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The Hunger Games

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The Playlist gives it a B+:

Complexity and understatement are two criminally under-utilized values in most mainstream movies these days, but they’re at the core of, and the chief reason for the success of “The Hunger Games.” Director Gary Ross, screenwriter of the proletariat presidential fantasy “Dave” and writer-director of the social-consciousness-as-sci-fi tome “Pleasantville,” has always engaged his subjects with a light and yet substantial touch, but his adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ acclaimed young-adult novel is a truly remarkable achievement: he turns escapism into a deeply emotional experience. Instantly razing comparisons – qualitative especially -- to other female-friendly series such as “Twilight,” “The Hunger Games” is the first film in a long time that deserves Hollywood’s instant-franchise ambitions because it appeals to genre fans regardless of gender by crafting a story that’s both epic and intimate, spectacular and subtle.

[...]

That said, the great thing about shortcomings like those is that they only further serve to highlight what a great job the filmmakers did otherwise bringing this material to life, and making it such an effective ride on its own terms. Ultimately, Ross hasn’t just successfully mounted an adaptation of a hot literary property, or even launched a film series that earns the right to be a franchise. He’s produced an engaging, thoughtful, populist piece of entertainment that transcends gender, genre or source material. The rare blockbuster that’s as smart as it is spectacular, “The Hunger Games” offers a full meal and still makes you want to go back for more.

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Wow. All of a sudden I'm kind of excited about seeing this.

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Wow. All of a sudden I'm kind of excited about seeing this.

Yeah, the recently posted reviews from the trades mentioned that Ross gets the look and feel of the material right, but skimps on the violence and the game/hunt stuff to ensure a PG-13 rating.

I couldn't have hoped for a better description of the final product. If he's got the environment right, he's about 80% of the way toward a good film.

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My review. (Note the parallels in the second graf below.)

Suzanne Collins says she got the idea for The Hunger Games while sleepily flicking channels between some reality-show game and footage of the invasion of Iraq until the images began to blur in her mind. What’s bracing about Gary Ross’ film of the first book in Collins’ wildly popular young-adult trilogy is that the topicality of the story’s origins still comes across. When was the last Hollywood science-fiction action blockbuster that felt like actual ideas about the world we live in were at stake? ...

Katniss is a soul sister to Lawrence’s breakout role Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone: an impoverished, self-reliant child of the rural mountains of the Upland South (Katniss is from Appalachia, Ree from the Ozarks), with a dead father, a functionally absent mother and the responsibility of caring for a younger sister (Ree also had a younger brother). Both are even hunters who skin and eat squirrels. And both inhabit a barbarous culture that may snuff them out and not think twice, although in Katniss’ case it could happen on national television. ...

The material is disturbing, and should be. I’ve watched movies before about individuals taken prisoner and forced to engage in blood sport, such as Gladiator. What is the difference here?

Partly, I guess, it’s simply that the combatants are teenagers — and that Panem is culturally more proximate to our own world than ancient Rome. The Capitol is a futuristic freak show, but the architecture and clothes in District 12 would be at home in a rural American landscape in the early 20th century. Technology, from trains to television, looks like our world. It’s hard to accept the complete eradication of Christian moral sense, not to mention faith, from a world like this.

Another problem is that many of the tributes, particularly from the wealthier districts, eagerly embrace the barbarism of the Games, not in a ruthless struggle for survival, but because they think it’s honorable or even just fun. Even in pagan Rome gladiators were generally equivalent to slaves (often criminals or prisoners of war) or little better. Very occasionally citizens and even emperors voluntarily fought in the arena, though to do so carried a risk of stigma and loss of status. The idea of wealthy tributes regularly volunteering, not for an evenly matched contest, but for a 1-in-24 chance of survival, is hard to square with human nature.

Even before the rise of Christian opposition to blood sports, Roman approval was not universal. For instance, Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius advising him to avoid the games, which he said disposed the viewer to “greater cruelty and less humanity.” Where is the ambivalence in the Capitol? Well, I guess there’s Katniss’ stylist Cenna. That’s something.

