Cinema Knife Fight: THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)
By Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
(THE SCENE: Two men sit behind a long desk. One is L.L. SOARES, wearing a huge blue wig that is teased so that it towers above his head. MICHAEL ARRUDA is wearing eye make-up and a hat that looks like a small skyscraper. As we zoom in on them, the two men are laughing)
LS: That was a good one, Michael. (to audience) Welcome back, everyone, to the 74th Annual Hunger Games. I am here with Michael Arruda, giving you the latest updates from the arena.
MA: I have to admit, I was a little leery about coming to the Capitol, but it’s turned out to be quite a nice experience. The lovely food, avant-garde fashions, luxurious living quarters. Delightful.
LS: Well, we are the guest commentators this year, and the Capitol knows how to take care of its guests. A big shout out to President Snow. Thanks again, Big Guy.
MA: So why don’t you tell the good people about our movie this week.
LS: Movie? Oh you mean THE HUNGER GAMES themselves! I can most certainly bring everyone up to speed.
After an uprising in what was once North America (now called Panem), where the various districts rose up against the Capitol, the rebellion is squashed, and, in remembrance, each year each district must give up two kids—a boy and a girl, between the ages of 12 and 18—to compete in the Hunger Games. It’s kind of the Capitol’s way reminding the districts who’s boss, and keeping them in line. Everyone watches the Hunger Games on television and each district desperately wants their champions or “tributes” to win. If they win, the district gets plentiful food for the year.
MA: When people—and there were many—recommended I read the book THE HUNGER GAMES, it was exactly this story that prevented me from reading it. I just didn’t find it believable. It just seemed too far-fetched and imaginary, and because of this I didn’t think I’d find it all that compelling.
LS: I found myself wondering at first, why would the Districts put up with this? Why would they willingly sacrifice their children? And then I easily dispelled that doubt. We have our own version of this, after all. It’s called war.
MA: Well, this might be the only negative thing I’ll say about tonight’s movie, THE HUNGER GAMES, because, to my surprise, I did find it compelling. I really liked this movie, but more on that later. Right now, back to the story.
LS: Always interrupting my plot summaries. Jeesh! (smiles broadly) It’s a good thing the audience enjoys our banter so much, or I’d wring your scrawny neck. (laughs).
When the story opens, we become aware of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl in District 12. She sneaks outside the fence that surrounds the area to hunt for wild game —something that is considered illegal—but since she sells some of her catches to the Peacekeepers, and the Mayor himself, the authorities turn a blind eye. Katniss hunts with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth), a long-time companion who is as good at hunting as she is. Every year, there is an event called The Reaping, where all the children who are of eligible age are gathered up, and the names of each year’s tributes are pulled from a fishbowl. In District 12, this is done by the glamorous Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks).
MA: Yes, Elizabeth Banks is nearly unrecognizable made up as the colorful Effie.
LS: I know. Isn’t it wonderful? So this year is the first year that Katniss’s young sister Primrose (Willow Shields), called “Prim,” is old enough to be in the Reaping. Since she’s only 12, the odds are she won’t be chosen, but when her name does come up, Katniss volunteers to take her place in order to protect her.
MA: You know, I think we’d all seen this scene in the movie’s trailer, and yet, somehow, it still worked. For me, this was a sign early on that this movie was going to be better than I expected.
LS: The way Katniss sacrifices herself in place of her young sister is quite compelling! I know my heart went out to her, as I am sure yours did.
The other tribute, the boy one, is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who has had a crush on Katniss from afar for most of their childhoods.
The two of them are whisked to the Capitol—this shining diamond of a city—to prepare for the Games, under the watchful eye of Effie and, of course, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who was the last person from District 12 to ever win the Games. He has since grown old and surly and has quite the taste for alcohol. That was 30 years ago, after all!
MA: Haymitch is a change-of-pace role for Harrelson, as he’s actually a pretty nice guy as the movie goes on, and I think Harrelson did a great job.
LS: Harrelson has played nice guys before. Did you forget 2009’s ZOMBIELAND so soon?
MA: Yeah, but that nice guy liked to blow zombies’ heads off. He was a little bit different than Haymitch.
LS: Katniss and Peeta are also provided with a “stylist” named Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), whose job is to give the two tributes a memorable entrance as the pre-game segment begins, and make them attractive to rich viewers who may become their “sponsors” and send them necessary items when the actual Games begin.
The tributes are also interviewed by the master of ceremonies, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) who tries to bring out a little of each one’s personality.
Then, after a few days of training, the Games begin.
