This weekend, the hotly anticipated film adaptation of the newest YA novel sensation, The Hunger Games, opened to gazillions of dollars and confirmed that Katniss Everdeen is Hollywood’s next big thing. And, as an avid (and pushy!) fan of the dsytopic series, I obviously went to see it. I admit that I was extremely nervous, despite long supporting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She was exactly as I imagined Katniss to be in Winter’s Bone and, despite being older, curvier, whiter, and blonder than our literary heroine, I felt like she could capture the essence of “The Girl on Fire.” I was not wrong. Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, though beautified to fit Hollywood standards (come on, she’s supposed to be stinky and smelly and burned and have blood coming out of her ear, not have eyeliner on!), captures the hardness and determination of Katniss with just the look in her eyes and the set of her mouth. Well, as much as the script, co-written by original author Suzanne Collins, allows her to… but more on that later.
I was fairly happy with the rest of the casting as well. Elizabeth Banks captures Effie Trinket’s ignorance perfectly. She doesn’t come across as cartoony or villainous, even though she’s complicit in the deaths of these children. She, like most of her fellow Capitol peers, just don’t know any better. Obviously, Stanley Tucci was perfection as Caesar Flickerman. The smile, the laugh, the sincerity… Wonderful. Lenny Kravitz, who was a bit of a casting surprise to me, was calm and kind, as I imagined Cinna to be. He and Katniss had some beautiful moments, where you can see how frightened and childlike she really is under that grumpy exterior. Gale wasn’t give much to do except grouse and look jealous for a few minutes, but Liam Hemsworth seemed natural on screen. We’ll see more of what he can do in the sequels. I hope he can capture how Gale’s anger against the Capitol overshadows even his loyalties to Katniss. Finally, I thought the other tributes were cast well, especially Amandla Stenberg as Rue, Katniss’s “shadow.” She was sweet and young, yet sneaky and mischievous just as Rue is in the books. And, unlike the racist Hunger Games fans who 1) don’t have basic reading comprehension and 2) are horrible people, I was extremely sad when she died even though she was black. ::sigh::
The casting I wasn’t 100% sold on was for, unfortunately, really important characters. I thought Woody Harrelson did an okay job as Haymitch, but much of Haymitch’s drunkenness and coldness was played off more humorously than in the novels. His “sweethearts” sound more like Han Solo than like a dude who doesn’t care if you live or die and thinks you’re just some stupid girl. And, since the very first time I read the novels, I imagined that Malcolm McDowell would be President Snow. He has a tightness, a snakiness to his evil performances that I just don’t see with Donald Sutherland and his giant, giant head. Finally, and this pains me as I really like Josh Hutcherson, but I’m not sure he was the best casting for Peeta. Hutcherson’s Peeta shines with charisma during his interviews, but his ability to throw Katniss off, making her show true vulnerability, just didn’t resonate with me. Peeta might be an artist and empathetic and kind, but he’s still a match for Katniss and her will. He might not be as good at surviving, but he wants to just as badly and he’s willing to tell her how he feels about things. And, even though the love story serves mostly as a strategy for Katniss in the first book, I didn’t feel the connection between the two, even as friends. The acting was fine, it just wasn’t what I imagined in my head. I don’t really have any other suggestions, which isn’t helpful. As a fan of Peeta and his clear value system in the books, this makes me kinda sad.
As for the design and pacing and plot, the film is great. The “shaky cam” is distracting in the beginning of the film, but later helps establish this from Katniss’s POV in the arena. Since the internal dialogue that narrates the books had to be sacrificed for the film, lest we have a Blade Runner-type situation, I realize that there was only so much that could be done to capture the struggle between Katniss’s thoughts and her actions. Overall, director Gary Ross did a good job on that end. I also enjoyed the design and appreciated that they toned down some of the outlandish Capitol plastic surgery and modifications. It would have been cartoony otherwise. Instead, you have a nice distinction between Depression-era District 12 and a futuristic Versailles of sorts. The arena was well-designed, with the grid overhead always reminding the Tributes that they are in a game. And I especially enjoyed the expansion of Seneca Crane’s role as Gamemaker and seeing the control room, as excited employees use technology to help children kill other children. Overall, it was literal translation of the source material, with changes and additions that served the film format. The spirit of the novel was there and, as a fan, I was nearly as anxious for Katniss, Peeta, and Rue as I was when reading the book. And one of my film companions, who hadn’t read the series, was able to follow the story easily, which is a testament to it as an adaptation.
My biggest complaint of the film, other than their need to tone down the violence and gore due to MPAA rating stupidity: the filmmakers seem a little too concerned with making her likeable like that other YA phenomenon’s female, Bella Swan, removing some of the hardness and the complexity that makes Katniss such a great literary character. Yes, we get to see some of the “classic” Katniss moments from the novel: reacting harshly to her distant mother, violently chastising Peeta for airing his feelings to all of Panem, killing living creatures with lethal skill, shocking the Gamemakers when feeling slighted, and making public acts of protest in the Arena. However, the thing that defines Katniss for me in the novels is that she is not acting this way out of some nobel sense of right or wrong: she is acting out of self-preservation. This is not to say that Katniss has no moral compass: she clearly knows (mostly) right from wrong. But what falls into that category must also follow her guiding principle: to survive. It seems harsh, but it’s actually one of the reasons she proves to be a true hero in the latter two novels of the trilogy, acting not out of an ideology or a strategy or a grand scheme. It is a compelling characteristic, especially in a female heroine. She is not acting out of romantic love, though those feelings do shape her decisions as time goes on, or maternal love, though she takes on the role of mother to her sister Prim, and, in the Games, to Prim’s surrogate Rue. And she most certainly doesn’t break down crying, even when the sadness overwhelms her, especially not on camera. Katniss is always acting based on one basic tenant: these people are mine to take care of, so I will do what I must.
Why then, when the film makes it clear that Katniss is determined to go home for Prim, am I complaining? Because there is a pivotal moment in the climax of the book, when Peeta and Katniss believe they have survived only to find out that the rules have once again been changed on them. In the film, Peeta tells Katniss to go ahead and kill him, acting as martyr for his love. In the book, there is a split second, right after the announcement, where Katniss’s original instinct is to raise her bow at her friend. Because that’s how she will get home to her sister. Because that’s what she needs to do to survive. Of course, her next decision is to force the Capitol’s hand with a handful of berries, sparking the resistance that takes up much of the second two novel’s focus. But for just a moment, we know, as does Peeta, that Katniss can and would kill him if she had to. That’s apparently not attractive enough for Hollywood’s love story. Sadly, it’s the viewer’s loss because those moments in the book are what make Katniss’s ultimate decisions that much more impactful… and dangerous to the powers that be.
Despite this complaint, I recognize that books are different from films as a medium and that complexities can be lost along with the lack of internal insight. Perhaps we will see a harsher Katniss as the leaders of Panem push harder against her in the next two films. I mean, you can’t show all your cards in the first film, can you? That’s just not how Hollywood works. At the end of the day, it is a great moment when a female-written heroine, fighting for her life and justice and not for some boy to love her, is making records at the box-office. That alone is enough to bring in my praise… and my dollars.