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THE HUNGER GAMES: The Conversation

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by Simon Abrams and Ian Grey
March 26, 2012 9:46 AM
3 Comments
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Hunger Games JL Bow

Now that The Hunger Games, the new film adaptation of the first book in Suzanne Collins's hyper-popular young adult book series, has raked in $68 million dollars on its opening day alone, it seems especially prudent to take a somewhat harder look at the film, both as a stand-alone work and as an adaptation. Below, Ian Grey and Simon Abrams discuss the film, which is set in a futuristic America comprised of twelve districts barely held together by a fascistic central Capitol. The Capitol residents hold an annual event called the Hunger Games, a gladiatorial contest where 24 contestants, 12 girls and 12 boys chosen at random from 12 districts, fight as a means of humiliating the residents of outlying districts. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a plucky fourteen year-old who's developed survival instincts by illegally foraging for food in the forests surrounding District 12, volunteers to take her younger sister Primrose's (Willow Shields) place in this year's Hunger Games. With the help of fellow contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) and their hyper-cynical mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss fights for her life while everyone in the Capitol and the outlying 12 districts watches.

Ian Grey: I think The Hunger Games does something conceptually radical—it’s the first CG-lite blockbuster pastoral. Otherwise, I liked-not-loved this first table-setter. The set design was a fun mélange of Starship Troopers and American Idol. Capitol's people were a properly daft mix of Lady Gaga fans and Ziggy Stardust's band and Gaultier ala The Fifth Element. Lenny Kravitz makes an unexpectedly winning Cinna and Woody Harrelson's liquored up Haymitch is even better. And, you know, there’s Jennifer Lawrence.

A big critical complaint is being slapped at the hyper-editing style used during the opening scenes of District 12 as Walker Evans-style Appalachia. I'm fairly certain the style was used because it leaves you with no choice but to pay close attention.

Another problem I'm willing to forgive Ross has to do with some blurry action scenes. I assume this has to do with the MPAA, outed recently as morally insane for giving a life-saving film like Bully an R, and who no doubt gave Ross endless notes on how to more tastefully slaughter teens.

But every time Ross' action got wonky or his pace meandered, his character love sold me on the movie. There was Katniss tucking in Prim's clothes. The strange wound erotica when Katniss and Peeta attend to each other in the cave. Or Cinna's sole vanity, his lovely thin golden eye shadow. And those extreme close-ups to Lawrence's lips to show her controlling her breath/herself before shooting an arrow.

And please, T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard's soundtrack? The way it eased from full-blown Dvořák-like romantic cues to eerie Glass-ian arpeggios to rust-bucket

Americana? Amazing work. And there's that 2001-level jump-cut that's officially Occupy's first cinema moment.

And Jennifer Lawrence. As they say, out of the park. There's a scene where she thinks Peeta has betrayed her and her rage is so violent you don't only fear for the boy's physical well-being, you feel the accumulated rage beneath Katniss' 16 years of deprivation. Like Ripley in Alien, she represents an entirely new way of thinking about women in films. For that alone, The Hunger Games is an instant classic.

That duly noted, there were things I thought simply wrong, miffed or unrealized. But that's enough for me for now.

Your turn, kind sir!

Simon Abrams: Et tu, Ian? I was sure that if anyone would get why I intensely disliked the movie version of The Hunger Games, it'd be you. The critical tongue-bathing that this movie is getting is fairly intimidating, even downright disheartening. It's sort of like when Iron Man came out and was hailed for having a semi-distinct personality rather than for its quality, or lack thereof. I can't discredit director Gary Ross as the sole reason for this new adaptation's consistent mediocrity. Collins herself co-adapted the film's screenplay along with Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, Breach), a writer/director I quite admire. But honestly, while I agree that Lawrence did deliver the goods, I find most other aspects of The Hunger Games to be sorely lacking. And like you, I dig Collins's book! I wish I could say the same for this new adaptation.