This basic issue is further complicated by two moments toward the end, both involving the heroine. (Spoiler warning.) In one scene, she puts an arrow into a horribly dying opponent to ease his passing. There is also a suicide-pact theme that is more problematic in the film than I understand to be the case in the book, where I gather it’s more apparent than actual.

Certainly there are praiseworthy themes along with the problematic. In addition to being perhaps the most engaging action-movie protagonist in recent years, Katniss is a selfless heroine who courageously risks her life to protect others, including Peeta and a young combatant named Rue, not to mention her sister Primrose. In a touching sequence, Katniss honors a fallen competitor by arraying her body with flowers, in the spirit of the seventh corporal work of mercy. Others also act in noble and selfless ways.

Am I glad I saw The Hunger Games? Yes. But I’m not eager to see it again.

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This basic issue is further complicated by two moments toward the end, both involving the heroine. (Spoiler warning.) In one scene, she puts an arrow into a horribly dying opponent to ease his passing. There is also a suicide-pact theme that is more problematic in the film than I understand to be the case in the book, where I gather it’s more apparent than actual.

I get why the second situation is problematic...but I am confused as to how it is a problem to ease the suffering of a person who is about to ie. Is it really more life honoring and respectful to let the horrible person suffer more before they die? I cannot really see her action as murder if the character was dying already...

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Excellent review, SDG. And that's a nice tidbit about what inspired the author's material.

***SPOILER ALERT***:

I saw a late showing of the film last night and a few things stuck out at me:

-Overall, I thought Ross did an excellent job of capturing the novel. He was mostly faithful to the material, while also cutting parts effectively. He captures the tone of the Capitol perfectly, and I thought the film did a great job of providing perspective outside of Katniss'. His use of the "announcers" and, particularly, the fellow who played the interviewer, worked really well. In short, the lead-up to the actual games was spot-on for me all around.

-When the games begin, I think the film does become a bit disjointed, but it's still ultimately satisfying for a while considering the material that Ross was working with. Often times, I felt like Ross was even elevating the material to a degree. However, I feel like the wheels really start to come off when Kat comes across Peeta hurt and camouflaged. I would say that part of it was the teeny-bopper audience I was with, but I still think the film botches the cave/love triangle thing. Up until that point the film didn't at all feel like the Twilight preview that came before it (talk about cheesy! How about the one line from that teaser: "I didn't expect you to seem so...you." Ok maybe it's not that bad, but in the theater disconnected from any context it was hilarious). Which is a shame, because I don't think the fellow who plays Peeta is that bad of an actor, but he's not given that much to work with at that point. And, notably, this was the teeny-boppers favorite part of the film (if not when Rue's death finds vengeance-fulfillment!).

-Regarding the film's "ethical dilemma" (kids killing kids and the film qua entertainment and all of that): there was a moment toward the end of the film that was striking for me as a critic/fellow audience member. When Caesar is interviewing Katniss and Peeta after the Games are over, I thought the whole scene was kind of brilliant. The whole thing felt so much like an "after the final rose" episode from the Bachelor. What was striking and ironic is that much of my audience reacted to it in the same way that the Capitol audience did--almost simultaneously. Granted, maybe it was the screening I went to, but I had two take-aways from this: 1. The film's subtle mockery of our penchant for mindless entertainment was reinforced and solidified and yet 2. the film's hamming up of the love triangle that comes before the scene almost undermines the brilliance of this scene in a way by serving up the mindless entertainment. The film definitely takes the love triangle to a place that the book doesn't. Perhaps it was prep work for sequels (I haven't read the second and third books). Either way, it didn't work for me. Anyway, regarding the ethical dilemma, I do think the film (and book) fairly consistently has a serious enough subtext/moral subtlety to undermine potential problems with the kids-killing-kids for entertainment, but I also think for many moviegoers it is and will be what people fear it is.

