Why the ‘Hunger Games’ was too calorie-lite
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).
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:
- District 11, giving their fingers-up thing for Rue
- Snow and Seneca talking shop
- the Games control room
- Gale feeling haunted and alone on a beautiful panorama
- District 11 starting a rebellion
- Snow wandering in his garden
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.
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.
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:
- She gets Peeta for free, a totally selfless dog-boy who’ll do anything to keep her alive, just because she’s pretty.
- She gets Cinna for free, without whom she’d have had nothing to say on the reality TV show, and would’ve been unremarkable during the entrance. It doesn’t make much sense, since you’d expect the Career tributes to get the best designers.
- She gets Rue and trackerjacks, placed with a huge amount of coincidence both within reach, despite the arena being so massive.
- She gets medicine immediately for a minor burn to her leg. It just didn’t look serious enough for her to need medicine even.
- She gets saved by Rue’s fellow district 11er.
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.
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.