Firstly, as you anticipated, the use of violently shaky handheld cameras really bugged me. I'm specifically talking about the establishing scenes in District 12 before the Reaping, the moment when Katniss takes her sister's place. In the scenes where we see the mine workers of district 12, their hard-working wives and, uh, soil-tilling children (?!), Ross's shaky cam-work violently makes us feel like looking at working class people is punishment. Once in the Capitol, protagonists are treated like hamburgers in McDonalds commercials: they're fetishized to the point where they look beautiful. There's lots of negative space behind them, they're shot in only the most flattering close-ups and they're just generally purty-looking. So in spite of the stupid and garish-for-garish's-sake costumes of your average Capitol resident (Versailles by way of Clown College), Ross tacitly accepts that people just look better in the Capitol. This is problematic, to say the least, because spectacle is supposed to be an inherently stigmatized aspect of The Hunger Games.

Then again, Ross makes the scenes of violence during the actual games so joyless and anti-spectacular that I also kind of hate him for doing what he was supposed to, albeit in a more a creative way. Ross goes so overboard in denying his audience the relatively simple pleasures and horrors of watching kids we care about die that he zealously cuts the legs out from under his own film.

But again, Ross isn't the only one to blame, really. Collins and Ray don't follow through on a number of crucial plot points. One of the reasons why the act of being watched is so crucial to The Hunger Games is that Katniss knows she's participating in a spectator sport and must win the crowd over in order to attract sponsors that can give her food, medical supplies, weapons, etc. This is most apparent in the scene where Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) sends Katniss a care package of soup with a note that says, "You call that a kiss?" The soup is Katniss's reward for giving the games' viewers a spectacle. She kissed Peeta, the boy that's already won viewers over with his earnest displays of affection for Katniss, and has been rewarded for it.

In the book, Katniss doesn't know whether Peeta is faking it or not, though, so she is constantly wary of his advances. That aspect of their romance is not in the movie. In fact, after Katniss smooches Peeta some more, it's just understood that their romance is genuine, even if it falls apart in the book. That real-or-fake aspect to Katniss's romance with Peeta isn’t followed through on in the movie, making it a fairly dismal and dimwitted entertainment.

Ian Grey: First, Katniss's ambivalence towards Peeta has not been exnayed for the movie version, even if it's not as agonizingly nuanced as in the book.

But still, what we get are one highly qualified kiss, and another to help save Peeta's life. And afterwards Katniss rolls away in the dark.

This is not exactly love's battle's won. As Ross has chosen not to do a voice-over, the only way we can see Katniss’s ambivalence is through actions. But even now, she remains true to the books' essence of Everdeen.

The essence, Simon, is still there. Love was nothing she looked for or wanted. After Peeta declared his affection, Katniss very nearly clocked him. That Katniss is still here and we'll be seeing her in the next film. Yes, she's holding his hand. But that parting overly-glow-y smile? I don’t buy it. She knows there are cameras everywhere and that Prim and her mother’s fate depend on her ‘performance’. The smile is for them.

As for the matter of critical reception, I shielded myself, so I was, for once, a virgin regarding something.

I'm confused about the problem you have with Ross' class system, in which "Ross tacitly accepts that people just look better in the Capitol."

Dude, they're RICH! And without taste. That's the entire point of them--and of Cinna.

Look at this in real world fashion terms. The Capitol citizens are like coked out 80s Upper East Siders  bonkers onmanhandled Mugler, Sproise and Johnson. Despicable but fun to watch, in a zoo-ish kind of way. Their couture trashiness establishes that it's money, not style, art or beauty, that drives the Capitol. (Alas, Ross completely omits Collins’ concurrent fashion fascism critique.)

Anyway—who are the ugly Citizens’ opposite number?

Cinna. With his understated elegant blouse, his gold flecked eyes, his hopeless adoration for an impossible charge. He literally—in the book and in the film—fights spiritual and material ugliness with material and spiritual beauty.

That black fire-retardant chic totally worked for me. Ross and his fashion and CG team totally pulled it off. Respect.

When you say "Ross makes the scenes of violence during the actual games so joyless and anti-spectacular," I have to stop you here. I know you know that Collins' Dad was a Vietnam war vet, that the books were written out of a seething hatred of war and everything it touches.

