The Hunger Games: The book vs. the movieby Marty Troyer
Suzanne Collins' fictional trilogy The Hunger Games is and deserves to be a cultural phenomenon. Astonishing writing, rich and complex characters, biting social critique, exploration of the true roots of poverty and oppression, a thorough indictment of violence, and a great overall story. As all quality fiction does that depicts dystopia, it forces diagnosis of what went wrong, how to keep your humanity in crisis, and begs for a solution.
Gary Ross’ film version of The Hunger Games does not deserve the same praise.
Visually stunning at times, amazing sound editing, some great acting (particularly by protagonist Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss), but a different moral message. A terrific loss, perhaps inevitable when translating to film.
Here’s the good news.
The social violence of oppression and poverty (the narrative world of the books) remain largely in tact. How do they do that? By highlighting the contrast between The Seam and The Capitol. The Seam is awesome, containing the best part of the entire movie, though sadly we’re only there for 15 minutes. The darkness and grayscale, the silence of sunken faces, Primrose’s horrifying nightmare (“they’ll never choose you, your name’s only entered once”), the realistic depiction of poverty. And then there’s The Reaping, which is shot, blocked and edited perfectly as Peeta and Katniss are chosen as District 12’s tribute/scapegoats. The pregnant silence and symbolism of this scene are worth the price of admission on their own. Which brings me to the sound editing, as important for what it adds as for how it frames the void of silence, which itself functions as a character. The movie is at it’s best when it is still and silent.
The Capitol too is awesome. Fashion freaks with modified bodies, the uncritical consumption of horrific entertainment, the extravagance of food and leisure (why is no one fat with all that food, lack of work and passive leisure?), and the detestable orchestration of violence through distancing of action from consequence (“Look, Seneca, at the neat little killing cat I just made!”) define The Capitol. But the core of the contrast is actually revealed in a question from President Snow to Seneca Crane, “Do you know why we need a victor in the Hunger Games?” The propaganda answer being, “The lone victor, bathed in riches, would serve as a reminder of our generosity and our forgiveness.” (Cue the crickets after Effie shows that film!) Snow’s answer is to provide hope, which is “the only thing stronger than fear,” and a far better way to control the people. The death of 23 to ensure the passivity of all. This Nietzschean reference was an excellent addition to the movie, holding the narrative world in tact from the books.
But here’s the bad news.
The child on child physical violence in the arena simply overwhelms that perpetrated by the oppressor class. The moment Katniss enters the tube to elevate into the arena you lose the tension and outrage these two worlds evoke. With the contrast behind you, it now becomes a story of inevitable and necessary killing.
The violence is no longer an outrage, it’s now something to cheer for. Indeed, my audience cheered several key deaths, notably Thresh’s death at the hands of Rue’s District partner. About the books on this point I said here Collins “doesn’t tell you she’s indicting violence, she invites you to feel the indictment through outrage, hate, betrayal, fear, despair and manipulation.” All of that is lost in order to gain a PG-13 rating. Ross masks violence in the arena through jerky camera work, quick edits, and fast motion. Leaving viewers (especially youth?) to assume there are no consequences to your actions. It would be more appropriate to young viewers to fully disclose the horribleness of violence and it’s effects straight on. Killing has consequences.
Overall I only counted four places the movie depicts outrage: Katniss when Prim is Reaped; three to four minutes after Rue dies, Katniss crumbles (ever so briefly) in tears; the created scene from District 11 of Rue’s father starting a riot; and Cinna’s very reserved first words to Katniss. These are humorously contrasted to Effie Trinket’s selfish indignation throughout (thank you, Elizabeth Banks!).
And here’s more bad news: Katniss is disempowered! The power and shock of the Tribute Parade and both Peeta and Katniss’ interviews with Caesar Flickerman (ridiculous and marvelous Stanley Tucci) are sadly drained and do nothing to set Katniss ablaze in your heart. But more importantly, who are you Woody Harrelson and what did you do with our drunken Haymitch? Perhaps for need of a narrator, Haymitch’s character is now an altruistic ally without need for inter-pretation; greatly weakening Katniss. Which sucks! She’s so brilliant in the books I couldn’t keep up, particularly her remarkable intuition. Her evolution as a human is severely limited as she appears reactive and plodding, and (cue the music and flowers) in need of a savior. A genuine shame and point of grief.
Overall I was disappointed. Had The Hunger Games not already been a raging torrent of pop cultural inertia before the movie was ever conceived, the movie couldn’t dream to take us there alone. Its social commentary and indictment of violence are misplaced by spectacle.
But don’t feed the film Nightlock berries just yet. My overall poor grade for the movie will do absolutely nothing to dissuade youth from seeing the movie. But I would recommend you debrief it with them to bring it out of the realm of emotion (and cool) and into reality.
This originally ran as a post on the Houston Chron.com The Peace Pastor blog. Click here to read the original post and for movie discussion questions.
Troyer is pastor at Houston Mennonite Church.
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