I’m not ashamed to admit I saw “The Hunger Games” on opening weekend. Well, I’m a little bit ashamed. Especially after actually seeing the movie.
I’d been meaning to get around to the book, but had recently joined a journalism book club and was still trudging through the piles of reading for my graduate classes – so it seemed there was no time for a fluff read, nor did I plan to pay $12 for a paperback book that I’d spend more time wanting to rewrite than enjoy.
But then I was staying at my sister’s apartment in Dallas and as I was leaving I swiped The Hunger Games from her for light, airplane reading. And it should come as no surprise that compared with the dense history of the Medill family I read on the way there, The Hunger Games seemed wildly entertaining.
And after seeing the film on a whim last night it’s safe to say I’m frustrated, for some lowbrow reasons, but for many intellectual ones as well.
Before you patronize me with some comment that The Hunger Games was meant to be a blockbuster, meant to be a light form of entertainment, I want you to think about the story. I mean really think about the story.
The entire country is currently obsessed with a story that takes huge stabs at big government and reality TV.
For those of you who fall outside behind the current epicenter of popular entertainment (lucky you!), here’s a brief synopsis. It’s sometime in the distant future and North America is now a desolate country called Panem. The government is so corrupt in Panem that the 13 districts that provide the resources – ie coal, bread, etc. – attempted to overthrow The Capitol, to no avail. In order to keep these rebellious districts in check The Capitol wiped out District 13 and forces the remaining 12 to give up two teenagers for the national event of the year The Hunger Games, where they will fight to the death and the one that remains will be celebrated for a lifetime. These games will be televised across the country as a reminder that The Capitol still has control.
If the games sound like reality TV, that’s not a mistake. It’s the same basic model behind the shows we watch on a regular basis, Survivor, The Amazing Race, MTV’s The Challenge, and so many more. We put people in severe conditions and see who survives. We don’t kill them, but we hope they will fight and that maybe there will be a little blood. And from these shows we create celebrities.
Because that’s how human nature works. That’s how people with easy lives are entertained -they watch people with harder lives and find amusement, Schadenfreude. Especially a culture that doesn’t face the realities of war, thanks to the lack of a draft. The easier our lives are, the more we want to see bloodshed.
When I read the book, I hesitated to call the author Suzanne Collins an idiot, because I wanted to believe she knew the bold statements she was making. That when she created the protagonist Katniss Everdeen she was taking on the clash between the haves and the have-nots and that she was challenging modern expectations of entertainment.
I wanted to believe she saw an American culture not far from Rome and the gladiators and that she was saying something with her dystopian novel, as clumsily as she may have done it. That she was the Katniss Everdeen of America, forced to participate in our entertainment conventions in order to do good.
Instead she gave us a story that swallows up millions of dollars and countless hours that could be dedicated to the same, more eloquent plotline that exists in Battle Royale, or Ender’s Game, which The Hunger Games does little more than rewrite in Kindergarten-level English.
And the movie approaches this story with a weary tone.
In my opinion there are two types of book-to-film adaptations. There are movie-books and there are book-movies.
Book-movies are those in the vein of Harry Potter, Pride and Prejudice, or any of the multitude of comic book hero movies – they tell the story with easy-to-catch-up plots and plenty of movie-magic. You don’t need to have read the book to understand the movie, it is now a new, stand-alone piece. It is a movie.
Movie-books are those more closely resembling The Golden Compass or The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (The American version). They seem more concerned with rewarding the audience members who’ve read the book. Like an inside joke for old friends. Either reinforcing or offering alternative imaginings of important plot points. Illustrating pivotal scenes, so that if you wished to read it again you would now have an image to attach to the words.
In spite of having devoured the book not a week before, I was frustrated. The movie very clearly talks down to its audience.
The storytelling device of irony is powerful. And it seems obvious in this story that we are supposed to find ourselves cheering on Katniss in the games, to then realize we are cheering on the games themselves and are therefore as sick as The Capitol.
But the movie doesn’t allow us to have this realization. Instead we are immediately alerted that this world is twisted. James Newton Howard may have written the worst score I have ever fell subject to in a movie clocking in at over 2 hours. Rather than underlining important moments and encouraging the audience to react, the music usually dwindled off into a silence meant to be deafening that was instead boring.
If you want to scold me for disliking the movie, please explain to me why you liked the reaping scene. (This is the scene where Katniss steps in to the games to replace her 12-year-old sister whose name has been chosen). Where was Haymitch? Why was Effie never introduced or explained? (I don’t think her name was even used in the film) And why did it take Katniss two minutes to react? Shouldn’t it have been more visceral? That scene was proof that this was a movie-book and had little merit as a film. In books, we can spend pages reading Katniss’ thoughts and reactions to her sister’s name being pulled and yet still believe she had a gut reaction – that she screamed out and rushed to her sister. In a movie, it shouldn’t take two minutes to show her face.
And why did the movie rush through the scenes at The Capitol? Without explanation, Haymitch has given up his alcoholism. Katniss is never given the opportunity to develop a friendship with Peeta, while struggling with the reality that she will have to kill him. And the strategy Haymitch and Effie develop for the pair that ultimately allows them to win is never mentioned.
Finally, the continual flashbacks of Peeta throwing her the bread might have been the worst piece of exposition in the entire film. She has a great line in the book, “You never forget the face of the person who was your last hope.” And in the movie it looks like he throws the bread to the pigs and not to her.
But this is a movie-book, interested only in those people in the audience who have read the book. So to enjoy this blockbuster that seems to critique a world in which entertainment is king the audience is required to be completely immersed in its world. To have read the book, to see the movie, to be the ultimate fan. It’s a metaphor that perpetuates what it condemns.
And so I offer my retraction, Suzanne Collins obviously does not understand what she wrote, which leads me to believe the idea is not wholly hers. And The Hunger Games was an even worse movie than it was a book.