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Stumbling through the Arena: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Movie

Folks who’ve been reading this blog for a while probably realize that I’m a big fan of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. I frequently use it as an example, and have written up some more in-depth discussions of the books, as well. And having recently seen two very different yet still compelling film adaptations (see my write-up here), I was looking forward to Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games. Here’s what I thought:

NOTE: What follows doesn’t really have any spoilers as to what happens, but it does discuss particular scenes that worked or didn’t work in the movie itself. So be warned.

Pacing is the Heart of the Hunger Games

In the book, Collins nails a slew of narrative techniques: her characters are compelling, the world she describes is vivid, and the story itself is fast-paced. There are plenty of iconic moments in the book, scenes and passages that leave the reader crying, terrified, or cheering. One can’t help but invest in the characters. But if the characters are the lifeblood of The Hunger Games, then it is Collins’ deft management of the story’s pace that keeps that blood pumping.

Regardless of the medium, uniform pacing kills narrative momentum. Yes, the audience wants the story to move forward. But for that movement to be emotionally satisfying, it needs to be modulated. We need moments where we’re on the edge of our seats, our hearts hammering. And we need moments when the action slows, where we can take a moment to breathe, and to savor deeper emotional content. Despite the action at the heart of Collins’ story, she still manages to include enough introspective moments to imbue her characters with an emotional progression, which in turn gives their actions and choices emotional meaning for the audience. Stories whose pace is unmodulated, where the rate at which we are asked to invest in the characters is unchanged, are exhausting.

Unfortunately, Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games evidences a clear lack of analysis into why the original book worked so well. While it gets the window-dressing right, it stumbles on the most important points.

The Hunger Games According to Gary Ross

A story is more than a collection of scenes. Each moment serves a particular purpose, be it expository, emotional, inertial, etc. Often, a moment works to fulfill multiple purposes simultaneously. When I talk about the unity of a story, I mean having each moment and each level of the story working in concert towards a shared purpose. Collins’ books evidence great and powerful unity throughout. Key inflection points are able to escalate our emotional investment through their drama, which in turn builds upon the foundations laid through preceding moments.

On the face of it, Gary Ross’ adaptation can be called faithful: most of the key moments from the book are there (FWIW, io9’s got a good analysis of what’s missing), from the reaping, Katniss’ heartfelt goodbyes, the arrival in the Capitol, the tribute parade, the interviews, the training sequences, etc. So yes, on the superficial level of “what happens” the movie remains reasonably faithful to the book.

However, though every scene contributes to a story’s overall emotional impact, different scenes demand, need, and produce varying degrees of emotional investment. One of the differences between good storytelling and bad lies in knowing which scenes should evoke stronger and weaker emotions. In her prose, Collins gets this right. In his movie, Gary Ross does not.

Shortly before the movie’s premiere, I came across an answer Gary Ross gave to a question about his favorite scene in the movie. It was the kind of standard question for which every director has some sort of diplomatic throw-away response, perfectly geared to not offend any fan. Ross’ answer was that for him, every scene was just as important as every other, and thus he didn’t have a favorite. At first blush, I thought this was just a diplomatic non-answer. But after seeing the movie, I realized that this value judgment carries through Ross’ directorial vision.

In his adaptation, Ross imbues each and every scene with the exact same level of emotional intensity. The actors deliver solid performances (though in some scenes I found Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss a touch wooden), but I had no sense of which moments in the story were supposed to be more or less dramatic/important than any other. In most movies, a scene’s cinematography, editing, music, and the transitions between its preceding and following scenes give some indication of its relative importance. Not so in Ross’ The Hunger Games, where Katniss’ appearance in the Tribute Parade is apparently just as important as her stroll through the woods at the movie’s opening.

Many reviewers have called the movie exhausting – and they’re right. With no variability in its pace, or with the audience’s emotional investment, its uniformity turns it into a slog. Whether the audience’s emotions run high or low doesn’t matter: what matters is that because they are relatively unchanging, the entire experience is lessened.

Tent-pole Moments that Fall Flat

In reading the book, there were several key moments that (for me) rang with resonant power. These are the scenes that – several years after first reading the book – have stayed with me. They are, in order of their occurrence:

  1. The Reaping, where Katniss volunteers on her sister’s behalf,
  2. The Tribute Parade, where Katniss’ dress lights on fire,
  3. The Interviews (Katniss and Peeta’s) where they begin their conscious manipulation of the games’ audience,
  4. The Training Evaluation, where Katniss’ demonstrates her skills, and;
  5. The Games themselves (which to avoid spoilers I won’t get into).

