To get the boring stuff out of the way first: The Huger Games is a good movie. Tense, fast-paced, and riveting, its nearly two and a half hour running time passes effortlessly and with a white-knuckle intensity that leaves one feeling almost breathless when the credits roll. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss Everdeen, the girl forced to compete for her life in a gladiatorial contest with twenty three other children, including one who is in love with her, crafting a character who is both heroic and overwhelmed, savvy and naive. The film's world, a future America called Panem in which a hedonistic, wealthy capitol lords over the dirt poor districts that produce its food, goods, and energy, is a perfect blend of the familiar, the futuristic, and the backwards--Katniss's home, district 12, looks and feels in many ways like a Depression-era mining town, but with enough touches or modernity to make it believable as a backwater of a futuristic empire, and the capitol is opulent in ways that are both enticing and strange. A strong cast, with standout performances from Woody Harrelson as Katniss's alcoholic mentor Haymitch and Elizabeth Banks as the vapid but strangely affectionate capitol representative Effie, help to bring that world to life. It is, in short, an excellent evening's entertainment.
Now to the more interesting discussion: I watched The Hunger Games with my brother, who hasn't read Suzanne Collins's book, and where I found the film excellent he was sorely disappointed. Katniss had it too easy, he complained, the plot never forcing her to compromise herself in order to survive, and never asking her to kill anyone who hasn't been heavily signposted as evil (and even then, quite rarely). This is, of course, exactly the complaint I made after reading the book, and the film indeed does nothing to address it. On the contrary, it plays up the bloodlust of "Career" tribute Cato (Alexander Ludwig), who has been training for the games since childhood and volunteered for them rather than being chosen in a lottery like the other contestants, and the sweet innocence of district 11 tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg), whom Katniss adopts as a surrogate for the beloved younger sister whose place she took in the games, and whose death justifies Katniss's first kill. The sequence in which Katniss first bonds with Rue, then avenges and mourns her death, which concludes with her laying out Rue's body and strewing it with flowers, is one of the weakest in the film, because so blatantly--and insultingly--manipulative. (Also, the fact that both Rue and her fellow district 11 tribute, who later saves Katniss's life in Rue's honor and is then killed by Cato, are black while Katniss is white adds an extra layer of discomfort to this subplot.)
Having read the book, however, and having learned to expect a certain slavish fidelity whenever Hollywood tries to leverage a popular book's fanbase into a new blockbuster film series, I went into The Hunger Games expecting it to repeat the book's manipulations. Which left me more able to appreciate the ways in which the film does deviate from the book, and address--if incompletely--some of its problems. First and foremost, the film is forced to lose Katniss's first person narrative, which some fans might view as an impediment but is, to my mind, all to the good. First person narratives are fashionable in YA right now (I've even heard some YA authors complain that they've had trouble selling books in the third person), but in a novel as rooted in complex, painful history as The Hunger Games, the narrator is often drowned out by the infodumps they are required to deliver. The film lets Katniss breathe, moving through her world as someone who already knows it while people around her--mainly the games' administrators and commentators--explain its rules to the audience. An even bigger problem with Katniss's voice is that Collins presents her as a blunt, uncomplicated person who is uncomfortable with her own emotions and has trouble understanding others', then uses her as our viewpoint on a world whose inhabitants are a great deal more subtle and sophisticated. Another author could have shown us things through Katniss's eyes that Katniss misses or misconstrues, but Collins doesn't seem to have been up to the task. Instead, she endows Katniss with a selective knowingness that seems to have more to do with the demands of the plot than with the character's organic growth. Katniss is oblivious one moment, and psychologically astute the next, with no discernible reason for her shifts between the two states.
By stepping out of Katniss's limited perspective, and even depicting scenes in which she is not present, the film is able to preserve Katnis's naiveté while showing us the more complex world that she is only beginning to discover. Even better, it allows her to grow and learn from her experiences in the capitol. When Katniss is first selected for the games, she is combative and headstrong, because those are the skills that have served her well as her family's breadwinner. Both Haymitch and her stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) explain to her that winning the games is less a matter of martial skill and more of being able to win over an audience, and over the course of the film we see Katniss slowly learn, and then master, that skill. She goes from hanging back from the crowd when she and fellow district 12 tribute Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) arrive in the capitol, to gingerly courting the audience by showing off her dress and talking about her sister in a pre-game interview, to gamely parroting the party line in a post-game interview, playing the role of star-crossed lover, through which she and Peeta were able to win the game jointly, to the hilt.
Another advantage that stepping away from Katniss's point of view confers on the film is that it forces the filmmakers to play up the book's most interesting aspect, its take on the games as reality TV taken to its illogical conclusion. So much of the details of the film's plot are explained to us through the interviews and commentary that are being broadcast across Panem that we become viewers of the Hunger Games, which, through those scenes of commentary, emerge less as Katniss and Peeta's traumatic, life-changing experience and more as a longstanding sporting tradition, in which the current batch of tributes are but the latest participants. References to previous games and victories, and comparisons of the events in the current games with those of previous years, not only have the effect of making the film's world seem more real and more layered, but reinforce the sense that the games are entertainment, and that the high stakes that the characters feel are nothing but an evening's amusement to those watching them.
