Massive Hunger Games movie reviewapalooza

I saw it opening weekend, of course, but I’ve held off on writing my review until I could see it a second time. (And take three receipt-backs’ worth of notes in the dark, because I’m that nerd girl.)

I should start by making it clear what I think the book is about. Or rather, I should quote my friend Deborah, because she says it very well in her HG movie post:

a book where the desperately poor fight and struggle simply to survive while they produce material goods for the upper classes. …A book where even the working folk among the top strata of society live in luxury unimaginable to the people at the bottom, a luxury whose every bite of food and scrap of cloth relies on the direst poverty of the people at the bottom. A book in which the malicious and cruel control by the people at the absolute top would be unmaintainable without the complacency of individuals — often genuinely nice, kind, well-meaning — lower down in the upper echelons.

In other words, I thought I was looking at a vicious condemnation of us.

So what worried me most as I went into the movie was that this subversive condemnation would be stripped away in the interest of box office success. Overall, it succeeded far better than I feared but less well than I dreamed. (What else is new?)

Note: this review is a world of SPOILERS for both the first book and the movie. It’s also probably a bit scattered. Did I mention I’m working from three receipt-backs’ worth of scribbles?

We have met the Capitol and they is us?

Wes Bentley (and his gorgeously sculpted facial hair) was perfect as Seneca. He’s young, handsome, gently mannered, stylishly but not outlandishly dressed — sympathetic through and through. But his job is finding creative, entertaining ways to murder children,  and in the end he’s killed not because he stood up to Snow in some sort of heroic reversal, but because he didn’t do that job effectively enough.

I wish all the Capitol citizens had been styled like him, instead of like Willy Wonka’s bizarre sidekicks. My friend Rebecca mentions that she found the Capitol dress “queer-coded,” and I definitely agree — they’re flaming, and not in a Girl on Fire sort of way. They are also “alien” and “Other” — these are not styles the audience will covet or identify with. The clothes are described in the books as colorful and over-the-top, yes, but that could have been done in a way that retained the crucial identification of the audience with the Capitol.

Or maybe I’m wrong. The creators of Hunger Games-marketed makeup and nailpolish certainly think fans will “hope for these products in their survival packs” (see Peggy Orenstein’s post on “The Greed Games”). That makes the Capitol-is-us point way better than the movie itself ever could, for anyone with a halfway developed sense of irony. I wish I believed that included more of us.

Reality show

Part of making the audience uncomfortable was forcing us to recognize our role as voyeurs. We’re watching a movie about a reality TV show in which children kill each other, which means we’re watching children kill each other, and we’re there with our popcorn and candy and Team Whoever shirts enjoying it. The movie didn’t do so well with the “our comfortable lives rest on the misery of 99% of the world” part of identifying us with the Capitol, but this part I think they almost nailed.

The opening scene in which Cesar, the host, interviews Seneca about how the Games have been healing for Panem is perfect. They almost had me believing it. It lines up just right with the “war, terrible war” video the Districts have to watch at the Reaping, which casts the Games as a “pageant of honor,” and with the patriotic music that plays every night during the roster of the fallen — according to that music, they really are honored tributes.

And of course every time Cesar is on screen, we recognize his frivolous but comforting reality show patter. We have watched reality show hosts coax flirtatiously inane commentary out of gorgeously dressed contestants a thousand times Stanley Tucci mimics this perfectly, so I momentarily forgot that I was watching children who are about to fight each other to death and then was horrified at myself as soon as I remembered; repeat ad nauseum whenever he was on screen.

The Gameroom (which looked fantastic, even if it didn’t make much sense to see the Muttations created digitally rather than in a genetic lab) also reminded us that this was a game, not a forest survival story. I particularly liked how the Muttations walked away from Cato at the end as soon as Katniss shot him — they aren’t real animals; they don’t care about their freshly killed meat.

The thing we desperately needed more of was scenes of the fictional audience — both in the Capitol and in the Districts. It was too easy to get caught up in the action scenes in the woods and forget, until a scene of Cesar or the Gameroom reminded us, that the tributes’ every single action was being scrutinized by millions of viewers. Scenes of the tributes’ families would have been heart-wrenching, and scenes of the Capitol viewers looking like our friends on American Idol night could have been incisive.

A few perfect scenes

  • Katniss’ goodbye scene with her mom was appropriately harsh, given how angry Katniss is about how her mother has failed her and Prim. It connected well for me with this very nicely done essay about Katniss and domestic violence.
  • Katniss getting in the tube on her way to the Arena: Jennifer Lawrence perfectly captured that sense of being trapped and terrified, but having no option but to go forward.
  • In he pig scene, where Katniss displays her skill with a bow and arrow before the Gamemakers, she came off as pissed off, not calculating — that’s crucial for her character, especially without an internal monologue to tell us these things. I’ve heard some valid criticisms, but overall I think Lawrence aced this role.

The things I’m leaving out

I don’t feel like I need to discuss the racist response to Cinna’s and especially Rue’s casting, because so many people have already done it so well. I am of course disgusted, though not as surprised as I’d like to be, that so many people felt that Rue’s death was less affecting because she’s black. That’s gross and shameful and I’d rather not dignify it any further, since my response mostly consists of incoherent rage.

