I know I’m inviting a whole storm of anger by suggesting that The Hunger Games is a movie that needs fixing. This is a series with a passionate and vocal legion of fans, and which has reached a cultural saturation unseen since the Twlight novels. It’s made a pretty penny at the box office, to say the least, and has received a very warm critical reception as well. Let me be absolutely clear: I’m not coming at this as a contrarian. I’m not trying to drum up hits and attention by blindly trashing something that most people like, or attacking it just because it’s something that most people like. I am not Armond White. Every thought here is my own, honest opinion.
First, here are some things I liked about The Hunger Games, just so that I’m not a total negative nelly. Jennifer Lawrence is completely great as the main character. In fact, most of the other actors carry themselves quite well through this. The production design on the Capitol, especially the costume and makeup work, is top-notch. This movie looks very good for its (relatively, for a big release) low budget. Even though it’s two and a half hours long, it hums along pretty nicely. I was never bored by it.
Overall, though, I did not like The Hunger Games. In fact, my opinion of the film has lessened steadily since I’ve seen it, the more I’ve thought about it. I’ll confess that my hopes for the film were… measured. I’d read and not really enjoyed the original book. Part of that stems from issues with the writing style (Suzanne Collins messes up her present-tense prose numerous times), but really, I just wasn’t a fan of the story. Now, I’m not one of the people accusing the book of “ripping off” Battle Royale. My problems come from a confused sense of theme and tone, and since the movie is essentially a direct translation of the words to the screen, all that wonkiness was transplanted as well.
Really, most of my suggestions for the movie come down to “do your own thing with the material.” The Hunger Games suffers the same central flaw as most of the Harry Potter adaptations; it’s less a true film than it is a visualization of its source. And I find that frankly boring. Filmmakers adapting young adult literature seem utterly terrified of deviating too far from the books, and it’s crippling. With Harry Potter, I could (sort of) tolerate it, because the original story and characters were so strong. I have no great love for the story or characters of The Hunger Games, and hence I couldn’t invest myself all that much in the film.
I will allow my suggestions for improving the film to further illuminate what I think are the more specific problems it has. But first, my standard disclaimer: I’m not going to claim that this is “the right way” to handle this material. I also don’t claim to be an expert on filmmaking or story. And I certainly will admit that I don’t know anything about the behind-the-scenes deal with this movie, so I have no idea what kind of battles had to be fought for how the film turned out the way it did. All I have is the finished project, and while I won’t pretend this is some definitive solution to the movie’s problems, or that I could somehow make the movie perfect, I do think that the ideas here are an improvement over what ended up on screen.
And one final note, so that you know my personal context in viewing this film. Like I said, I have read the book it is based on. I have not read its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay, although I have read synopses of their plots, so I know what happens down the line in the series. And, of course, there will be SPOILERS here, although the movie’s been out for a month.
The metaphor of the Hunger Games needs to make sense
If I were to diagnose a singular problem in the film’s story, it’s this: The Hunger Games, as a plot device, is inherently flawed. The Games are supposed to be the way that the Capitol demonstrates its power over the Districts, taking away the citizens’ children to battle to the death while they watch helplessly. But the Games are also a form of entertainment. The Tributes play dress up, go on talk shows, and generally try to win over the viewing audience. These two elements are completely at odds. If the Games are involuntary, and a way to demoralize the populace, then why should the Capitol care about putting on a good show?
This problem has been in the story since its very inception. Suzanne Collins came up with the concept when surfing channels between news about the War in Iraq and a reality show. But the horrors of war and the horrors of reality TV are very different. This movie is split into two big sections: the set-up for the Games, which is the reality TV section, and the Games themselves, which is the war section. These two halves have barely anything to do with one another.
Think about it. You could throw the protagonists from the Reaping straight into the Games and, with very few adjustments, everything that plays out within the Games would still make sense. None of the Capitol characters are necessary. Not Haymitch, not Effie, not Cinna. Heck, the latter two don’t even appear after the Games start. For all the hullabaloo about how important sponsors are, their contribution ends up being to send two non-vital packages Katniss’ way. The only thing that would really be affected would be the “love story” and that’s terrible anyway (more on that later).
Of course, within the wider context of the trilogy, the first half is setting up characters who will play a role in later installments. I understand this. I also don’t care. A narrative needs to stand on its own. The filmmakers needed to pick one avenue or the other. Either the Games are forced on the people by the state, or they are a reality show. Where there is one messy, thematically confused movie, there are two possible movies that are much more coherent. I’ll talk about both options.
