Published Nov. 16, 2014 for the film review site I created, Crowd vs. Critic. Each film is reviewed twice, once from the Crowd perspective for its entertainment value (Popcorn Potential) and once from the Critic perspective for its Artistic Taste.
Sometimes the best things surprise you, which is more than true of my whim decision to buy The Hunger Games because it was $6 and I was about to spend 8 hours on a plane. After devouring it and the sequels in less than two weeks, I realized just how much bang I got for my six bucks. Although Suzanne Collins is no Shakespeare, The Hunger Games snagged me (and a few million others) because of its addictive, thought-provoking story and well-developed characters.
Two months later, with a ticket in my hand and a braid in my hair (because, #SorryNotSorry, that’s as much as I will dress up for a midnight premiere), I took a similar risk on the movie. A year-and-a-half after that, my friends and I were leaving the theatre gushing, “I think that was even better than the first one!”
This all makes sense, though, when you consider the whole story revolves around an unexpected heroine. Katniss is a lonely, underprivileged girl thrust into a death trap who becomes an icon of romance and rebellion in a country simmering with discontent. As a reader, I was happy to see the screen turn it into an action-packed flick without losing its heartbeat. A few things that especially worked in that page-to-screen transition (mild spoilers):
- Both movies edit their source material wisely, so you don’t waste minutes on Bonnie, Twill, and Madge when you’d rather see Katniss’s bow-slinging and fiery costumes
- Changes and additions usually speed up the story (like shrinking the Games from weeks to days), highlight the themes (e.g. Cato’s last stand), or fill in what Katniss’s point of view couldn’t provide in the novels (goodbye, Seneca Crane!)
- The terrors of the arenas and colorful characters may not be exactly like you imagined them, but they’re fair interpretations you might even like better
Of course, there are a few losses. Because the novels are essentially three long inner monologues, switching to a third-person view loses subtleties in relationships and memories that are important to her.
Non-readers won’t notice those absences, and readers won’t miss a number of them too sorely. Instead, both groups will be swept up in two fiery blockbusters with as many thrills as any other major action release. Bonus: Each one gets better every time you watch. Here’s hoping Mockingjay continues that streak and comes out a victor when it hits theaters November 21.
The Hunger Games – 9/10
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – 10/10
The numbers shoot as high as her arrows: two $150 million-plus openings leading to two box office totals over $400 million each. Yet that still doesn’t seem to sum up just how brightly the Girl on Fire shines.
When I say “Girl on Fire,” of course, I could very easily be referring to Katniss Everdeen or Jennifer Lawrence herself. Then again, perhaps they’re one and the same: forever intertwined, one breathing life into page-bound heroine, the other birthing the career of a global superstar.
Someone else could have donned the sheath of arrows, but the magic of the performance is that I don’t want to imagine anyone else trying. Lawrence really is Katniss, so much so that when I re-read the books and find discrepancies with the films, Book Katniss feels like the incorrect version. The parallels in their rises to fame only add to the illusion.
Tracking the box office numbers like baseball stats doesn’t cut it because the Girl on Fire has more to her than that. If you’ll entertain my left-field metaphor, it would be like trying to sum up the Babe’s legacy by his home run count; it’s certainly relevant, but it doesn’t express the thrill of watching him predict where the ball will land in the bleachers or tell you about his pitching career and World Series wins.
It goes without saying that the lead actress’s success makes or breaks this series, but a strong supporting cast helps it dazzle more brilliantly. Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, and Stanley Tucci bring new angles to already-compelling characters, and Lenny Kravitz’s surprising turn as Cinna feels like he jumped straight out of the book. Catching Fire recruits like Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jena Malone, and Jeffrey Wright only strengthen the ranks.
Katniss’s film career hasn’t quite reached Babe-legend status, but weak spots are few and hardly ruin the whole. (And the Great Bambino had a bad game or two, right?) Do some people find the shaky, handheld camera and jump cuts in the first installment distracting? Do I find myself debating whether to blame Peeta’s stilted dialogue more on the writers or on Josh Hutcherson? Sure, but the story never stops moving, and the visuals are electric from start to finish. I’ll even defend the shaky cam as a sharp way to demonstrate the instability inside the arena.
And when you consider just how much the odds were not in favor of this series, the shortcomings matter much less. Instead of settling for a generic YA adaptation centered around who ends up with whom, it creates opportunity for conversation about morality and human nature with tight storytelling and details like smart sound editing.
Without trying to put too much weight on her shoulders, though, let’s remember the one who holds the whole story together: the irreplaceable Girl on Fire, who brings the heart to this revolution.
The Hunger Games – 7.5/10
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire – 8/10
Photo credit: TheHungerGamesExplorer.com