Ross worked hard to escape that war movie paradox, that even antiwar movies are so exciting they become recruitment pictures. Not here. Ross' war is ugly and pitiful..

Simon Abrams: Your argument about Katniss and Peeta is mostly reliant on the assumption that there's a subtle but visible intelligence motivating Ross's direction. To put it bluntly: I don't think he's that clever. And because neither Collins nor Ray works to explicitly suggest that there's a disingenuous element to Peeta and Katniss's relationship post-Hunger Games, I don't buy the whole "smile for the camera" argument either.

Also, the movie's presentation of Katniss and Peeta's relationship is more inconsistent than you've suggested. For instance, during pre-Games training, Peeta abruptly decides to train alone with Haymitch. This surprises Katniss in the movie, but in the book, she just assumes Peeta wants to work on a new strategy privately. He is an opponent, after all. But in the movie, we don't see Katniss even consider that maybe Peeta's just doing what she was doing a few days earlier: trusting nobody and scheming to stay alive. So in the movie, Katniss looks doe-eyed and confused when Haymitch announces Peeta's private final session. What happened to the independent, calculating and openly wary young heroine we saw a few scenes ago?

 And as for the inarguably stupid-looking costumes that the Capitol residents wear, it's too easy to go over-the-top with these characters. The film's righteous characters are always unadorned and simply dressed, whether they're Cinna or Katniss. I mean, Cinna only gets along with Katniss because he supposedly can judge her character based on her actions. But even that nonsensical cop-out logic doesn't apply to the Capitol residents. Consider the blunt contrast Ross, Collins and Ray draw between the film's simple/good characters and the more flamboyant/evil Capitol residents. The Capitol is represented by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), the Games' announcer and the Capitol's hammy version of Bob Costas. The Capitol's absurdly decadent nature is driven home with all the grace of a sledgehammer by Caesar's hokey, theatrical commentary alone. So why then do we also need his hair to be made-up in that stupid blue bee-hive hairdo? That kind of camp may be intentional (it's in both the book and movie). But that doesn't mean I'm groaning with the moviemakers when I'm looking at it projected on the big screen.

The same goes for Ross's deadly earnest "war is hell so it should look like hell" ethos. The desperate hyper-realism inherent in that kind of violently shaking camerawork doesn't convince me that what I'm seeing is any more intense or violent. It's a textbook example of shortcut storytelling: Ross wanted to get a point across quickly and efficiently so he did it in the most direct way possible. The emotional stakes in this film don't really seem to matter, either. Even Katniss's interactions with Rue (Amanda Stenberg), the young Games contestant that she bonds with because Rue reminds Katniss of her sister, felt canned and lifeless. This movie’s three main architects all obviously know what they need to emphasize but are ultimately stumped as to how to do so.

Ian Grey: With all due respect for what you’re arguing about, regarding whether or not Ross has the skills to pull off the nuance of Katniss’ romance or lack of it with Peeta—forget the books. As much as you can, forget them.

It’s impossible, but especially now, I can’t do a book/movie battle. I could talk about how much richer Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch is than Collin’s broad comic relief confection. I could also talk about Kravitz’s gravity as Cinna (man-crush alert!) and I could complain about how they downsized the other Tributes to mere canon-fodder (at last a literal description).

Point is, I need to think about the film.

May I suggest we start with not agreeing about Ross’ war work?

What’s up with your sour grapes about the “deadly earnest "war is hell so it should look like hell" ethos”?”

I mean, is that unhip? Should war look groovy? What’s undesirable about a movie that thinks war is filthy, chaotic work done out of desperation at the bidding of morally insane monsters?

And your claim that “The emotional stakes in this film don't really seem to matter, either” is a real head-scratcher. Katniss’ entire universe circles around Prim—and so in what universe would she not transfer her feelings to a dear, small,Prim-like creature like Rue? “Canned and lifeless”? It takes two to tango.

And what follows Rue’s awful death, a death of two girls, by the way, to double Katniss’ reflecting agony, is for me, one of the greatest film experiences of my life, so when you trash it, respect that.

For me, this scene IS The Hunger Games, distilled. (It’s also Occupy’s National Banner, in images and sound.)