MA: And what exactly are the Hunger Games again?
LS: The Hunger Games are a battle to the death! Where each District has sent two representatives to kill or be killed. All of them must fight to the death until only one tribute is left standing, and that person will then be crowned the victor! Isn’t that exciting?
And there are also the Gamemakers who control the arena and can do things like control the weather and cause disasters to strike—like a random forest fire, say. The Gamemakers are represented in the movie version by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) who we see orchestrating things from a control room behind the scenes. I don’t remember Crane being in the novel version, the Gamemakers there were mysterious behind-the-scenes types whose moves—like those of chess players—were always strategic in making the Games more dramatic. I’m not sure I care very much for Seneca here, although it does give us another point of view of the Games that we didn’t have in the book. And there is a scene involving Seneca and some berries that is rather poetic….
MA: It’s like a great big futuristic version of the TV series SURVIVOR, except instead of voting each other off, the players kill each other.
LS: Exactly! And how many times have we wishes the contestants in SURVIVOR could knock each other off? The Hunger Games are a win-win in comparison!
The movie is based on the popular novel by Suzanne Collins, who also helped to write the screenplay, and the movie is mostly faithful to her book. They do change things here and there to condense events or save time. For example, in the novel, there is a big deal about Katniss trying to find water once the Games begin, and she almost dies of dehydration, but in the movie she finds water pretty quickly and with minimal discomfort. While I understand most of the changes, not all of them work for me.
MA: I didn’t read the book—.
LS: Not necessary, my good man! The movie will guide you through this terrain quite well, regardless.
MA: I know. I was about to say that I understood pretty much everything in the movie, and better yet, I liked it. I liked it a lot.
LS: Although, I must point out that, as is almost always the case, the book is actually smarter and more satisfying than the film in some ways.
MA: On the other hand, to all the moviegoers out there like me who haven’t read the book—.
LS: All three of you.
MA: Ha ha. To all of you who haven’t read the book, the movie stands on its own. It’s a highly entertaining flick, and you don’t need to have read the book to enjoy it.
LS: I’m just saying the book is better than the movie, that’s all.
And so we watch as Katniss tries to stay alive in a vast forest that has its own dangers aside from the other kids who are looking to kill her. Oh yes, I forgot to mention. During the pre-game interview, Peeta lets on to the viewers that he had had a crush on Katniss since they were children. The show plays up this “star-crossed lovers” aspect, and I must say, the audience and the sponsors seem to just eat it up. So we’re always leery of the moment when Katniss has to “remove” Peeta from the game. Or will it be vice versa?
MA: It’s all so riveting!
LS: Let’s take a look at the actors, shall we? First off, we’ve got Jennifer Lawrence portraying Katniss, and I have to say, she does a remarkable job here.
MA: Yes, one of the best things about THE HUNGER GAMES is there is some major star power going on here. It’s got a terrific cast, really impressive, and at the top of the list, you’ve got Jennifer Lawrence in a knock-out performance as Katniss.
LS: Katniss is the one who is the heroine of this story, so it’s important that she sympathetic and believable, and Lawrence brings those qualities and more to the role. I really thought she was the heart and soul of this movie. What a wonderful job of casting. Lawrence makes us believe she actually is Katniss Everdeen as the story unfolds. Some people may remember her equally impressive acting job in the movie WINTER’S BONE (2010). She was also quite good as the young Mystique in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS (2011). I’ve become quite fond of Ms. Lawrence.
MA: I completely agree, and I liked her much better here than as Mystique in X-MEN: FIRST CLASS. She’s completely believable in this role.
LS: The rest of the cast is also quite good.
MA: The rest of the cast is excellent.
LS: Standouts include Stanley Tucci as the very plastic yet dynamic Caesar Flickerman. He balances sincerity and artificiality quite splendidly here, with his flashing white teeth. I can’t imagine that anyone does not know who Tucci is, but just in case, we most recently saw him as Dr. Abraham Erskine in last year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE FIRST AVENGER.
MA: I thought Tucci gave the best performance in the movie. I really liked his flamboyant Caesar Flickerman. From his commentary on the Games, to his hosting the interviews, Flickerman was a captivating character. He was Steve Colbert crossed with Liberace.
LS: Yes, you and I can only hope to be as good at providing color commentary for the Games as he is. He is the gold standard for emcees here at the Capitol.
I’m also a big fan of Woody Harrelson, and he does a fine job as Haymitch here, even if he plays the role a little more seriously than the drunken buffoon we first see in the novel (although he gets quite serious as time goes on there as well).
