This is How We Should Adapt Books! (LeakyNews “Hunger Games” Review)


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(Note: there are NO spoilers in the top half of this article, and only very very mild ones after the warning.)

The question, for me, isn’t whether or not The Hunger Games filmmakers got everything right.

Because they did. They got everything right. This is a damn near perfect adaptation. For fans, it’s sublime. I have almost NO nitpicks. I can point out differences from book to film, but none of them, not ONE, at this moment, seem important enough to note, never mind gripe about. If you know my history reviewing Harry Potter films, and feel shocked, don’t worry: I do, too.

The film is also brutal. I spent the entire movie clutching my chest. Anyone who claims they pulled punches should take it back. My head hurt by the end. The people I was with walked out saying the same things:

“I’m exhausted!”

“I think I ate my scarf!”

“I’m stressed out!”

“I need to rest after watching that!”

This is not what you usually hear at a movie house. I saw this film at a Scholastic screening. A room full of people who not only knew the book, but in some cases had studied it. Intensely. Gary Ross was there to say hello. (I will include his comments in a further post.) I would wager perhaps one person in the room – maybe someone’s guest – had not read the book. Yet we all sat there, hands to chests, clutching our pearls, gasping at revelations we knew were coming, flinching at the brutality we had so well imagined in our own heads as it splayed itself on the screen.

It’s a thriller, to be sure. But it’s not a particularly enjoyable film. Don’t get me wrong, this is one of the things I love most about it: a movie that can break into this kind of commercial success and not just be popcorn-grabby, “ROOM WITH A VIEW OF HELL” fare gives me hope for the medium. That it was perfectly happy making us complicit in the voyeurism of the Capitol spectacle; that it made us implicit in the undercurrents of revolution swimming through Panem; that it mimicked the reading experience of the HG books by trusting in simple, tight narrative and its power to propel us to empathy? All of these things should make us all very happy.

The question, the real test, for me, with this film is going to be in the second and third week box office figures. Does America want to return again and again, to see this flick in which you are left gasping, but also thinking? For all the gore of a horror film without any of the hand-holding and cheap entertainment to get you through the rest of it? Will there be a frenzy to watch children kill each other, in a game that has a triumph but no winners and an ending that promises only worse is to come?

We don’t ask this with books, because it’s partly why we read books. We don’t only read to escape: we do it to challenge ourselves, too. A far higher percentage of the reading public would prefer to be challenged by their material than that of the moviegoing public. Mostly we sit in a dark theater to let the screen think for us.

But this is a different type of film. If early receipts are any indication, it could cause an upset in the very type of filmmaking that matters. And that, for me, is going to be the most interesting result of all this hype.

As for the film? I said it up top, it’s damn near perfect. [This, readers, is where spoilers start. So if you don’t want to know, go away. I won’t say anything too detailed, but some of you are purists.]

The acting’s as good of a place as any to start: and it is just wonderful. Jennifer Lawrence is a gem. She’s a magnet; she uses her eyes to direct you exactly where to go and what to feel. It’s pretty remarkable to watch, actually, but not so much as to be distracting. Katniss is as she is supposed to be: fierce, but vulnerable. A survivor. Completely overtaken by what she is supposed to do but not about to sit back and let it be taken away from her, either.

Every important character statement is present, and is presented or played out in ways that won’t make you groan or feel as though the filmmakers don’t trust you enough to make the leaps. No one ever compares Rue to Prim. It is obvious. No one ever says out loud that Katniss’s memory of Peeta’s life-saving bread is the spark that warms him to her. It never has to be stated that Haymitch, while a crazy drunk, is a head smarter than everyone in the room.

All the important characterizations, you’ll find artfully explored. Haymitch’s sardonic affection for Katniss. Cinna’s quiet cool. Peeta’s dependable lovability. Effie’s hilarious and unintended crassness. The cold, calculating game room. President Snow’s rose garden and his careful use of pruning shears. Gale’s embittered (and, you can’t help but feel, knowingly helpless) rage at the Capitol. Rue’s winning sweetness. The grey slated District 12.

Yet it is no slavish adaptation. It is a loving one. It has kept the right things and changed only that which improves it in movie form. Laughs are earned; each scene builds a necessary block to the final picture. The love “triangle” is very clearly not a triangle at all, but a grievous and conflicting situation. Katniss’s internal monologues from the book are, at times, quite literally translated into visual and physical interactions; this leaves Jennifer Lawrence with more to do to bring Katniss to full life, but she is more than up to it. You can discern the reason for every change without ever feeling that the filmmakers are speaking down to you or overexplaining anything.

