Way back in April, I promised a review of the Hunger Games movie from a smart critic of media who hadn’t read the book and knew almost nothing about it going in. My guinea pig friend (we’ll call him The Mad Neuroscientist, or TMN for short) missed the movie while it was still in theaters, but we took a vacation in Turkey together last month, and guess what was a movie option on our return flight? We synched up our seat-back TVs, I pulled out my tablet to take notes, and he obligingly provided running commentary.
“Too long; didn’t read” version: “After [the girl on fire scene], this was an unintelligible action movie. I feel like all character development happened off screen.” That was more or less the reaction I expected — like most of the Harry Potter movies (and a great deal of movie adaptations in general), Hunger Games hangs dramatic, lushly filmed vignettes on the barest skeleton of the book’s plot. It can be poignant for people who’ve read the book and can flesh out the plot for themselves, or fun for people who are happy to enjoy a quality action flick, but the book’s depth isn’t there as a stand-alone film.
If you’re curious what parts made sense, what parts were infuriatingly confusing, or what wisdom he had to offer (he noticed a number of things I hadn’t seen), read on for the play-by-play! (With the caveat that of course this is just one guy’s thoughts. A different guinea pig viewer might see things differently.) Or just skip to the wrap-up. Obviously, I spoil all the things.
In District 12:
He’s impressed with Katniss’s snarl at Prim’s hissing cat: “I’ll cook you!” That conveys a great deal about the world to him very early; not only are they dirt-poor, but they’re hungry enough to eat cats.
The mechanics of the Games make no sense; he has no clue what Gale is saying his name is in 42 times for. The intro text is totally insufficient.
“Very Appalachian,” he notes of the scenery. Effie, on the other hand, “evokes late decadent Roman empire… and even more so, French monarchy.”
“I did not expect her to have a mother. The attitude she had towards her sister is very ‘I’m raising you.’” This is cleared up at the goodbye scene, and I think speaks well of Jennifer Lawrence’s acting that this relationship was implied without knowing why.
“That’s an intentionally mocking motto” for the Games — of course they can’t be in everyone’s favor. Well said; I hadn’t put it in quite those words for myself.
His biggest confusion at this point, aside from not entirely getting how the Games work, is about the world. How big is District 12? How big is Panem? Are we talking suburbs around a city, the entire former United States, the whole world, another planet entirely? They’re poor, but why — because it’s enforced? Because they’re far away from the Capitol? Who’s in charge? What’s the governmental structure of Panem and of District 12? (The question of how the Districts relate to each other is, of course, really important, and that hasn’t even come up as a question yet.) Katniss and Gale’s hunting is clearly unusual, but why? The fence looks totally abandoned; it’s not clear that what they’re doing is illegal. The two-second scene in the Seam is meaningless; without seeing K sell her kills, he can’t tell anything about their economy. None of this got cleared up particularly as the movie progressed. So already it’s failed pretty badly: science fiction needs world-building, or the point of the story is lost.
On the train:
“Not sure that montage [of coming aboard the train] set me up for how shocking the transition is” from District 12. The display of food, in particular, isn’t shocking enough — “This is a world in which cats are sometimes eaten.” Couldn’t agree more; nobody’s hungry enough in this movie. Since the train style and piles of food are more familiar to most viewers than the deprivations of District 12, we’d have to get really comfortable in District 12 for it to feel like a shock.
In the book, the train introduces Katniss’s and Peeta’s characters, and sets up one of the major themes of the story: their past relationship, their class distinction at home in 12, and their resulting strengths and weaknesses in the Games. Katniss is tough but misanthropic; Peeta’s had a relatively soft life, but knows how to work a crowd. In only a few movie-minutes on the train, with none of K’s internal monologue, none of this comes through.
It’s clear K and P have a history, and that it’s not one K is happy about, but TMN has no idea what’s going on with that history. Something to do with muddy pigs? And bread? He does get that they’re “setting up very different approaches” between K and P, but isn’t sure what those approaches are, especially since he thinks K, not P, convinced Haymitch to help them. The loss of that scene was a serious missed opportunity, I thought when I saw the movie at first, and I was right that it creates a lot of confusion.