If the Games are mandatory:
AKA the Battle Royale route. Cut out everything having to do with Stanley Tucci’s van Houten talk show host. Toss away the pomp, the circumstance, and the cheering crowds. This is the darker, more upsetting option. Spend most of the time in the Capitol focusing on the Tributes’ training. Use this as a method of letting us get to know the characters. And I mean “get to know,” not “perfunctorily introduce.” If we know at least a little about these kids, then we’ll care who lives and dies in the arena. If we’re expected to care simply because they are children, then it’s nothing but exploitation.
Katniss is supposedly facing some huge moral quandaries in the Games, but most of the burden of her choices is actually taken off of her. The use of such clear “bad guys” removes any grey area from the killing she does in the arena. Rue is conveniently killed by someone else, thus relieving her of a truly tough choice later on. She never has the option to kill someone in any other context than self-defense. Change all that. Force Katniss to make hard decisions. Don’t make any of the kids villains. After all, they’re all victims; the Capitol is the true antagonist here. My ideal version of this story ends with Katniss and Rue as the only two Tributes remaining. Now that’s a final dilemma to think about.
If the Games are voluntary:
AKA the Running Man route. I think this is the more interesting option. There’s so much in modern reality television that’s ripe for satire or probing allegory. In this scenario, the Games live and die on ratings. I suppose the tradition would have to be younger than 74 years. Of course, the big obstacle here is getting the sensible Katniss into volunteering for this madness. Here’s one possible fix: preserve the idea of kids being “paid” for putting their names in the annual Tribute lottery with food and other goods. Let’s say that Katniss’ sister, without her knowing, has put her own name into the mix. Prim gets selected, Katniss volunteers to take her place (let’s say that’s a viable rule in the show), and there you go.
Far less would have to be changed about the story as is to make this work. In fact, you could even keep in the romance. What would be crucial here would be to make the sponsors really matter. Again, you don’t even have to change much that actually happens in the plot. For instance, instead of the hive of super-bees just being there, have one of Katniss’ sponsors pay for it to pop up. The film says that the sponsors are vital for survival. Make that true, and the first half has much more urgency, and clear stakes at hand.
The really crucial thing to make this work would be a shift in tone. As it is, the film’s incredibly dour and po-faced. If you’re riffing on reality TV, have some fun with it. You don’t have to go all Paul Verhoeven and become completely irreverent, but a sense of fun would do this movie wonders. How do you have such ludicrous beards and treat everything with such deathly seriousness?
Spend more time in District 12
Now I’m getting into stuff that should change no matter what direction that the film takes. Establishing Katniss’ personal stakes in the Games is extremely important, but the film completely rushes through it. In order for us to care more about what happens to her, and to understand the world she lives in, we need to know more about where she comes from. I’m not asking to stay in District 12 for an amount of time comparable to the Hobbiton sections of Lord of the Rings, but getting to know Prim beyond “this is Katniss’ sister,” and her family situation beyond some vague hints should be important.
Although one part of District 12 should actually be reduced. Gale must go. As long as he’s there to take care of Katniss’ family, her story loses most of its stakes. Katniss should absolutely be the only one who can take care of her mother and sister. Some may protest that Gale is important to later books (and we already know my stance on that) or that he’s needed for the love triangle. Which brings me to…
Remove (or adjust) the romance
I couldn’t believe that a book about children killing one another devoted so much time to a love story, and a half-fabricated one at that. It’s so strange and counter-intuitive that the way Katniss gives up part of herself in the Games is in pretending to love some boy, instead of, you know, having to kill others. If the Games are mandatory? Remove the love stuff entirely. If they’re voluntary? Well, that’s where things can get interesting. We see fake romance on reality TV all the time. Again, drop the facade of seriousness and embrace the bizarre aspects of the situation. Honestly, Peeta and Gale are such boring nonentities, existing only for a distracting romance subplot, that I’d much rather they’d disappear entirely. No matter what fans may say, the love triangle in the Hunger Games series isn’t that much of a cut above the one in Twilight (although with admittedly a much better female character at its center).
I’ll fully cop that my vision of what could be better about The Hunger Games is so drastically removed from what’s on-screen that I might as well have taken the same basic concept and written up my own treatment. I know that this movie isn’t “for” me, as a grown up (kind of), but I believe every movie should be for everyone, that there shouldn’t be an upper age limit on enjoying them. I also realize that every one of my suggestions brings a hundred smaller logistical questions about how to properly implement them, but I intend this column as a discussion-starter, not a complete piece in of itself.
And that’s where you come in. Did anyone else feel left out by all the praise for this movie? Anyone want to tell me how full of crap I am?What did I miss that could be changed? What do you believe is fine as it is? Come and tell me what you think.