-And, yet, what stuck out for me is that the film emphasizes something that is important to a discussion of the ethics of the material--namely, the last thing the Capitol wants is a martyr. In the narrative, this is what they fear could most undermine the dystopian regime. And I think this is noteworthy. I'm just not sure if some of the most important lines are as important to some moviegoers as they ought to be (like not "losing one's self" in the Games or becoming like the Capitol). I'm not saying it's lost on people, but sometimes it sure felt like I was watching THE HUNGER GAMES with the Capitol.

-Lastly, I thought Lawrence and Tucci were good, but, man, do I love Woody Harrelson! :)

Edited by Nicholas

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I'm mostly encouraged by SDG's and Nicholas' comments. I've been debating whether to take my kids to see this (both of my boys read the first two books), and I've tentatively decided to take them, with the express condition that we discuss the film afterwards (more than the usual perfunctory 'I liked it' or 'such and such was cool' that happens when I try to engage my dear adolescent or near-adolescent young 'uns). I suspect they'll take me up on the offer; my younger son in particular has been clamoring to see this movie for weeks already.

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My review, from the perspective of someone in vocational youth ministry.

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Went to see this film last night. It was a 2 1/2 hour film that FELT like an 8 1/2 hour film to me. The world of the film is interesting, the heroine is great, Woody Harrelson is a lot of fun, but the two male love interests were both hunky but boring, with nothing to do in the film (especially the guy left at home - his whole role in the movie was to have expressive eyebrows). The buildup and training portion of the movie is the most interesting, but still way too long, and the Games portion was frankly dull, with pedestrian action and choppy motivations. At the climax, the movie's sort-of villain makes a speech that I couldn't understand, both verbally (muffled and garbled) and emotionally (the character was so dull, I had no idea what he could be saying).

One big thing that bugged me, the movie made a big deal about how the Tributes most needed the audience to like them, because the help of Sponsors was the difference between life and death in the Games, and then in the Game itself, Katniss receives exactly two packages, no one receives any, and both of Katniss' packages are from the same person, and HE'S NOT A SPONSOR! There is very little shown about Katniss' popularity throughout the Game, except for the brief riot in District 11 and the President's ominous glowering. If, in the buildup, they made such a big deal about popularity and sponsors, why no real payoff in the Game itself?

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One big thing that bugged me, the movie made a big deal about how the Tributes most needed the audience to like them, because the help of Sponsors was the difference between life and death in the Games, and then in the Game itself, Katniss receives exactly two packages, no one receives any, and both of Katniss' packages are from the same person, and HE'S NOT A SPONSOR! There is very little shown about Katniss' popularity throughout the Game, except for the brief riot in District 11 and the President's ominous glowering. If, in the buildup, they made such a big deal about popularity and sponsors, why no real payoff in the Game itself?

The packages are not directly from Haymitch (Harrelson's character), but rather earned sponsorships from Capitol folks. There is a particular scene where Haymitch is watching Katniss on the screen after her leg injury. The following scene shows him talking with a number of Capitol folks, clearly selling them on the idea of Katniss. He's her advocate, lobbying for sponsorships. The reason no other packages are shown might be due to the focus of the film being on Katniss and her struggles; every other character is clearly secondary to her narrative arc. While the film doesn't explain this well, in the the book, sponsorships are most often given from the tribute's home district. The impoverished District 12 can't afford food for themselves, let alone a package for their tributes.

SPOILER: We see the boy from District 11 exactly one time in the arena as he avenges Rue's death, even though he is one of the final four survivors near the end. And Cato, the large antagonist from District 1, likely received numerous packages, as assumed by the amount of supplies and weaponry he carried around, even after the large supply cache was destroyed by Katniss, as well as the wealthiness of his own District. END SPOILER.

