By Joshua Madden
The film version of “The Hunger Games” is a sanitized version of the book — which is already arguably a rip-off of the terrific novel-turned-film “Battle Royale” — but it’s still pretty good.
For those of you who haven’t heard anything about “The Hunger Games” — which I think is actually bordering on an Olympic-level achievement in ignorance at this point — it is the story of Katniss Everdeen (portrayed by Academy Award-nominee Jennifer Lawrence) and her family, who are struggling to avoid starvation in District 12, one of 13 districts controlled by a dominant district called the Capitol.
Each year, with the exception of the Capitol, each of the districts is required to send two tributes, one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18, to go fight to the death. It’s for the entertainment of the citizens of the Capitol and as a reminder to the districts of the rebellion they are said to have participated in about 75 years earlier.
In the book, these fights are a bloody, gory affair, with one tribute killed by drowning in his own blood after ripping an arrow out of his own neck. The film, which I assume needed a PG-13 rating in order to get teenage girls to flock to the theaters, cuts down on the violence considerably, although the generally violent nature of the plot — children killing each other for entertainment — still comes across in the film.
To focus in exclusively on the actual Hunger Games, however, ignores what constitutes probably half, if not more of the plot, which is more focused on the dynamic between the Capitol and the other districts. The tributes are paraded around the Capitol and on television before being sent off to kill each other so that viewers will be able to select someone to root for. Viewers are even allowed to send tributes items to help them survive in the arena, making it as much a beauty contest as an outright battle.
It is these scenes in which “The Hunger Games” truly shines, and that is in large part due to the absolutely mesmerizing performance from Stanley Tucci. Tucci portrays Caesar Flickerman, a color commentator and talk show host who interviews each of the tributes before they are sent off to die.
The book, which is written in first-person from Katniss’ perspective, features her explaining many of the events going on. Since we are able to read her thoughts, we can know what she knows. That’s something that doesn’t translate to film very well — while Lawrence may be a fine actress, she is not superhuman and, thus, she cannot broadcast her thoughts to the audience.
Flickerman, however, in his expanded role as color commentator, can explain what’s going on without taking the viewer out of the cinematic experience. I was impressed by how the filmmakers took the character of Flickerman and expanded it in such a way as to not contradict the books while, at the same time, enabling a better experience for the viewer.
It is this dynamic that allows “The Hunger Games” to work on screen. It is somewhat faithful to the book — the deviations from the book, while present, are not major detractions from the overall story — but also uses the very essence of filmmaking to reveal new things about the “Hunger Games” universe.
Seneca Crane, for example, is a relatively minor character in the book. The reader understands that he plays an important role, but we don’t see him actually doing much of anything. On screen, however, Wes Bentley (best known for his role in “American Beauty”) does a terrific job of bringing the character to life on screen.
It is these two performances — with the possible additions of Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson — that help make the film succeed.
Any time a book is adapted for the screen, there is a tendency to complain that one is better than the other. In reality, the best films and books complement each other, with the film giving viewers a deeper understanding of some aspect of the book. “The Lincoln Lawyer,” for example, was excellent as both a film and a novel, but the versions were far too similar to each other. Luckily for the film adaptation of “The Hunger Games,” however, the odds were ever in its favor.