The Hunger Games…Didn’t Quite Fill Me Up

Director: Gary Ross
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Wes Bentley,  Donald Sutherland

The highly anticipated film adaptation of Suzanne Collins‘ hugely popular trilogy of Young Adult novels has me questioning anew what exactly it is that makes page to screen work versus not…and whether I’m better off either NOT seeing the film if I’ve read the book (and liked it) or NOT reading the book and seeing the film instead.  It’s probably safe to say that in most cases, the book is far superior to the film adaptation…although now and again, they “get it right” and manage to convey the brilliance on the page in equal measure to the screen (the film version of Ian McEwan‘s novel Atonement comes to mind, as do most, if not all, of the Harry Potter series of films…)  But I digress, as obviously such a debate deserves its own separate discussion.

Jennifer Lawrence, as Katniss Everdeen

Elizabeth Banks (as Effie Trinket), Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch) and Lawrence

I just recently read ~ and enjoyed ~ The Hunger Games myself, (which, incidentally, seems made to be a movie).  Although Harry Potter it was not (will anything ever match that creative genius?), I did end up getting sucked into and invested in the characters and the (albeit dark, savage and morbid) story.  It’s still a bit difficult for me to grasp that material of this nature ~ kids killing kids, by force of their “government”, no less ~ was intended for such a young audience (heck, it’s heavy subject matter for any age).  Despite getting drawn into the dystopian world of Panem and growing quite fond of many of the primary characters/protagonists (Katniss, Peeta, Gale, Haymitch, Cinna, et al.), I’m still not sure I buy (or perhaps I just don’t fully understand) the reasoning behind (the NEED for) the Games themselves in this fictional landscape.  It is, as a good friend of mine who has yet to read the book or see the movie said as we were discussing the premise, “a hard pill to swallow” and I couldn’t agree more.  All of that said, I felt there was great potential for a film version of the novel and thus had high expectations.  And while parts of it worked, overall it fell short for me in capturing the emotion, feel and intricacies that the book did.

Jennifer Lawrence & Josh Hutcherson

The film didn’t get me as invested in the characters and the critical relationships between them as I’d hoped (particularly as compared to the book).  Yes, the Games themselves are interesting, even exciting, to watch, but it is the relationships that give the story its heart and make you CARE about these people and what happens to them.  In the book, it was these relationships that compelled me to stay engaged in such a darkly disturbing and oftentimes violent story (not typically my cup of tea).  I’m not sure if there was just not enough time given to the development of those relationships in the film (I fully realize there was much ground to cover, even at nearly 2 1/2 hours), or if it was due to lack of chemistry in the casting.  Regardless, becoming invested in the relationships beyond just Katniss herself is crucial to the success of the adaptation, particularly since on screen we are no longer privy to her thoughts and feelings.

Willow Shields (as Prim) and Lawrence

Lenny Kravitz, as Cinna

Of course casting is indeed key to any adaptation’s success as well.  Although arguably a bit old for the role, Jennifer Lawrence deftly handles every nuance of Katniss Everdeen, the female “Tribute” for her District who volunteers in place of her younger sister Prim (effectively played by Willow Shields in her brief time on screen) and her age was not an issue for me.  Woody Harrelson is also wickedly wonderful as the prone-to-drink mentor Haymitch ~ I loved him in this role.  And while I wholly realize I may be biased due to a longstanding crush on him, it was hard to take my eyes off of Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist, confidante, and father figure/friend.  (Gold eyeliner has never looked so good.  On anyone.)

Liam Hemsworth, as Gale

Two of the most pivotal roles are the young men who ultimately form the love triangle that develops during the course of the novel.  While Gale (played by Liam Hemsworth), Katniss’ best friend from back home in District 12, gets rather short shrift in this first installment, there is enough development of their relationship in the book to understand and empathize with their connection.  In the film, however, he gets so little screen time, it’s nearly impossible to judge whether Hemsworth has been appropriately cast, nor are we given enough “ammunition” to even take sides in the triangle or feel the stakes of the relationship (whether real or faked for the benefit of the Games) that forms between Katniss & Peeta (her co-Tribute).

Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta

Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta Mellark. While the film version of Peeta is nowhere near as charismatic as the book’s, Hutcherson is certainly likable enough, but seems oddly mismatched with Lawrence (he’s physically much smaller than she) and in general, was nothing like what I’d pictured as I read the book.  It will thus be interesting to see how that love triangle plays out in future installments…especially since in the film I never for an instant bought that Katniss was developing any sort of true feelings for Peeta, whereas in the book that possibility is much more convincing.  Once again, it is that chemistry that is so critical to becoming invested in the relationships between the characters, and I certainly wanted to (but didn’t) feel as much as I did reading the book.

In general, I think I might have been a bit lost ~ and even less emotionally engaged had I not read the book and known more of the back-story, as well as had the additional insight into Katniss’ thoughts and feelings, which are of course given ample voice in the novel.  I’d be curious to talk to someone who has seen the film, but NOT read the book, to get their comparative take on it all.

Finally, I was also disappointed in the overall look of the film ~ the production design and sets left me rather cold…which, I suppose, may have been the intention, particularly for the scenes in the industrial-like, yet garishly colorful world of the Capital.  The various locations ~ and even the costumes ~ were far more vivid for me on the page than they were on screen, which you’d think in this case would have been the other way around.

Stanley Tucci (as Ceasar Flickerman) and Lawrence

Overall, it didn’t quite live up to my admittedly high expectations.  However, that won’t keep me from seeing (and reading) the next two installments in the trilogy.  May the odds be ever in their favor.

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