I don’t normally like to review movies, because the act of tearing the work apart is about a million times easier than writing a great script, let alone developing it into a film. On the other hand, as a student of the screenwriting craft, it is very helpful to examine what works and what doesn’t. In that spirit, I offer my humble opinions, in the full knowledge that I am in no way qualified to pass judgment.
THE HUNGER GAMES left me a little sad and unsatisfied. I was never bored, or even aware of the passage of time, and for the most part enjoyed the overall experience. Having read the book by Suzanne Collins and loved it, I think that feeling a little let down by the movie is par for the course. Would I recommend it? I think so.
Although her performance was fine, I didn’t like the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen. The way she was written in the novel, she was much thinner, more vulnerable, and therefore appeared to be an underdog. The half-starved, underprivileged girl in the book made a better contrast to the overfed world of the shiny Capitol. Jennifer Lawrence looks like a champion. She’s tall and athletic, strong and well-fed. Saoirse Ronan, on the other hand, would have been fabulous in the role.
Other than that, I liked the casting. Peeta was played by Josh Hutcherson, and although he’s a little small to be believable as a baker’s son and the wielder of great physical strength, he did a great job of convincing me that he was utterly in love with Katniss. I loved Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the drunken mentor, and would have liked to see more of him. The same holds true for Elizabeth Banks, who was wonderful as the flighty Effie. It took me a few minutes to realize it was her, which was fun.
One thing that worked well for the movie was taking the POV away from Katniss and showing us behind the scenes of the production. It was also interesting to see the Districts. The book was written in first person narrative. When I was reading, I wondered how I would handle the exposition in those scenes where the explanations happened inside the character’s head. There is so much time that Katniss spends alone that I predicted voiceover narration, which would have been difficult to carry off gracefully. Instead, on TV, the host, Claudius Templesmith, announces in hushed tones that the “Tracker Jackers” are genetically-altered killer wasps. I thought the exposition was brilliantly executed. I personally would have handled it by giving Katniss more time with her allies. I would have put Rue in the tree with her to explain the wasps. I think the movie’s technique was better.
Another thing they did in the movie that worked was to give Katniss a tangible enemy in the form of President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland and his agent, Seneca Crane, whose job was to keep the games entertaining for their TV audience. With little or no personal interaction, they managed to throw many obstacles at Katniss and made a very worthy team of opponents. As my friend Shawn pointed out, the scene where Snow is trimming his roses of thorns and telling Seneca of his distaste for “underdogs” like Katniss, is a clear example of the rich and careless extravagance of the Capitol, in contrast to the impoverished persecution and cruelty in the districts.
Something that didn’t work so well for me was that Katniss seemed to get off too easily. When she killed someone, it was self-defense or in defense of a friend, or out of mercy. We never got to see her struggle with a decision of whether to shoot an arrow, or feel remorse for the deaths that she caused. In the movie, things necessarily moved quickly, but the audience didn’t get to experience her struggle enough to suffer along with her. The PG-13 rating makes perfect sense considering the YA novel it was adapted from, but necessitated a lot less blood and gore than was depicted in the book. It felt like the writers were backing off when the going got tough, rather than letting their characters suffer. As a result, the stakes are lowered, making the victories less triumphant.
Another thing they could have done better was the Main Character Arc. Since the story is about exposing the brutality of making 24 kids fight to the death every year, Katniss’ character arc would have been more effective if she had mirrored that journey in some way. I’ve been told that in an Action Movie, the hero doesn’t necessarily need to grow and change, but I disagree.
In my own fantasy script, Katniss resigns to play by the Capitol’s rules as she embarks on the journey by train. She squelches her own rebellion to gain sponsors and support to win. Once in the games, she faces the dilemma; whether to kill or be killed. She chooses to survive, but experiences the pain of the deaths she causes, and knows that even if she wins the tournament, the faces of the children will haunt her. She curses the Capitol, and gradually, she fights back. The opponent, Seneca, undermines her, refusing to let her win. Haymitch, in his own arc, pulls himself together and fights for the gifts and help she needs. The low point for Katniss is when Peeta is dying, and she blames herself and surrenders the fight. And Peeta, out of love and respect for Katniss, reminds her of all the people in the districts who are depending on her, and helps her get back on track for the final battle at the Cornucopia. But it’s not over. Seneca changes the rules, in a last-ditch attempt to force her to kill Peeta. Outraged, Katniss, on live TV, says goodbye to her mom and sister, and condemns the Capitol. She urges the districts to fight back. She and Peeta exchange tearful, moving goodbyes and raise the poison berries to their lips. At the last instant, President Snow comes over the loudspeaker and stops them. Seneca has been fired and for the first time ever, they have two winners. The districts cheer as Seneca is dragged off, struggling against the guards. Katniss is victorious.