(Warning: the following post contains spoilers from both The Hunger Games book and film. Proceed at your own risk.)
Two years ago, I walked out of a theater having just seen Inception for the first time and was depressed because it was the best movie I had seen in about ten years, and I’d probably only see about eight or nine movies as good as it for the rest of my life. Few do what Christopher Nolan did with Inception:take a radically original premise and pushes it to its limits, all the while ignoring what any other film has done before it, all on a grand scale. But after reading The Hunger Games and seeing the movie, I was severely disappointed because I’d just watched a film that had an equal premise but took no such risks and offered a poor character.
Let me make a concession: The Hunger Games is commercially successful. There’s something in this movie that speaks to young people, and it is at some points pure spectacle, such as Rue’s death and the subsequent rioting in District 11, along with Katniss’ tears. Katniss’ voice, as she provides for her family, echoes the despair of the lower classes, and her character isn’t the spoiled brat Bella Swan is. The whole idea of teenagers forced into a killing competitions breads the possibility to explore so many idea, and when you see the film half-explore them, it is maddening.
The Hunger Games frustrate as they seems to know what to do at times, and other times, they seem clueless, in virtually the same narrative situation. For example, director Gary Ross wisely keeps the violence off-screen in places where it’s needed: the bloodbath at the opening of the games, Cato’s mauling by the dogs, and death of the boy who rigged the mines after Katniss destroy the career’s food supply. But in other situations, the gratuitous material lingers, like when Glimmer’s mangled remains are overshown. Also, there’s the boneheaded move of showing the dogs in the control room before they’re unleashed on Katniss, Peeta, and Cato. The games control room itself is a nice addition to the film along with President Snow and the head gamesmaker, Seneca Crane. The all the capitol supporting players and Haymitch are well cast, although it’s not overtly to find an actor to play an over-the-top TV host.
Then there’s the film’s twist: a good plot twist is not just about the twist itself, it’s about the setup and fallout. Take Katniss’ decision to destroy the careers’ food supply. She mentions it right before she does it, in both the book and film. If I had been editing the manuscript, I would have told the author to have Haymitch suggest to Katniss to destroy the food supply before the games. Make his character look smarter; an action that important needs to be hinted at earlier in the work. And in spite of this action Katniss still seems to survive by dodging the action. Other plot misses: Katniss’ failure to kill Foxface not coming back to bite her (reading the book, I thought Foxface would find and kill Peeta when Katniss went to the feast) and Peeta never disclosing to Katniss why he joined the careers at the beginning of the games. If you’re smart enough to come up with the double attempt suicide to end the games, I expect you to figure the rest of it out.
Half-an-hour into the film, I wished the screenwriter would watch some episodes of 24 to understand how to pull off a good twist, only to see at the end of the film Billy Ray, who wrote a rejected screenplay for the 24 movie, was one of the writers. A yes-man writer if there ever was one.
But the real problem with The Hunger Games has to do with the central character and her arc, or more specifically, her lack of one. At the beginning of the story, Katniss doesn’t want to marry her friend Gale, and at the end of the story, she doesn’t want to be with Peeta. That isn’t a story arc. I don’t care if Katniss were to go being in love with Gale to denying love, or from not believing in love with Gale to believing in love with Peeta. Granted, I would prefer a view of marriage that respects the institution, but either way makes for a more interesting story that what I was subjugated to.