One of my very favorite changes has to do with Cato, and though I won’t spoil it here, it is a perfect testament to the fact that the filmmakers understood the heart and core of this book. This is one change that wasn’t, strictly speaking, necessary, but adds another layer of discomfort. It takes away any surety we have in the righteousness of any of the deaths, as though that wasn’t obvious from the get-go. It drives the knife point home, and the fidelity to the theme of The Hunger Games comes rampaging back out even at a point where, in regular Hollywoodland, we are used to the most callous of climaxes resulting in easy payoffs.

There are no easy payoffs in The Hunger Games. As a fan who was most concerned that the translation to film would result in shallowing of the book’s themes and a Hollywoodification of the storyline, it is such a relief to say that. What a brave, laudable statement to make about the possibility of film as watchable and thought-provoking. Gary Ross and company should be commended. If the moviegoing public rewards it with box office receipts that support this kind of filmmaking, we’ll all be better off for it.

We’ll be talking a lot more about The Hunger Games on LeakyNews. This is the first of many reviews and posts on the subject as our team sees and discusses the film. We can’t wait to have you join the discussion!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robyn-Matias-Jenkins/100001831740561 Robyn Matias-Jenkins

    Melissa, you are SO DAMN LUCKY. I can’t wait to see it this weekend!

  • ElizabethSM

    You’ve said everything I couldn’t after watching the movie! And Cato…it drove the point home. Can’t wait to see it again and again

  • http://www.youtube.com/missxrojas Rosianna

    I haven’t looked at the second half of this article but OMG SO EXCITED. Must display my excitement on all of the platforms.

  • Steph

    I agree with everything! Even though I’ve read the books twice already, it was still so suspenseful. I was on the edge of my seat the entire time. and yes, it was kind of stressful. I can’t wait to see it again and to read more reviews etc

  • Cait

    I am seeing THG in just over 12 hours and after reading this I don’t know how I’m going to survive that long.

  • http://twitter.com/KaraLambo Kara

    I watched it last night, and I couldn’t agree with you more.

  • Lenn

    Thank you for this amazing review!

  • Teriebeirne

    100 points for another Eddie Izzard reference. Seriously can’t wait until tomorrow to see it.

  • Dannii_o

    you’ve hit the nail on the head. everything stated is spot on. it was a truly great adaptation

  • http://www.mugglenet.com/ Kat (MuggleNet Staff)

    Great review Melissa, amazing. You’ve put all my fears at bay, and for that, I thank you! I CANNOT wait to see this movie tonight!

  • Valcollins10

    This only makes me even more upset that I didn’t start reading these until two weeks ago…

  • Nina Dems

    I saw the movie last night and I agree wholeheartedly, this movie is so well done!

  • Katherine Diana3

    Gosh, I saw it on Monday and was so worried about a lot of these things but super excited because Suzanne said she was happy with the movie and then it was so wonderfully perfect and I cried and felt everything I had in the books and I’m so excited that more people will be able to experience this story now. In summary, I’m glad you liked it! And I love how you can express the thoughts I have far more coherently than I ever could!

  • Ben Appleton

    good review but.. ‘Does America want to return again and again’… erm just because I’m not American doesn’t mean I won’t want to see the film again? Just because I’m British doesn’t affect ANYTHING. I may as well say ‘America doesn’t like Harry Potter’..

    • Critterfur7

      Well, I wouldn’t want to speak for Melissa, but maybe she was suggesting that sometimes American audiences prefer their entertainment to be less thought-provoking. And again, I wouldn’t want to throw every American movie-goer in one category, and every European movie-goer in another, etc…but there is some evidence that Americans tend to like films that have happy, clear-cut endings, while audiences in some other countries actually prefer films which have more bleak aspects and resolutions. I don’t know; I haven’t seen the Hunger Games yet, so I don’t know how dark or thought-provoking the film might get, but an example of a great movie that I was only able to watch once in my life is Schindler’s List. Fantastic script, fantastic acting, but the film is so emotionally draining that I haven’t revisited it since I first saw it; maybe The Hunger Games is an example of that on a lesser level (Melissa did say people came out of the screening feeling “exhausted”) . It’s probably not going to be the typical “popcorn” movie that is easily rewatchable (and popcorn movies can be a lot of fun, I’m not knocking them at all), but one that will require an audience to be less passive and more involved.