Hopefully that adds some clarity that may have been lacking in the film. Having read the book, I wondered how much my mind would fill in the blanks and holes that were left out of the film, such as the fact that the winning tribute's entire District receives extra rations of food for the next year. If someone wasn't familiar with the books at all, I wonder how the movie would fare in their perspective.

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Went to see Hunger Games this afternoon. For the most part, it was a good port of the book, although the beginning scenes in District 12 were too abbreviated, especially with Gale; it seems bizarre to give third billing to Hemsworth, when his character was onscreen for around 10 minutes. The parts of the movie that were most interesting to me were the times we get away from Katniss's perspective, since that option isn't available in the book. I did keep waiting for Seneca (the head gamemaker) to say, "Cue the sun," though.

My biggest problem with the story (book and movie both) is the inevitability of the plot. Everyone has to die, and since we don't get to know the other tributes, their deaths just feel like ways of marking time. The one exception is Rue, who might be my favorite character, even though there's hardly any of her backstory in the movie (the book has a bit more, though not really that much).

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One big thing that bugged me, the movie made a big deal about how the Tributes most needed the audience to like them, because the help of Sponsors was the difference between life and death in the Games, and then in the Game itself, Katniss receives exactly two packages, no one receives any, and both of Katniss' packages are from the same person, and HE'S NOT A SPONSOR! There is very little shown about Katniss' popularity throughout the Game, except for the brief riot in District 11 and the President's ominous glowering. If, in the buildup, they made such a big deal about popularity and sponsors, why no real payoff in the Game itself?

The packages are not directly from Haymitch (Harrelson's character), but rather earned sponsorships from Capitol folks. There is a particular scene where Haymitch is watching Katniss on the screen after her leg injury. The following scene shows him talking with a number of Capitol folks, clearly selling them on the idea of Katniss. He's her advocate, lobbying for sponsorships. The reason no other packages are shown might be due to the focus of the film being on Katniss and her struggles; every other character is clearly secondary to her narrative arc. While the film doesn't explain this well, in the the book, sponsorships are most often given from the tribute's home district. The impoverished District 12 can't afford food for themselves, let alone a package for their tributes.

I was sure the books explained it, but the movie did not. Note that my quote was about the movie - the movie makes a big deal about this in the buildup (it's virtually all Woody Harrelson's character talks about, it's the reason the stylist character comes up with the costume of flames, it's said to be the one thing that really matters in the arena), and then doesn't pay it off in the Game itself.

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I saw the film today and, with a few big caveats, liked it a lot more than I expected.

The main caveat: The handheld camera work and the CLOSE-UPS.

I can't think of another film that makes such annoyingly disorienting overuse of close-ups. With all due respect, what was Ross thinking? They got so much about the world - the casting, costume design, etc. - but the style employed from a directorial standpoint is really jarring.

Then there's the way the film does its best to neatly sidestep the ethical issues at stake here, although that didn't really hamper my enjoyment of the film.

As I see it, though, the film tries to have its cake and eat it too . . . it seems to (*BIG SPOILER*) make Katniss and Peeta's almost suicide into some kind of moral stance against the Capitol and the Hunger Games, but this is AFTER Collins employs virtually every means available to have her characters survive without seriously compromising their morals.

There is some, rather small, attempt to address the issue, but not nearly enough substantive discussion.

I did, however, quite like the world they created. I also think the filmmakers/Collins are pretty obviously positing the film as an alternate history (or corollary) to the Revolutionary/Seven Years War.

The question is, what if we lost?

The answer: Hunger Games.

Which is, of course, totally unfair to Britain (this is coming from someone who thinks the U.S. is as much at fault for what happened as Britain), but I still enjoyed the creativity with which the world was rendered.

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This basic issue is further complicated by two moments toward the end, both involving the heroine. (Spoiler warning.) In one scene, she puts an arrow into a horribly dying opponent to ease his passing. There is also a suicide-pact theme that is more problematic in the film than I understand to be the case in the book, where I gather it’s more apparent than actual.

