I took the afternoon off today and finally went to see The Hunger Games. After finishing the novel (my review), I wasn't quite ready to rush to the theater -- I needed to "sit" on the story for a few days. I'm glad I waited -- this movie was a powerful book-to-screen adaptation, probably one of the best -- in that it is so faithful to the source material -- adaptations that I've ever seen. I suppose that is what you get when the author has a background in screenwriting and helps craft the screenplay (WIN). I'm not interested in rehashing the plot -- if you're unfamiliar with that you can check out my review. But there are points that I want to discuss, so let's go...
First of all, I LOVED the look of District 12. It's described as what once was Appalachia, remote, mountain living -- but Collins's prose is so terse, so matter-of-fact not a lot of time is spent dwelling on Katniss's home (it's just taken as a matter of fact). In the world of the film, District 12 is very Depression-era Appalachia, a bleak, rough existence. Evoking the feel of 1930s-era history is brilliant, a perfect fit for the hardscrabble, coal-mining existence that Katniss hails from. And when we're introduced to the gaudy, colorful world of the Capitol, the differences are so stark as to be horribly jarring. The line of demarcation between the haves of the Capitol and the have nots of District 12 was almost nauseating in a way.
I was incredibly impressed with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. I've only seen her previously in X-Men: First Class (where she played the young Mystique). At only twenty-one, Lawrence has an assurance and screen presence far beyond her years. In the novel we have the luxury of being completely immersed in Katniss's thoughts and feelings, thanks to the first-person narration. I found Lawrence to be more than up for the challenge of conveying the full scope of Katniss's emotions -- her determination, fear, uncertainty, and anger. And I love the fact that she isn't your typical stick-thin starlet. Physically she was completely believe able for me -- this was a girl at home in the woods, a huntress. Lawrence can be a very expressive actress, and at her age, with the screen presence she has now -- wow, talk about a bright future.
I should probably mention Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Now I've only read the first book, so I don't even understand how there can be such a thing as "Team Gale." So for a character I was already relatively ambiguous about, Hemsworth got the job done. Though I have to say it was rather jarring seeing him without his trademark blonde hair. Oh, one development I did like as far as Gale goes in this film is that we see his troubled reaction to watching the Katniss/Peeta relationship play out during the games, something not possible in the novel.
Now that I've got that Gale person out of the way, I can talk about Peeta. I was a little concerned based on the brief glimpses of Peeta in the previews that Josh Hutcherson would come across as a little too...wooden, I think is the word I'm looking for. I was pleasantly surprised to have my fears proven groundless. Through his performance, Hutcherson grows Peeta from the baker's son, almost shell-shocked at being chosen during the Reaping, to a charismatic, engaging and most importantly, in love, youth on the verge of losing the girl he loves to the Games. I've read several reviews that feel the Katniss/Peeta screen relationship was lacking. Now while I would've always loved to see more of their slow-burning relationship, what we're given on-screen worked extraordinarily well for me. The film allows us to see Katniss's gradually dawning realization that for some reason beyond her comprehension, particularly in the context of the horrible situation they're in, Peeta matters. And Peeta quite frankly adores her, a fact that Hutcherson conveys extraordinarily well.
District 12's Games organizer is the garish Effie Banks, and Elizabeth Banks does a terrific job portraying all of her absurd extremes. And her clothes -- oh they were fantastically realized. I love love loved Lenny Kravitz as the designer Cinna (gold eyeliner and all). He was grounded, as compassionate as can be given the situation -- I was quite happy with the film's delivery of the Cinna/Katniss friendship. And his costumes were extraordinary -- girl on fire, indeed. But even more interesting to me, though, was Woody Harrelson's performance as 12's sole previous victor, the drunken Haymitch. I really liked Harrelson's performance -- in the novel, Katniss is frustrated or hostile to Haymitch much of the time, so I had a hard time getting a good sense of his character, his thoughts and perspective. And Harrelson riddles Haymitch with self-loathing, a quality he gradually puts aside as the realization that he might actually be able to save Katniss and Peeta penetrates his alcohol-clouded brain. At least that's how it hit me.
EDIT: I can't believe I forgot to mention Stanley Tucci's performance as Caesar Flickerman, the interviewer and Games commentator. His mannerisms, his blue hair -- oh he was hilarious, and pretty much pitch-perfect for the role. The periodic commentary he shared with Toby Jones as Claudius Templesmith was yet another way the filmmakers took the narrative outside of Katniss's head and let us see the Games from the outside in, as it were.
Witnessing Haymitch's behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of his tributes was one of the "added" scenes in the film, things Katniss could never know because she was locked in the arena. Frankly I thought peeking "behind the curtain" into the making and running of the Games was really pretty fascinating, and for me it succeeded in making the awful horror of the event more impactful, because of the clinical, calculated manner in which the Games are staged. Since I have yet to read Catching Fire, without giving away too many spoilers is the Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley -- WHAT A BEARD) introduced? I can't remember him being mentioned by name at all. Anyways -- I thought Crane's added scenes with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) were really well-done, particularly his realization at the end of the film that he isn't above being a pawn in the Capitol's plans any more than tributes. I also assume that Snow becomes a much bigger player in the second and third novels -- thanks to Sutherland's performance I already hate him. Sutherland was chilling.
At the moment I really can't think of another film that was guaranteed blockbuster status that was filmed without much of the gloss and glamour you expect from Hollywood. Director Gary Ross and his team have imbued every aspect of this film with a sense of gritty realism and authenticity, helped by a lot of handheld camera work that adds urgency and energy to sequences, visually mimicking Collins's high-energy prose. Even the film's score (provided by James Newton Howard) eschews the tendency of blockbusters-in-the-making to go for loud and bombastic. The cues evoking the mountainous, folk music traditions of Katniss's home are gorgeous, a stark contrast to the dangers facing her and Peeta in the arena. Like the novel, watching The Hunger Games is an unsettling experience -- I think the film hit me even a tick harder than the book did, which I thought was an interesting and honestly somewhat unexpected reaction. It isn't the level of violence -- that's certainly there, but honestly there could have been more, all things considered. I think being outside of Katniss's head, seeing her in this unfathomable situation, seeing the people gleefully betting on a tribute's odds in the Capitol, seeing the Gamemaker's employees clinically raining horror down on the heads of survivors in the arena -- seeing all of this drove home the novel's ripping condemnation of our voyeuristic, desensitized society in a fresh, powerful manner.
The Hunger Games is really an extraordinarily well-done adaptation, a prime example, I think, of thoughtful filmmaking. This is a team that cares about the source material, and I dearly hope they carry this passion through to the sequels. I feel like this post only touches on what I could say about this film, what worked, what was changed -- but that would require more thought (and most likely additional viewings). However, if there's anything I haven't touched on (I try so hard to be thorough, ha!) that you'd like to try and discuss please feel free to mention that in the comments.