Haymitch was a source of tremendous confusion throughout the movie, in fact. On the train TMN commented that his drinking might be symbolic of the “corrupting influence of the decadence” of the Capitol; once they got to the Capitol, he revised, “maybe he’s just using [alcohol] to mask his distaste [of Capitol decadence].” I wasn’t sure where he was going with that, until I found out later that he thought H lived in the Capitol (and later, that he sponsors K’s gifts). And why not? All we’re told about H is that he’s the only living winner from District 12; it’s never really explained what happens when you win the Games.
He does laugh at “That is mahogany!” So there is that. Effie is one of the few characters whose personality and role come through loud and clear exactly as they are in the book.
My impression on first viewing was that the reality TV analogy was one of the most successful aspects (in no small part, we agreed, due to the talents of Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman). TMN was certainly less confused during this section and more able to show off his media criticism:
On K’s beautification process: “I like that — they’re alternating between shots that look like caring for an animal and beauty parlor shots, which evokes a very clear role that they’re playing.”
On Cinna: His conflict is an interesting choice (he’s of the Capitol decadence, but on K’s side). TMN guesses that he’s dressing K as a symbol of revolution (although that doesn’t really happen until the next book), “which gives this a point beyond her survival to get home to her sister.” My first reaction was, why do you feel this needs a point beyond survival? The reason was, basically, that most science fiction gets more global/political than mere survival story — which made sense when I found out later that he wasn’t aware this was the first part of a trilogy. It’s Standard YA Trilogy Form: first the conflict is personal, then the conflict becomes political, then the characters succeed in changing the world. But that’s a genre convention that isn’t necessarily obvious to “outsiders.”
The “girl (and boy) on fire” costumes: “symbolically burning the youth.” Nicely put, sir. Of course there is a major age-conflict component to this story, though I hadn’t labeled it as such before. Not that it hasn’t always been there, but I feel like that’s becoming an even more common and overt theme in YA dystopians lately.
Once again, we don’t know nearly enough about District 12. “I have frustratingly little background to her life before to compare” to the hotel. “They want me to share her visceral reaction, but it isn’t coming.”
K turning off the screen in her room is “a symbolic rejection of falsity.” Well put. That scene seemed a bit like a waste to me when I first saw it, mostly there to remind us that she’s a good forest hunter far away from home, but this comment added an extra layer for me.
Overall, “It reminds me of The 5th Element: the out-of-touchness of frivolity and the media obsessiveness.” I only saw that movie once when it came out, so it’s not in my go-to film vocabulary, but I think I agree: the aesthetics are really similar, and I think that’s a problem. The 5th Element is totally bananas; we’re supposed to be distanced from the wacko characters and their off-the-wall world. The Hunger Games is subversive only if it’s clear that we are the Capitol, so we have to be able to relate to them somehow.
“She’s getting too good at working the crowd — they’ll have to set her up for a fall, or else there’s no narrative arc; she’s already the best.” This was an ongoing problem for TMN: he felt throughout the Games that K was clearly the best at everything, effortlessly. She didn’t feel like an underdog in comparison to the Careers, even without the benefit of their training; she didn’t feel sullen and unlikeable in comparison to Peeta. Without the flaws in K’s character, the story doesn’t work at all.
And Haymitch continues to be confusing. He’s clearly had a character transformation, cleaned up his act, but it came out of nowhere — “I assume something about her reawakening him to the fight of his youth, but that’s all based off of stereotypes rather than anything they’re conveying.”
As I found out later (when I couldn’t understand why he was upset with K and Rue for not running right after Rue got out of the trap — “They’re totally unprepared kids, not commandos!,” I exclaimed), the entire training program was unclear — TMN assumed it was months, not days, which would erase much of the Careers’ advantage and make even the weakest tributes real contestants. Ah, the limitations of a montage.