MA: I thought Harrelson was great. He really makes Haymitch—a guy who starts off seeming like a useless drunk—likeable.
LS: Ahh—but not so useless. In the novel, when we first see him, he falls off a platform and vomits on himself. But there’s no sign of that Haymitch here. In fact, when Peeta tries to knock a drink out of his hand early on, he shows that he still has the reflexes of a warrior, even if he long ago went to seed.
And Donald Sutherland is suitably menacing as President Snow, even though it’s a role that Sutherland could have easily done in his sleep, if he had to.
MA: Donald Sutherland as President Snow was as icy cold as his character’s name. There was something sinister and chilling about Sutherland’s portrayal, and while you’re right that he could have done this in his sleep, I thought he was terrific in these scenes. He creeped me out.
LS: I also liked musician Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’s compassionate stylist. And I think many of the other kids were quite good, especially Josh Hutcherson as Peeta; Amandla Sternberg as Rue, a 12-year-old girl from District 11 who bonds with Katniss at one point; and Alexander Ludwig as Cato, the most vicious of the other tributes out to get Katniss.
(The screen behind them suddenly fills with the face of NICK CATO)
NC (seems confused): Cato? Did someone say Cato?
LS: Ahh, it’s our illustrious Nick Cato, author of the Suburban Grindhouse Memories column here at cinemaknifefight.com
MA: Hi, Nick.
NC: I thought I heard you guys mention me.
LS: No, Nick. We were talking about the character “Cato” from THE HUNGER GAMES. We’re in the middle of our review here.
(MA waves to NC from behind the desk)
NC: Oh, okay. I was just going to say that….
(The screen goes blank when LS presses a button)
LS: Now, no more interruptions. Back to our wonderful review! What were you going to say about the cast, Michael?
MA: I agree. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta definitely grew on me as the movie went along. I thought his character might become kind of a jerk, based upon his early scenes, but he’s not this way at all, and he grows more likeable as the story goes on.
And as you said, Amandla Sternberg is also quite good as the cute Rue.
And while Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, the guy who runs the Games from behind the scenes, doesn’t really do a whole lot but look dark and dashing in his black suit, he does dark and dashing well, and he’s more memorable here than he was in last month’s GONE, where he played a cop who also happened to be—surprise, surprise—dark and dashing.
LS: The direction by Gary Ross is quite good, if unspectacular. He sticks to the book fairly closely for the most part, and doesn’t give us too much in the way of surprises. But hey, sometimes a faithful adaptation is just what the doctor ordered. Ross previously directed the films SEABISCUIT (2003) and the interesting PLEASANTVILLE (1998).
MA: I thought Ross did a nice job, too. I thought he got the pacing right. For a long movie—2 hours and 22 minutes, to be exact—it didn’t drag one iota. It also caught my interest and had me hooked long before the actual Games even start, and once they start, the film gets even better. Honestly, I was really impressed. I went in really expecting not to be wowed by this movie, but it succeeded in delivering the goods.
LS: Two hours and 22 minutes? Yes, it never seemed that long at all. It moves at a very nice pace.
I liked THE HUNGER GAMES, especially Jennifer Lawrence’s performance. I wasn’t particularly dazzled by it, but I found it to be a solid story, done well. I give it three knives.
And what is your verdict, Michael?
MA: I liked it even better than you, which surprises the hell out of me.
I still don’t buy the plot. A society where children are forced to fight to the death in Games that are televised nationwide still comes off as pure fantasy to me, and I’m not a fan of pure fantasy. I like some realism.
However, that being said, the movie takes this outlandish story and makes it believable. I believed in the onscreen events I was watching, and as such, I was moved by them.
LS: Actually, this isn’t the first time we have been treated to such a concept in the movies. The Japanese cult film, BATTLE ROYALE (2000), also based on a popular novel—in Japan, at least—also treads similar ground. In that one, a class of school kids is brought to an island where they must fight to the death, with only one victor. However, THE HUNGER GAMES is different enough to avoid being a mere cover version. THE HUNGER GAMES, in comparison, is very American, and the backstory about the Capitol, and the glitz of the Games themselves, all give us a very home-grown feel to the proceedings. And Katniss is such a wonderfully memorable character.
MA: THE HUNGER GAMES works on multiple levels. First and foremost, its tale of games in which children must kill each other, whether I buy that as a concept or not, works because the characters in this story know only one of them is coming out alive, and they make you feel their anxiety and their fear over what is about to take place. This works very well in the movie. I believed that these kids were scared, and I believed that to survive, they would kill each other, and they do.