I get why the second situation is problematic...but I am confused as to how it is a problem to ease the suffering of a person who is about to ie. Is it really more life honoring and respectful to let the horrible person suffer more before they die? I cannot really see her action as murder if the character was dying already...

Interesting, I didn't have a problem with either of those moments.

I deviate pretty radically from the Catholic position on these matters, though . . . and this is probably not the place to discuss that.

I will say this though: How would committing suicide as a stance against an oppressive, blood-thirsty state be that much different than taking up your cross and dying at the hands of such a state?

There's obviously more at stake in the Gospels, but if you're put into a position of moral compromise what's wrong with saying: "You want one of us to kill the other? No. We'd both rather die."

Suicide and such matters are common in the Old Testaments (and not necessarily or explicitly condemned), so I wouldn't hold up current Evangelical/Catholic positions as representing, without any reasonable doubt, the 'Christian' perspective on these matters.

Edit: To be clear, I say this with absolute respect for Catholics and Evangelicals alike.

I'm not looking for a fight.

However, I do sometimes disagree with the orthodox (as of now) Christian positions on these matters.

Partially because it seem that, at least in popular dialogue, much of the debate comes down to how we should define life. For me, if we define life as something other than biological functioning and more, for example, like what John seems to be getting at in his Gospel, other positions become potentially viable.

Edited by Timothy Zila

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There's a weird racist backlash going on over the fact that Rue, Thresh, and Cinna are all played by dark-skinned actors in the movie. The most confusing part to me is that Rue and Thresh are clearly described as having dark skin in the book; Cinna's race isn't mention in the books.

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I enjoyed the film a good bit, and I think the survivalist aspect of the games contrasted well with the opulence of the ruling class.

I was annoyed by the shaky cam and quick cutting during the action scenes. There has to be a better way to shoot these scenes to imply violence without being overly gory.

I couldn't help thinking that the fashion sense in the Capitol was influenced quite a bit by Luc Besson's film The Fifth Element.

Edited by Crow

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The North Carolina town that was used for District 12 in the movie is on sale.

Parts of the next movies take place in District 12, so I wonder if you could buy it now and then charge Lionsgate for shooting there

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I found this film to be an extraordinarily perceptive rendering of the emotional lives of teenagers. It's sort of the best mainstream attempt I've seen of articulating the psychological abuse we heap on teenagers through ageist power structures. I loved it.

They're stuck in a system they did not create. They try to imagine life outside of these systems, but have no real agency. Class/wealth plays a big role.

Even when teenagers manage to scrape out a way of surviving, they don't control the ways their stories are told; their stories are used to reinscribe the same unjust power structures.

I love the prominence of the hand held shots--disorienting and decontextualizing in a way that made me feel younger.

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I found this film to be an extraordinarily perceptive rendering of the emotional lives of teenagers. It's sort of the best mainstream attempt I've seen of articulating the psychological abuse we heap on teenagers through ageist power structures. I loved it.

They're stuck in a system they did not create. They try to imagine life outside of these systems, but have no real agency. Class/wealth plays a big role.

Even when teenagers manage to scrape out a way of surviving, they don't control the ways their stories are told; their stories are used to reinscribe the same unjust power structures.

I love the prominence of the hand held shots--disorienting and decontextualizing in a way that made me feel younger.

That's an interesting and different take on the film than I had. Not that I necessarily disagree with it. I liked the film quite a bit as well, although I thought they could have shortened up the middle part a little. I did find the "contestants" response to the opulence and fame they were put into to be quite interesting. There was a mixture of fear, with them revelling in the attention they were getting, and I wonder how true this was as to what real life responses would be in a similar situation. It's an interesting question as to the human pysche.

Edited by Attica

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I found this film to be an extraordinarily perceptive rendering of the emotional lives of teenagers.

I forget if it was the NYT or the Book Review that did this, but I read a piece on teen dystopia fiction, with Hunger Games as the main example, that made the same argument. Totally makes sense to me.

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