It is perhaps for this reason that the one place in which moving away from Katniss's point of view hobbles the film is the love story between her and Peeta. In the book, Katniss is thrown not only by her own confused feelings but by the fact that her life depends on being able to successfully perform infatuation, but the film doesn't bring across the complexity of her feelings. Her romance with Peeta in the games arena feels rushed and unconvincing, and though this is at least in part a problem with the transition from page to screen--Peeta is probably the most shortchanged of the film's major characters--given the importance of performance, and especially the performance of romance, to the story, this failing can't help but reflect on The Hunger Games as a whole. It's possible that the film intends for us to conclude that Katniss and Peeta's romance is purely a play for the audience's sympathy, though this is to simplify the book's version of the relationship quite considerably. What I think, however, is that the film actually expects us to think the opposite, and take the romance as wholly genuine. And therein lies the problem, as a story that emphasizes the falseness of everything that Katniss does and says expects us to accpet unquestioningly that this one behavior is genuine.
This, even more than the manipulative way in which it guides Katniss through the games without compromising her, is the core problem of The Hunger Games, book and film--and both are rooted in the same unwillingness on Collins's part to take real risks with her characters or her story. The film presents us with a scenario whose artificiality it trumpets at every turn, and then expects us to selectively accept parts of that scenario as genuine. Nor is this expectation of selective credulity limited to the love story between Katniss and Peeta. In the film, as in the book, Katniss is the heavy favorite to win the games, both among the people who know her and the ones she meets in the capitol. In the book, this feels like the natural conclusion to be drawn given Katniss's courage and skills (and, of course, the fact that she is the protagonist), but what the film emphasizes is that, as far as the characters in the story are concerned, the reason that Katniss is tipped to win is the fact that she's captured the public imagination--by volunteering to take her sister's place she's put herself at the center of a heroic narrative, and the people watching at home want that narrative to end satisfyingly. One of the most interesting deviations the film makes from the book is Cato's final scene. Where in the book he's triumphant all the way to the moment that Katniss vanquishes him, in the film he's despairing. "I'm already dead," he says. "I didn't realize it at first but now I do." It's a puzzling line--Cato is close to winning to game--until one reads it as Cato's realization that, like so many reality contestants before him, he's been cast as the story's villain, someone the audience enjoys but doesn't want to see win. And if Cato's villainy is, at least in part, a story imposed upon him, what does that say about Katniss's heroism?
It's a question that the film doesn't seem interested in addressing. Much like her romance with Peeta, Katniss's heroism is something it expects us to accept as genuine, even though both are more complicated. What's missing here, I think--what could have defused the sense that The Hunger Games is trying to have its cake and eat it too, to decry the violence and artificiality of the games, but also to revel in them as a meaningful contest of skill and courage--was some sense of the games' audience. Not the people who manage the games, nor the ones, like Katniss's friends and family, who have a direct stake in them, but the ones who consume them as entertainment, for whom the story of Peeta and Katniss's doomed love and triumph against the odds is the best show on TV. The equivalent, in the other words, of the bored security guards following the story in The Truman Show. The bread and circuses reference in Panem's name almost requires that such people exist, but we never see them. Instead, the people of the districts watch the games in solemn silence (giving way to riots in district 11 after Rue's death) while in the capitol they are a cause for celebration, which among other things feels unrealistically stark--surely there would be people in the capitol who recognize the games' barbarism, and people in the districts who enjoy rooting for their favorites and against the districts they dislike. To show us such an audience would have been to make it clear that the games are a show, and that their artificiality infects everything that occurs in and around them--Peeta and Katniss's love story, and Katniss's heroism, included. But this, I think, would have been a great deal more cynical than the film is willing to be, and the fans are willing to tolerate.
In the end, though it addresses many of my problems with the book, and though it is such a massively entertaining film, The Hunger Games can't--or possibly won't--escape the hollowness at the center of its original. As Hollywood's looting of geek culture becomes ever more frenzied, I find myself repeatedly falling into the trap of thinking that a new take on an interesting but flawed work might chip away at those flaws and bring to the surface what was interesting and worthwhile. What I keep bumping up against is the fact that in the new world of book-to-film adaptations, the ones looking to court a preexisting audience that numbers in the millions, fidelity to the source material is, for better and worse, the highest virtue. The Hunger Games could, and should, have been a meaty, thought-provoking film, but only by stepping away from its source. By remaining faithful to the book, the film is merely a very good piece of entertainment. That's by no means a small accomplishment, but it's hard to watch the film, enjoyable as it is, without lamenting what might have been.