At the Odeon movie theater in Camden last night, teenagers cheered as their new favorite franchise hit the screen. Before that, they were making jokes about how they were like Katniss in their battle for tickets. While I rolled my eyes and despised their nerdy and predictable attitude, I may have cracked one of those jokes and shouted out a wee huzzah as well.
The fact of the matter is, The Hunger Games is one of the best (if not the best) teenage fiction series to have come out in the last decade. While it sports none of the outlandish fantasy of Harry Potter or the gothic charm (for those of us who can tollerate it) of Twilight, this series beats both of them in intelligence and quality of writing. It’s complex, it’s political, it’s thrilling, it’s romantic. You don’t get distracted by parts written so poorly you want to grab a red pen. And, to explain the origins of my respect for the series, I should say that I read the first book to my 7th graders during homeroom in my last year of teaching. Some of my students that almost never picked up a book independently were avidly reading along, and asking to read the talking parts of their favorite characters. The series works on a human level, and the fact that it was also cinematic and thrilling was merely a bonus. So it’s easy to see why I was pumped about getting tickets for the opening night, but apprehensive that this was the end of the series’ most important element: thoughtful consideration of politics, media, and independence.
The movie didn’t disappoint at all. Considering how bad some of the Harry Potter flicks were, the script held up, the acting was good (with the major exception of Woody Harrelson’s hair), and it was all tongue-in-cheek enough to let you tollerate the sometimes overbearing romance. In fact, that would be my one criticism: take out 10 minutes of the sappy love-triangle, and spend some time developing the other tributes or beefing up the action scenes. They have a great cast here, so they should give the rest of them some time… except for maybe Gale, whose reaction shots to the kissing scenes are both amusing and a bit too revealing of his acting skills.
That said, Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast as Katniss Everdeen: she brings out all the roughness and fury of the character despite looking like a Hollywood beauty even when she has dirt on her face. Remarkably, Amanda Stenberg plays Rue – Katniss’ short-lived ally – very effectively given how little screen-time she has . You actually get emotionally attached to her in the few minutes you get to know her (it helps that she’s as adorable as they get). The show-stopper, though, was probably Stanley Tucci as Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman. He sports the orange tan well, and manages to conjure sympathetic feelings for a character that is – at least in this installment – all about surface appearance.
The highlight of the film, however, was what it managed to do that the book couldn’t possibly reach for. The deep trauma of what was happening often came to the surface in a manner that the books never really stop to reflect upon. TV screens occasionally flicker with revealing media bits: ads as well as clips from previous Hunger Games. In fact, I wish there had been more of that media-frenzy: the possibilities here are endless, and they generate a complex and real universe through one of the story’s major themes. While I wanted more, I still have to admit that the Capitol looked amazing, as did all the make-up and costumes. Much of the time, I found myself just trying to absorb as much of it as possible: the wide-screen shots generously reveal the amount of care and detail that went into creating this alternate universe. It was exciting to see, too, that the director was unafraid to make some odd decisions: shaky Bourne Identity-style camerawork (but toned down a bit so as not to make you nauseous) and some unconventional framing.
All things considered, the film makes up for its weak points (some script gaffs, some dwelling on romance, some bad jokes) by being interesting and well-constructed in so many other ways. If you’re not thrilled by one part, you’ll be exhilarated by another. It’s a great story, and it’s a relief to see it come to life in an honest and palatable manner. Now we just have to wait for the next one… and maybe do some re-reading while we’re at it.