It’s where the film soars and Ross—who’s often all-thumbs—finds the place where subtext becomes syntax and then the only working currency in the frame.

Against Howard’s eerie Glass-on-Eno funereal thrum, Katniss prepares Rue’s body with flowers. The music and the low camera looking at Lawrence’s ruined-heart face…everything keeps building, the festering wound sun and inhumanity and that insistent music and then a jump cut to Rue’s District and the enraged crowds are tearing down the monitors that show the Hunger Games and they’re trashing barriers and attacking Peacekeepers and… Ross and Collins are saying, screaming, that a human life has worth. That sometimes one death can be one death too many. It’s what history is based on.

Simon Abrams: I wish I agreed with you, Ian. This movie fails as both an adaptation and a stand-alone film in general. You can forget the books all you want. I'm referring back to them for the sake of pointing out that Collins was more thoughtful there about themes and plot points. Even if the books didn't exist, there would still be crucial ideas that were misconceived in the movie. But the books do exist and I think that's a very good thing. Because I wouldn't care about The Hunger Games if its source material didn't exist.

With that in mind, let me address your dislike of my dislike of the abhorrent use of shaky cam. A visual aesthetic is not a mandate to replicate reality. People came to see The Hunger Games to be entertained, yes? But there are ways to get across a semi-complicated view of violence, one that reflects intensity in a visually exciting way, other than making it visually incoherent. I am not at war, I am in a movie theater. So unless Gary Ross has suddenly turned into Gaspar Noe, I don't think it's a good or especially interesting thing that The Hunger Games looks ugly. Again, the use of shaky hand-held camerawork is just a cheap means of making violence look immediately violent. It doesn't allow spectators the pleasure of realizing for themselves why the violence they're looking at is so deplorable. 

Which is why I brought up Rue. Yes, I know her death is supposed to mean something. But I felt nothing when it happened. Had Ross, Collins and Ray done their job well, I would have gasped when Rue died. 

You point to the moment where Katniss puts flowers on Rue's body as a moment of intense sadness but I could just as easily point to it as another shortcut. You want to show me Katniss mourning Rue's death? Show me her running and thinking about Rue. Show me her talking about Rue to Peeta. Earn my tears with something other than cheap flowers and a dopey riot.

Again, the Hunger Games's moviemakers just didn't grasp the power of symbolic representation in their movie. Their film is all thumbs because it's all chintz.

Ian Grey has written, co-written or been a contributor to books on cinema, fine art, fashion, identity politics, music and tragedy. Magazines and newspapers that have his articles include Detroit Metro Times, gothic.net, Icon Magazine, International Musician and Recording World, Lacanian Ink, MusicFilmWeb, New York Post, The Perfect Sound, Salon, Smart Money Magazine, Teeth of the Divine, Venuszine, and Time Out/New York.

Simon Abrams is a New York-based freelance arts critic. His film reviews and features have been featured in The Village Voice, Time Out New York, Slant Magazine, The L Magazine, The New York Press and Time Out Chicago. He currently writes TV criticism for The Onion AV Club and is a contributing writer at the Comics Journal.His writings on film are collected at the blog, Extended Cut.

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3 Comments

  • Ronald | March 31, 2012 4:34 AMReply

    Simon, you're right on the mark with everything. The film is an almost complete failure. It amuses me that so many people think it's good. I even remember having to to laugh out loud when Katniss put the flowers on Rue's grave. And that running time was intolerable.

  • Kenneth Tan | March 26, 2012 4:47 PMReply

    I'd also like to throw in with Mr. Grey: I totally agree with his assessment of the aesthetics, tone, and visual narrative chosen by the filmmakers and I was very moved and satisfied with the final product. I think Mr. Abrams is definitely made of sterner stuff -- Rue's death provoked some of the most audible and sustained gasps I've ever heard in the packed, midtown NYC screening I attended.

  • DavidH | March 26, 2012 11:29 AMReply

    Ian, you beautifully articulated why I found the Rue death sequence and its aftermath so powerful.

    I am also with you on the film; it has problems but when it hits, it hits hard.

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