Each of these scenes represents an inflection point in the story, both for the characters and for all events that follow. They are the tent-poles on which the story hangs. One would think, therefore, that these scenes would demand more of the director’s attention. But in the film itself, almost all of these points fall flat. Let me consider each in turn:

The Reaping The book’s first-person, present-tense narration rapidly invests us in Katniss’ perspective of the events. We perceive the Reaping, and her sister, and her sister’s selection, through her eyes. This gives the moment poignancy, relevance, and immediacy. The movie, however, is not a first-person experience. And by the time the Reaping takes place, we lack the world-building background or emotional investment in the characters to really care about Prim’s selection, or to understand the implications of Katniss’ volunteering.
The Tribute Parade Katniss is “the girl on fire” and it is at this moment in the story that she receives that sobriquet, and when she realizes that she can affect the games’ audience. It is a turning point for the character, both in terms of how she perceives herself and how we as the audience are meant to perceive her. When her and Peeta’s costumes light on fire, it is a visual dramatization of their characters, which in the book unifies in that one moment the book’s themes, the characters’ journeys, and the imagery in the prose. But on film, this (very brief) moment rings hollow because of terrible costume design and even worse CG (seriously, I’ve seen animated GIFs with better rendered flame animations).
The Interviews The interviews with Caesar Flickerman further drive home the shift in both Katniss and Peeta’s awareness of themselves. They are the denouement to the Tribute Parade, deepening our understanding of the characters’ changes. As such, they are central to the progression of each character, to their relationships with Haymitch, and to their relationships with each other. They also fundamentally drive our awareness of each character, respectively. Here, too, Collins’ relies on the symmetrical visual imagery of Katniss as the “girl on fire”, where in one scene her dress lights on fire…and then becomes a completely different dress. As a symbol, this works on every level: it ties into the series’ over-arching themes of revolution and dramatizes the character’s growth…and again, the CG and direction fall flat on film: the fact that the dress doesn’t actually change ruins the effect. The scene itself is only saved by the excellent acting of Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mallark).
The Training Evaluation The training evaluation gives us further insight into Katniss’ character, and into the lengths to which she is willing to go. It is a visual, dramatic moment in the storytelling that focuses entirely on Katniss’, her relationship with Haymitch and the unspoken relationship with the gamesmaster Seneca Crane. In the movie, it gets about as much focus as Peeta giving Katniss burnt bread.Both are necessary, but I would argue that the training evaluation raises the stakes for the character and thus deserves more focus (screen time, directorial consideration).

I won’t comment on the Games themselves, since doing so would include far too many spoilers to be helpful. But the uniformity of tension and emotional engagement is almost perfectly maintained throughout. There are, in fact, only two moments which deviate from this uniformity – and both make for some of the best acting in the entire movie.

Overall Assessment of The Hunger Games (movie)?

Overall, the movie was “okay”. As far as adaptations go, it wasn’t anywhere near as well directed as Scorsese’s Hugo (see my earlier post), yet it was infinitely better than Chris Wietz’s adaptation of The Golden Compass.

The Hunger Games’ weaknesses are not inherent to the story, nor as far as I can tell do they stem from the screenplay, and certainly not from the actors’ performances. They are – in each case – a consequence of the director’s understanding of narrative. As such, they were all avoidable.

Despite these weaknesses, fans of the book will enjoy the movie…but they (like me) will be relying on their experiences of the book to support their experience of the film. People who come to the story fresh, without having read the book, will likely respond with a “meh”. The book will surely be a fan favorite for years to come, but I suspect this movie adaptation will be forgotten relatively quickly.

With three more movies to come (because apparently every third book in a trilogy needs to be two movies, e.g. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Twilight: Breaking Dawn, Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, etc.), I hope that Lionsgate either gets a new director who understands pacing, or that Gary Ross learns something about storytelling. Considering the amount of money the first movie made opening weekend, I think that they could afford to do either.

4 Comments Post a comment
  1. That sums it up really well. I agree. The movie is good, but the books are much better. Well said šŸ™‚

    March 28, 2012
  2. JV #

    You might get your wish. It’s possible Gary Ross isn’t returning for the sequels.

    April 7, 2012
    • Woot! Thanks for the link!

      Having just seen the movie again last night, this news makes me quite happy. With any luck, they’ll bring in a stronger director for the next films.

      April 7, 2012

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