The Cornucopia was “a very well directed combat scene. I could follow everything, but I didn’t have time to process it.” In general, he found the action-movie parts the most effective. Which is not a surprise; it’s more important to a blockbuster’s bottom line to have thrilling action than cerebral political subversion, so of course that’s the language in which the filmmakers were most fluent.
Of course, the casualty there is a followable plot. It never makes any sense how the Games work: “Fire ball launchers seem a little bit [over-the-top]. They’re not even pretending this is a natural disaster.” Even after the tracker jackers and the Muttations, it’s never clear that the Games are a totally controlled environment rather than a real forest that Seneca is manipulating.
Nor is it ever clear that Panem is an almost totally controlled environment: “If I were in this situation, I’d be breaking every camera I came across.” Why she can’t — because the Games are the most important symbol of a tightly restricted dictatorial regime, and her family would be in danger if she showed that kind of rebellion — is never spelled out. I think in this case the movie-makers assumed their viewers would fill that in because they’re familiar with the genre conventions of post-apocalyptic dictatorships, but TMN is so lost by that point that he doesn’t know what he can reliably assume and what he can’t.
He’s started referring to the Careers as Romans. As in, “They haven’t trained these Romans in natural tactics very well” when the Career alliance trees Katniss but fails to kill her. That really is a laughably bad scene.
The political machinations of gift-giving are totally lost on him. Partly this is because he thinks Haymitch is the sponsor (as he reasonably explains, Haymitch signs the notes). So what’s up with those scenes where he’s talking to fancy-dressed people we’ve never seen before? And, of course, with neither an appreciation of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship (or Katniss and Gale’s relationship, for that matter), nor an understanding of the subtleties of sponsorship, none of the “pretend to be star-crossed lovers” business — the entire point of the last quarter of the movie — makes any sense.
The District 11 rebellion is the last straw. “I have no way of interpreting the movie at all right now, because I don’t know if she’s the leader of a nationwide rebellion.” We saw the three-finger salute at the beginning, but it had no context then either — is it the symbol of an already-extant rebellion? If so, did K start that rebellion? Do the Districts communicate with each other at all, and if so, how? Why is it such a big deal that K decorated Rue’s body, and why on earth should that be a signal for District 11 to start rioting? Not to mention, why are there so many police in 11 in the first place? (It was never clear, I discovered, that everyone was forced to watch as a form of subjugation; he assumed people were choosing to watch because their loved ones were involved.) We’ve never seen any other Districts until that point; the story just got a lot bigger and he has no way to make sense of that.
At this point, he’s so enthusiastically frustrated (and I am, I’ll admit, so frustrated at not being able to explain away his frustration) that my commentary notes get less coherent. Just assume from here on out that nothing, save the basic “they won the Games and survived” storyline of a generic action movie, makes any damn sense.
For me and the friends I saw it with, the movie version of Hunger Games was a powerful series of moments that evoked at least some of what was most powerful about the book. Watching with The Mad Neuroscientist confirmed what I suspected, though, which is that that only works if you know the book. It’s almost the film equivalent of a sense of humor entirely built on re-working Monty Python quotes: the joke is funny to the initiated, because it calls back to a remembered funny moment, but leaves everyone else out in the cold.
I say “almost” because of course there’s a great deal more creativity involved in making a film than in quoting one (even if that Python joke is re-worked in a new context). I do think it’s valid that the movie worked for fans — a more poorly made film could have called back to those moments from the book ineffectively; it is an achievement that we felt the emotions we did. But it still feels like an in-joke, albeit on a very large scale. It’s a new genre, I think: the movie adaptation that isn’t meant to stand alone, but instead works best as a visual component to the pre-written text; the opposite of a commentary track.
Can you think of other movies that feel that way, whether you read the original text first or not? And if you also saw the Hunger Games movie before reading the book, I would love to know how similar your experience was to The Mad Neuroscientist’s.