubby-cheeked girls though who are a bit tired and feeling peckish- well, that’s hard to empathize with.

For me, this is a serious failing of the movie. Setting up District 12′s harsh reality at the start is essential, because it informs everything that comes later and sets all the stakes. Without this harsh beginning, you simply have a less well-executed, less slower, less well-shot version of Battle Royale, where the heroine spends most of the movie hiding, getting freebies from her sponsors, and getting rescued by other people (Peeta, Rue, the dude from district 11).

Prescription-

Just make it more brutal. Show people are dying on the streets. Moments of fun with Gale are stolen moments, crushed to diamonds under the weight of their responsibility. Make District 12 a truly horrible place to live, where charity is inconceivable. Make it as harsh as the book.

Nice leathers- should be a bit more tatty, more obviously home-made. Didn’t buy it at Walmart.

2- not enough focus

In the book during the arena, we never leave Katniss’ head. We never get a moment’s respite, we are with her from beginning to end. This incredibly tight focus is incredibly effective at putting us in Katniss’ shoes, forcing us to viscerally go through all the things she goes through. Being a book, this can be done with lots of stream of consciousness, thought-flashbacks and what-not. It is a unique strength of the written story.

The movie loses it. This is perhaps unavoidable, because to only be in Katniss’ viewpoint perhaps guided by voice-over, would probably be weird. But there are endless leapfrogs out of Katniss’ situation, which serve to constantly break the tension. We never feel the visceral threat she is under (except perhaps the moments around when the tube takes her up to the arena), because escape is so easy for us. We bounce in and out, while Katniss hunkers down in her cave. We go to:

And so on. This constant back and forth endlessly breaks the tension. I know it’s hard to do otherwise in a movie, where they have to show something interesting all the tie, but I wish they’d cut away less. Why not spend more time focusing on the rudiments of Katniss’ early survival, like an episode of Man vs. Wild with Bear Grylls.

I want to see her every action, because at every step her life hangs in the balance. Give us more on Rue, and less on the Game makers. What is gained by seeing them? Nothing, and the sense of fear is lost. In the book’s arena, the Gamemakers are faceless, all-powerful gods. In the movie, they look more like NASA controllers playing a video game. Something is definitely lost, and nothing gained but a few Minority Report-esque tech scenes.

Prescription-

Narrow the focus considerably. If they must bounce around, bounce around inside the arena. Show us what the other tributes are doing. This is the time for flashbacks too. Make Katniss a bit more proactive- because it’s very apparent in the movie that she really doesn’t do much, except sit around in trees and wait. Cut all sign of the Gamemakers, the reality TV coverage, Snow, all of it. Let Katniss and Rue talk about what the Gamemakers are doing instead, what Snow’s plans are, what it’s like in District 11. That’s better. Let every moment be suffused with tension, that Kato might be creeping up on them in the dark.

Too much switching between characters.

3- assorted

There were several other disappointing points in? the movie.

- The fire outfits sucked. I can’t claim to know how this might have been done better, but after imagining whole-body aflame suits, where they looked more like the Human Torch, what we got was pretty feeble: a bit of fake-fire hanging off their shoulders. Not good, and not worthy of the acclaim they get. I don’t want to see the black suit they’re wearing at all. Just fire, is what makes it sexy. Redo.

- Everything came too easy. This is similar to point 1, but more about what comes later. Also its a direct transliteration from the book- so perhaps that’s a problem with the original. Essentially- Katniss has to do very little to get a whole lot:

I know all of this is in the book, but since we’re in her head, constantly feeling how hard it is for her, we forgive these freebies. In the movie, with all the jumping around, it seemed like she was just getting an endless stream of freebies. She didn’t have to suffer/subsist at all. They ought to have either given her less, or made us feel her suffering more. Also make her more proactive. Why not let her see the trackerjackers herself, and then rescue Rue independently of that moment?

- The Peeta stuff. In the book, because we’re in her head, there’s the great tension of half-falling for Peeta, and half playing to the cameras. In the movie, a lot of that was lost, and it looked almost like she’d actually fallen for him. They had to show somehow, that it wasn’t really real, and both she and Peeta knew it, and were still playing their game.

Conclusion

I really thought I was going to love the Hunger Games. The trailer looked so good. But in the end it just got too diluted with non-suffering and cuts away from Katniss, breaking the stakes and the mood for me, making the whole thing feel like a bunch of kids play-acting out the book for their parents in their living room. It didn’t feel cinematic, it didn’t get its hands dirty in the blood and muck and murder and starvation, and resultingly it lost a lot in the book-movie transfer.

Well, they wanted a kid-friendly rating. Too bad, cos while the book is kid friendly, its also a whole lot darker, bleaker, and exciting than the movie.