    • http://leakynews.com LeakyNews

      I’m legitimately asking the question, not assuming any answer. I’m very curious how this plays!!
      Sent from my Commodore 64

      • Critterfur7

        Put way more succinctly then my babbling…thanks, and sorry for any toe-stepping :)

  • http://twitter.com/themaddestcat Catherine W

    YES. Very much yes. This just adds to the excitement, I can’t wait.

  • http://about.me/dshana Shana Debusschere

    Hi Melissa, I just saw the movie for the first time this afternoon, and I completely agree with you. I loved every second of it. They treated the material with grace and understanding, and they took in the right direction.

    But, I live in Belgium and the crazyness for the Hunger Games is pretty much non-existent here. I have recommended the books to some friends of mine, but most people have never heard of it. I think there were about twelve people in the theatre. (It was a 2pm showing.)
    When the theatre paused the movie (right after the scene on the roof), I overheard some people talk about what they thought of the movie. The guys in front of us, said “I want my money back” and didn’t seem all too happy. The girls who sat right after us, sais they found the movie boring and tedious.
    I really couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I was so impressed with the way they had handled everything, I just didn’t understand. Clearly none of them had read the books, but I’m thinking the main public won’t have either..

    As we start with the second half of the movie, the pace does go up, and there’s more action and, maybe it’s a little bit in contrast with what we have seen the previous hour, but I surely didn’t mind. After the showing was done, I could hear the boys overtalk the battle sequences, so I maybe the second half changed their mind.. I don’t know.

    I really did love it. The moving of the camera, Jennifer Lawrence’s brilliant acting, the beautiful sets and the moving score. It all blended so well together. I thought it was perfect.

  • Jessie

    Yes, thank you! I saw the film yesterday and this review is spot on in my opinion. And personally, I would go see it again in a heartbeat. I enjoyed watching it very much.

  • http://twitter.com/dtm1971 David Martin

    I am anticipating the movies, but wonder how the violence plays–especially regarding my 12 year old daughter who has read the books several times and is therefore well familiar with the content. But having it portrayed visually is what I’d like opinions on my those who have seen it.

    How much worse is it than the LotR fantasy violence or the magic based violence of Harry Potter?

    Thoughts from anyone?

    • Sara C.

      I struggled with letting my 11 year old go…I saw it on my own yesterday, and wrestled with it all night. I decided this morning to allow her to go. My impression is that the violence is more “real” as it’s not violence being done by magic, which is obviously fantasy…but I don’t think that any of it is gratuitous violence…it is keeping with the themes in the books. My bigger issue is that the brain makes the pictures it can handle, with a movie, you see what is shown…so self protecting buffering available.

    • Celithrile

      I understand that concern well. However, most of the violence is handled in shaky, hectic shots that don’t really show much, and considering the setup, there is very little blood. Personally (and I’m squeamish with violence) I found the ‘quieter’ moments had more of an emotional impact on me than the violence in the Games did.

  • Kira902k

    Perfect review. I totally agree with everything (except maybe the things about Jennifer Lawrence. Something about her face really bothered me. xD But she wasn’t bad by any means).

  • Erin W

    Overall agreed: my only complaint… [Spoilery]:

    I wish it had been Cinna’s idea for katniss and peeta to hold hands in the chariot, not peeta’s, and that they had been ordered to be friendly- as this, i feel, sets up the calculated rebellion stemming from Cinna and others in the capitol, turning Katniss into yet another piece in someone’s game. Aaand I feel it better heightens Katniss’ confusion about her relationship with Peeta. I feel like by the end of the film I didn’t have that same sense of confusion and hurt from both Katniss and Peeta about their relationship/friendship and what is real and not real.

  • Erin W

    Also, the biggest compliment I can give the film: I literally finished my third reading of the first book hours before going to see the movie, and I did not walk out feel frustrated and angry about any changes. I had to stop rereading harry potter before movies to help decrease the level of frustration I’d feel. Having been that close and familiar to the original work, and leave the adaptation without angry feelings? There is no higher praise.

  • Aisling Greene

    I found the film hard and stressful, more than it was to read, but somehow, at the same time, it was enjoyable to watch as I went through the book in my head and remembered how I felt when I read it. It was a great film and I can’t wait to see it again. Plus some bits were really funny and I cried – the mark of a good film.

  • Tannah

    EFFING AMAZING! The movie was exactly like the book! I have never been to a movie that follows the book like that. This cast… wow. I am super picky when it comes to acting in movies. This is the first time I have ever been blown away. Jennifer is perfect as Katniss… and dont even get me started on Josh! lol THE BOY IS ADORABLE!