LS: Well, that’s just one. What are the other levels, Michael? I, for one, saw it as an allegory for war. And a certain scene with berries, involving Peeta and Katniss, reminded me a bit of the story of Adam and Eve. In fact, there are lots of other levels that the movie (and book) delves into as the story goes along.
MA: Now, THE HUNGER GAMES is rated PG-13, and so while some may argue that the killing scenes are neat and sanitary, I thought in spite of the fact that they weren’t gory and bloody, they were sufficiently brutal and effective. These killing scenes aren’t pleasant. And they help make this movie work.
LS: Yes, the violence is well done. I found that THE HUNGER GAMES maintains a certain edge that is lacking in other young adult franchises—the TWILIGHT series springs instantly to mind—and I found it particularly pleasing for that reason.
MA: I definitely agree with you there. If only the TWILIGHT series had an edge! And before my showing of THE HUNGER GAMES, they just had to show the preview for the final TWILIGHT movie too, coming out on November 16. Start the countdown! Ugh! At least we’ll be able to celebrate that there won’t be any more TWILIGHT movies after that!
LS: Well, there’ll be more HUNGER GAMES movies. Just as the book was the first part of a trilogy, it’s quite clear at the end of THE HUNGER GAMES movie that there’s more to come. And you just know this movie is going to be a big enough hit to give a green light to sequels.
MA: There are also some neat scenes showing the reactions of people in the Districts, including parents of slain children, who rebel, and have to be suppressed by futuristic riot police. Scenes like this keep the story real. There are real families tortured by the deaths of these kids.
The movie also works on the media level, and it’s actually this part of the story that I buy more than the actual Games story. See, I believe that the public would actually watch a show where people really killed each other. I’m just not sure I believe in a government that would allow it. Most brutal governments are uncivilized and they don’t possess the imagination necessary for pulling a spectacle like THE HUNGER GAMES off. Thankfully.
LS: Speak for yourself, Michael. I for one, love to be entertained!
MA: But the show part of it all, I buy, and it’s this media aspect of THE HUNGER GAMES that I found disturbing. I believe people would watch this stuff. And I thought the whole spectacle of the interview show hosted by Stanley Tucci was dead on. If ever a show like this were to exist, it would be like that.
LS: I agree whole-heartedly, my friend (grins for the cameras).
MA: THE HUNGER GAMES was creative and different enough to hold my interest throughout. I was into this story long before the Games started. Once they start, things really get moving, as you don’t know who is going to survive, and it’s not like so-and-so loses and they get voted off. They get killed. Brutally. It truly heightens the suspense. It really works.
One thing that didn’t work, and this is a minor quibble, is that the vicious animal creatures at the end of the movie are so obviously fake—another poor example of CGI— they’re laughable, which is too bad, because the rest of the movie isn’t. But they’re not a big part of the film, so their presence doesn’t ruin it.
LS: I must agree with you there. The “muttations,” as they are called in the book, aren’t very convincing here. Also, in the book, there is a major secret about them that is never mentioned in the movie. But you’re right. I thought they seemed tacked on, and looked rather silly.
MA: I was completely impressed, and entertained from start to finish! I give THE HUNGER GAMES three and a half knives.
See, this is what I hoped for from JOHN CARTER. Go in with low expectations, come out impressed. That one didn’t do it for me, but THE HUNGER GAMES, to my surprise, did.
LS (smiles wider): Well, I for one continue to defend JOHN CARTER as a very good movie that just failed to find its target audience. If only the marketing campaign had been a bit more focused….
MA: But, alas, we’re not talking about JOHN CARTER here. So back to the matter at hand. THE HUNGER GAMES is one time where the movie lives up to the hype.
So, that wraps things up here. We’ll see you next—-
LS: Shh! They’re making an announcement. Listen.
VOICE: A special announcement. There’s been a change in the rules for today’s Hunger Games. As part of the festivities, only one co-host will be allowed to survive and continue with the show. This will be the only announcement.
MA: Hmm. That kinda changes things, doesn’t it?
LS: Not really. It’s just like old times.
(MA dives for a sword, while LS snags an axe. The two Cinema Knife Fighters lunge at each other, screaming with fury, as the camera FADES TO BLACK.)
© Copyright 2012 by Michael Arruda and L.L. Soares
Michael Arruda gives THE HUNGER GAMES ~three and a half knives!
LL Soares gives THE HUNGER GAMES ~three knives.