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12 Responses to “Why the ‘Hunger Games’ was too calorie-lite
  1. D Leonhart says:

    I agree completely with you. Even though I have not read the books, I was really disappointed by going to see this. People had told me that it was a dark and bleak world. That it was one of the scariest movies they had ever seen. What I got from watching it was two hours of yawning and a numb behind.
    The thing that really bugs me is that everything just seemed too easy and really put on. Like for example, the ending of the movie when that guy (what I’m assuming was the main antagonist if you could even call him that), had just been eaten by the pig things, Katniss and Peeta just realized they had won. Suddenly the announcers changed their mind and allowed only one. When they decide to kill themselves, the announcer suddenly changes his mind back. What the hell? I get that it will be bad for ratings but seriously? That’s the ending that was chosen? Everything was way to easy for her, as you said with an endless string of freebies.
    Also when the little girl Rue died, I didn’t feel a thing on her death, just like the others. They had hardly developed her character at all. She sort of appeared now and again from time to time, helped Katniss, then died. That’s really bad character development.

    • MJG says:

      Thanks for your comment D, and glad to know I’m not alone in this thought. I too had heard it was dark, that at times the sense of threat was overwhelming. I was looking forward to something a little challenging, a little adult- closer to the Dark Knight than the Avengers. But yeah, not so much.

      You’re right too about how easily Kato died. Didn’t he just fall off? Really seemed like Peeta and Katniss won by happenstance and luck, kind of like Harry Potter, rather than anything they themselves did.

      Also agree about Rue. In the book she gets way more. In the movie, we’re like- what? Why should I care, just cos she’s young and cute?

    • Dr. Downs says:

      (I never read this blog because I only recently saw this movie)

      Yeah, I still felt this movie was a cheap version of Battle Royale (Not the Hunger Games book which I have not read. But I was confused why ITS CALLED HUNGER GAMES). In BR, we learn the history of the characters and that most of them are friends, have a history… I think its FAR harder to KILL people you KNOW vs. unknown enemies. Back to the movie… which is still, okay – there are worse things out there.

      Rue’s death was expected… and yeah, I never felt any kind of friendship or reason for anything.. why help? Lets compare that to a SciFi movie death that has you in tears: Star Trek (2009).

      Within 5 minutes of movie, Kirk’s father is dead. You feel bad for the situation. There was a connection to the characters – that fast. It was scary, intense… And I still feel bad for the guy if I was to watch it again.

      I doubt I’d ever watch Hunger Games again.

  2. Bill Lawless says:

    Great write up. I haven’t read yet but am now considering. I think I made it 5 minutes into the movie and I switched to watch something else while on a plane a few weeks ago.

  3. Alex Griffiths says:

    I totally agree with you on feeling like she had already fallen for Peeta, that’s the impression I got from the movie. I will admit I saw the movie first and then immediately bought the books. I read the first one within a few hours and was completely confused by the differences I noticed. Also, the movie implies that Peeta has fallen in love with Katniss between their reaping and arriving at The Capitol, it doesn’t mention that he pretty much watched her every move as they grew up.

    I still enjoyed the movie, and I’m looking forward to the next installment, but at the same time I don’t want to be disappointed, so I’m dreading it too!

    • MJG says:

      Yeah the trailers for the second movie Catching Fire are out now- I don;t know if they’ll take it to the arena again or not- there was none of that in the trailer. Perhaps they’ll save arena for the final. I wonder if they’re gonna rewrite the books a lot for the movie, because I think the books (especially 3) have some serious problems- largely because Katniss becomes less and less important, less the active agent in the rebellion, and mostly just this kind of sideline.

      Wasn’t that weird in book 3? I hope they fix it for book 2. Make her more of a willing, driven rebel rather than one driven there seemingly by accident.

  4. Great analysis. I, too, felt the movie was much too sanitized and shallow as I watched it, but couldn’t really say why exactly or what needed to be changed. Now that you’ve pointed out some specifics I find myself slapping my forehead and saying, “Of course!”

    • MJG says:

      Glad we agree, I wonder if they’ll make it darker for the coming sequels? Hope so. But then it wouldn’t really match…

  5. Emma says:

    I agree,
    I am obssed with the hunger games but the movie was rubbish.
    You might have been better off not making the movie at all but
    I think catching fire will be better.

    • MJG says:

      Agreed Emma, the Catching Fire trailers look awesome. It’s not clear if they’re going to adapt the book straight, but I suppose they’ll be back in the arena again. Hopefully it’s a bit less deus ex machina than the book was. Same goes for book 3, I really felt like Katniss’ story was pretty irrelevant in that one…

  6. gpiz says:

    Totally agreed, the movie sucks and book is good.

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