As for the romance angle, I’m leaving that out of this post because I’ll address it in part 2! I’ve assembled a crack team of guinea pigs: intelligent, articulate adults who are almost complete tabula rasas about the books. They’ve agreed to submit to my grilling after they watch the movie. (Perhaps they didn’t know what they were getting into. Don’t worry, I’ll buy them some beers.) If you have questions for the guinea pigs, please ask in a comment!

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9 Responses to Massive Hunger Games movie reviewapalooza

  1. Martini-Corona says:

    @ Paula: totally. I’ve heard a body-type argument against this though, like, “people can be seriously malnourished and not _look_ skinny!” And that is true in a developed society where we eat lots of calories with very nutrition — you can absolutely be malnourished and at or over average weight for any body type. But Katniss grew up *starving.* That will stunt your growth, dull your hair, etc. And the argument that she should look slightly better than her D13 compatriots because she knows how to hunt doesn’t really hold, because hunting is hard and she gives the bulk of it to Prim and her mom (and Gale’s brothers or whatever). Point being, she hasn’t been pigging out on her winnings. So, yeah — I think she looked too “well nourished.” No matter what her base body type is.

  2. Paula says:

    Was anyone else bothered by how smooth, shiny, well-nourished and even fashionably dressed Katniss (hunting scene, not reaping) was from the very start of the movie?

    • Sam says:

      Yes, totally. I meant to comment on that, actually; thanks for reminding me! It’s true that she doesn’t look starving enough, though I’m willing to cut them some slack on that because it would be damn hard to find a western actress who looks like she grew up starving. But hunger wasn’t enough a part of the movie. There was the scene of Gale giving Katniss bread at the beginning, but other than that… she and Peeta don’t stuff themselves as soon as they see the food on the train, the way they do in the book. They leave the dinner table to make an emotional point, rather than continuing to eat ravenously. They were in awe of the Capitol’s stuff, but not of its food. That seemed like a really odd and unfortunate omission.

    • Britt says:

      Yes! The hunting scene was too glamorous. In that scene there is a gratuitous close shot of her knee-high lace-up boots that was pretty clearly a nod to the nerd-fetish community as far as I could tell. (sorry to join in so late, but I just saw the movie)

  3. Greg says:

    Hi Sam,

    I think you’re spot on with most of what you say. I was particularly interested in your statement: “Part of making the audience uncomfortable was forcing us to recognize our role as voyeurs. We’re watching a movie about a reality TV show in which children kill each other, which means we’re watching children kill each other, and we’re there with our popcorn and candy and Team Whoever shirts enjoying it.”
    I felt much the same way. However, the problem is that I think to a lot of the film audience that will be it, period, and there won’t be the added self-reflection you have about how horrifying that is and what it says about our culture.

    I felt that where the film really struggled to keep up with the book was in that it was impossible (for obvious reasons) to keep up with Katniss’s running self-dialogue. Clearly she couldn’t be speaking it out loud in the arena and so we lost a layer of nuance concerning her hatred of the capital and he inner intelligence regarding the logical challenges of the game itself (work with Peeta/don’t work with Peeta/fake love/don’t fake love/really fall in love). As I said, nothing could be done the other way really (the closest they managed were notes from Haymitch that weren’t in the book), but I thought the film lacked for it a bit.

    That said, I did enjoy the film. My only major complaint was the terrible acting from Gale, which I thought also worked against the film in setting up the hatred of the Capital in the opening sequences.

    On the other hand, did anyone else (besides me and my film-going companion) laugh themselves silly at the dopey moment when the muttations first howled and Peeta turned to Katniss and asked very earnestly “What was that?”

    PS. I didn’t get a “queer” read on the Capital at all, unless now being gay is the only way to be colorfully dressed. (Mostly I thought “looks like a bag of Easter M&Ms”)

    • Sam says:

      Yup, I agree that a lot of the challenges were due to the book’s reliance on internal monologue. I’m glad they didn’t try to do a voiceover thing — I liked that they chose instead to show us more of what was going on outside the games, which we don’t see in the book. But as you say, some stuff was definitely still missing.

      As for the audience missing the point — creators of media can’t be responsible for how different consumers process it. You might be right that most of the audience didn’t get it, or you might not. Either way, that doesn’t mean it’s not a point worth making, or that it wasn’t made well.

  4. Shoshana says:

    Hi Sam! It was great chatting with you at Brick and Mortar tonight, and this is a great post. Interesting re: the “queer-coding” of the Capitol elite. I’ve heard a lot of people refer to Cinna as the most likely queer character, and I guess I’ve sort of thought that if anyone in this story is queer, it’s the anti-Hunger Games characters (i.e. the good guys) – anyone who goes against what the people in power have established as the norm. But of course, it’s fairly likely that no one actually thinks of that norm as normal…

    • Sam says:

      Yes, and we have no sense of what the Capitol thinks is normal, sexually — except for what Finnick tells us in Mockingjay about what he was forced to do, which I feel like emphasizes the queer-coding of the Capitol. Not that I think it was intentional on Suzanne Collins’ part, mind you, just interesting.

  5. Thorough review. I look forward to part II.

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