  • mmm122

    The movie reflects the general feel of the book. I’m not sure if I can say the majority of the cast was like the characters in the book, but it’s a good portrayal of the novel and a very good film.

  • J-jay

    I completely agree, it was amazing. I have only 1 complaint and that is that in the beginning, when she shoots the bird, I just don’t think that Katniss would’ve done that. She hunts for food, for survival, not for fun. It says that in Mockingjay (I think…) she says that there isn’t much meat on a bird, so she doesn’t bother with them.
    Idk, maybe I’m just nit-picking. Other than that one little thing, it was amazing! I went with 3 people who haven’t read it, but they’re reading it now! :D

  • Mikerophonic

    I knew that Melissa would love it. After watching the film at the London Premiere, I just knew! I hope most fans understand the heart of this movie as much as we did!

  • http://twitter.com/mindyhild Mindy Ashley

    I finally saw the movie yesterday and I agree completely with your review. You even made me rethink the scene with Cato (which I didn’t initially like, but maybe that’s because it made me uncomfortable…in a good way).

    I’m quite intrigued to see what they do with the remaining two books. I await them eagerly, and plan to see TGH many times during that wait.

  • http://twitter.com/SirEdge EJ Legaspi

    Now I have been going to The Leaky Cauldron for wow, more than a decade I just realized now, and have devoured the Potter books. I am generally more pleased with the Potter films than most, my favorites being PoA (my favorite as a film lover), and the Yates films (DH2 my favorite as a Potterfan), but every now and then a little wish that maybe a line or two made it into them.

    When I first saw Hunger Games a little over a week ago, I had not ready any of the books. Some of my students egged me on to read it, but my curiosity was only really piqued by the movie. In particular, when my friend who like me devours films and books, declared Hunger Games as the best adaptation of anything since Cuaron’s PoA. Now how can I not see this film?

    I hadn’t even seen the trailers prior to the film, another oddity for me, but I was pretty dang happy I had entered the movie house in the state that I was, tabula rasa.

    Action movies bore me. I fell asleep in Transformers 2, and most superhero films as well. Two reasons, first I love video games, and when things get too pretty and show offy, I get bored since I’m not in control of what’s happening in the scene. Second, more importantly is that I never feel the most characters on screen are in danger. You know that the hero will survive and so will most of the other major characters.

    There was none of that in the HG. I knew Katniss would survive, but everyone else felt like fair game. I hated the movie for making feel so emotionally involved so effectively, and so efficiently in two hours. The characters that made me feel real emotions for them, emotions the lingered well after the cinema, is an uncomfortable feeling as I walked out of the cinema with Katniss and Peeta on my mind. I was not in control anymore.

    And of course, I loved it for this.

    The following day, I immediately peeled off the plastic wrapping of the first book and lost myself in Panem. I realized that I didn’t know what the characters names were except for Prim, Rue, Cinna, Katniss, Gale, and, what I thought at that time as “Peter” (I thought while watching the film, Why were they speaking in American accents but when they say “Peter” they speak like Wendy Darling, “But Peeta how do we get to Neverland?”). I realized I didn’t mind that I didn’t know their names. Because I loved them anyway.

    This threw me back to when each Potter film was released and the questions I asked, “Why didn’t they mention Hedwig’s name in the first movie, especially when the theme of series was called Hedwig’s Theme?” “Why weren’t the Marauders singled out?”

    It turns out maybe a whole of people who didn’t read the Potter books probably didn’t mind either. That or Hunger Games was just an infinitely better adaptation.

    I reveled in the feeling of freshness and excitement. After finishing the first book, I decided I’d put off reading Catching Fire until after the next film. But then, when I heard that that one ends in a cliffhanger of sorts, I knew I wouldn’t be able to put off reading Mockingjay, so I gave in.

    Individual copies of Catching Fire weren’t available at the local bookstore, so I just bought a boxed set. Having two copies of the first book wasn’t as big an issue as not being able to read.

    In less than a week, I was more of a fan than even my friends and students were. I hadn’t been this since engrossed in a series since, well Potter. I tried to get into Twilight and Percy Jackson, but they weren’t for me.

    Now I’ve spoiled myself. Regret a little that I was unable to join in the same excitement that I felt with the release of each Potter book for this series. But immensely grateful for whatever it is that I gained for getting into it this late in the game.

    Either way, I find myself back to old habits, relying on the TLC crew, this time on LeakyNews to greet me everyday.

    • http://leakynews.com LeakyNews

      EJ: what a lovely comment. Thanks for being with us all these years and for being with the new LeakyNews!