The Hunger Games: How a Real Film Emerged from the Deadly Arena of Young-Adult Movie Franchises

If we must have long, over-hyped film-franchise adaptations of annoyingly popular young-adult fantasy/sci-fi books (and it appears we must), then The Hunger Games from director Gary Ross and his co-writers trilogy author Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray (Shattered Glass, State of Play) have figured out the way to do them.

Some flaws aside (see below), their adaptation of The Hunger Games is emotionally gripping, viscerally entertaining, and cinematically solid. So how did Lionsgate, Ross, Collins, and Ray succeed creatively where so many similar fantasy franchises fell short?

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Five Ways The Hunger Games Survived the Battle of Young-Adult Franchise Adaptations

 

1.) Keep Quiet

When it comes to child-rearing and life-or-death hunting (or in the case of The Hunger Games, both), silence is golden. Unlike so many similarly lucrative franchises, Ross lets heavy scenes unfold without intrusive dialog, non-stop musical cues, or the emotional shortcuts of trendy pop songs. Likewise, though Collins’ novel rides on its protagonist’s internalized motivations and confusions, Ross resists the temptation to simply plop it all into a horrific Katniss voice over. (Though to those who haven’t read the novel, that probably leaves some plot points involving Katniss and Peeta’s Arena “romance” unclear.) In an age of cinematic clamor, all that evocative quiet in The Hunger Games is welcome.

2.) Follow Soderbergh

Ross’ pal Steven Soderbergh stopped by North Carolina last summer to direct some of The Hunger Games’ second-unit shoots, and it feels like some very fortuitous cross-pollination took place. Both as a writer (Big, Dave) and a director (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit), Gary Ross’ name doesn’t pop up in discussions of Cinematic Style or Verve, but for The Hunger Games he seems to have taken on by osmosis some of Soderbergh’s verite aesthetic, including hand-held camera work from cinematographer Tom Stern (an Eastwood fave) and Christopher S. Capp, Stephen Mirrione, and Juliette Welfling’s jittery editing during particularly intense moments. Some viewers may complain about the shaking and the fast-edit obfuscating (necessary to maintain the film’s PG-13 rating during otherwise brutal scenes of teens killing teens), but for my taste, the more mainstream blockbusters ground their other-worldly plots and settings in Soderbergh’s cinematic naturalism, the better.

3.) Act Strong

No knock on Daniel Radcliffe or Kristen Stewart—I enjoy them both—but their respective franchises don’t ask for much actual acting from their young leads. But Ross and Lionsgate hit the jackpot with Jennifer Lawrence, a proven talent in the excellent Winter’s Bone. An actress who already knows how to layer in nuance, Lawrence gives good stoic numbness but also springs impressively and believably into action when necessary. (At the Reaping she’s stunned and confused, not grimly resigned; and her nearly paralyzing fear in the last moments of safety before the start of the Games is mesmerizing.) Few younger actresses today could not only show Katniss’ strengths and her weaknesses, but also the symbiotic relationship between them.

Plus Lawrence gets solid support from Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, and an antebellum Donald Sutherland, as well as decent performances from Elizabeth Banks, Wes Bentley and Josh Hutcherson (he of the square-jawed baby face), all of it pointing to Ross’ efforts (again reminiscent of Soderbergh) to coax performances that feel real, even in the middle of so much that’s fantastical.

4.) Keep Moving

The great virtue of Collins’ novel is it’s propelled by the impending doom of the Games, and once it hits the Arena it explodes with gripping, thrilling tension that carries it the rest of the way, even over that bumpy finish. There are no ginned-up side quests (“we have to go here to get this, then back here to do that, then over there…”), and despite the flimsy love triangle, the political allegories, and Katniss’ twisting motivations, at its center The Hunger Games plows a fiercely straight line from her volunteering at the District 12 Reaping to the final result of the games.

5.) Stay Close to the Ground

Like fire and fudge stripe cookies, CGI special effects have been both a great boon and bane for human civilization. Too often once a studio has ponied up the dough for vast, spectacular CGI vistas and otherworldly creatures in a big blockbuster, they want to show viewers the money. The Hunger Games goes easy on the obvious CGI and for the most sticks to plain old trees, rocks and leaves, once again making it an action blockbuster that doesn’t look or feel like the rest.

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Of course, The Hunger Games still has its flaws–some of them movie flaws, some of them inherent in the source material. The dialog is often dopey, and there are times the characters and settings slip into the sort of clean, shiny gloss preferred in big-budget Hollywood movies. (Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is pretty male modelly, it’s not clear why the rest of the ragged-poor miners in District 12 don’t shop at the same Appalachian Gap where Katniss buys her sleek black clothes and stylish leather jacket, and the citizens of the Capitol look like all the Whos down in Post-Apocalyptic Whoville.)

Also, the dystopian social and political allegories remain blunt-edge dumb, and the film inherits the book’s weak third act, where easy out rule changes and muddled character motivations both slow the once-pounding pace and fumble the ending.

Most of all, to a degree magnified by its medium and hype, The Hunger Games movie raises the question of whether the popularity of the Suzanne Collins’ tale of teens forced to kill each other for sport and entertainment is fueled to some extent by the same excitement-craving Coliseum blood lust the book and film intend to condemn.

But we have months, probably years (as the next two, maybe three films roll out) to dissect and debate these issues. For now it’s a relief to have a young-adult lit adaptation that’s worth talking about and arguing over. We can only hope other would-be franchises follow its lead.

1 Comment to The Hunger Games: How a Real Film Emerged from the Deadly Arena of Young-Adult Movie Franchises

  1. SNeaca's Gravatar SNeaca
    April 8, 2012 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    I finally saw The Hunger Games with my nephew and nieces. Not a bad movie, though I didn’t think much of it from the trailers. I never read the book, but the description from IMDB gave it a Running Man vibe but with much younger participants. Not sure if I’d blog about the movie. But thumbs up over all.

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