Why The Hunger Games was only OK

An Open Letter to Suzanne Collins.  BEWARE: spoliers abound after the jump, along with strong opinions.

Dear Suzanne,

Here’s the thing: I came a little late to this party, having only read your Hunger Games trilogy since March 1, when I downloaded all of them to my new Kindle.  So maybe I don’t get to have the strong opinion I now hold about the film version of the first book in that series.  Actually, I think no one is more surprised than I that I care as much as I do, but there it is, all the same.  Partly it’s because dystopian literature is my favorite sub-genre, but also it’s because I love the movies, and think that even a film based on a book ought to stand on its own, without needing to be propped up by the novel’s pages.  And what’s bothering me is that the film version seems to have forgotten that your book had a message.  And YOU wrote the screenplay.  What’s up with that??

First of all, this is a movie populated by folks who eat.  Your lead, playing Katniss Everdeen, is nowhere near having missed any meals. She’s basically “TV fat.”  Which isn’t actually fat, it’s the kind that’s super skinny in real life but on camera makes her look round on all her edges.  I mean, there is some serious junk in that girl’s trunk.  But this is (supposed to be) a movie about people who have, quite literally, been starved into submission.  They have been so removed from the luxury of knowing where their next meal is coming from that they have no thought beyond their own survival–certainly no desire to rebel or overthrow the goverment.  Even when, each year, their children are ripped from their arms and sent to an arena to die brutal, senseless, bloody, violent deaths for no clear purpose beyond sadistic control and the vile pleasure of those in power, they have no thought of resistance, only of survival.

Why, then, when we enter director Gary Ross’ vision of this world, do we NEVER see or hear discussion of food?  We see Katniss leave to hunt the day of the Reaping, but she tells her sister, “I just have to go.”  Why not tell her that if she doesn’t hunt, they don’t eat?  Would that have taken more time in your screenplay?  I think not, and yet the depth it may have added to the viewer’s experience is immeasurable, because it allows us to know these characters and understand why they think and behave as they do.  Katniss doesn’t want to be a revolutionary, she wants her family to survive.  We never know that her sister is the “one person in this world [she] can be sure she really loves,” but wouldn’t knowing that she has single-handedly been feeding her sister for over four years give us more reason to understand why she is so willing to die for her?

When they all arrive at The Capitol, no one mentions how much food is there, how much extravagance, how much waste.  We see Katniss and Peeta push back from the table, saying they aren’t hungry.  Pardon me, Suzanne, but BFD.  Why, had I not read the book, would I CARE??  I have no idea that these two have been fighting hunger their WHOLE LIVES, and that it would take a cataclysm of earth-shaking proportions for them to voluntarily miss a meal.  For crying out loud, lady, this book is called THE HUNGER GAMES, and ain’t nobody talking about being hungry!  Even in the arena, everyone seems to have plenty to eat–and when Katniss blows up the food, who cares??  We don’t know why that matters, so it’s just a pretty explosion and not a major plot point (as it ought to be).  Dropped.  Ball.

Second, the lack of real relationships in this film is snooze-inducing, I gotta be honest.  My husband, who went with me to the screening, had a really hard time thinking that the dramatic climax of the film was that big a deal, because we never got a chance to care about these people at all.  What?  Berries? And two winners?  But two winners we don’t care about, don’t want to know more about, aren’t rooting for, and don’t really believe care about one another.  Now, some of that I blame on the acting–which is a direct result of the direction, because these poor actors were likely doing the best they could with what they had, which was little enough.  But I think the bulk of the responsibility lies squarely on the shoulders of the screenwriters, who didn’t take multitudinous opportunities to give these people the words that would reveal who they are and why they are who they are to a substantial enough degree that we really give a rat’s behind what happens to them in the two hours and twenty-two minutes they’re on the screen.

Let’s start with Peeta and Katniss.  Draaaaagggging out their backstory made me want to weep.  For real?  Just TELL US already.  It gives us more on Katniss–how she is unable to trust anyone, how the loss of her father nearly destroyed her family, and but for the kindness of Peeta, she would have died in that rain storm.  It gives us more on Peeta–how his generosity is the core of him, how his desire to help Katniss forms every action of his.  And what was UP with undermining their relationship??  I mean, bad enough we don’t get the whole bread story until hour two, but to have her snatch her hand away in the chariot?  To NEVER know that her feelings for Peeta are constantly conflicted and ever-changing?  That she is a confused (and exceedingly realistic) sixteen-year-old who fears love and is terrified to trust, but who wants desperately to find someone in this world who is who he says he is and will offer the rudder to steady her?  We LOST all of that through that simple action of her refusing to hold his hand.  For real, why?  Give me something I can work with here.

And Haymitch.  Haymitch, Haymitch, Haymitch.  Let’s just get past the part where poor Woody Harrelson, of whom I expected and hoped for so much more, was wooden and lacking in even the most basic emotions.  We’ll blame Gary Ross for that one, again.  Let’s skip to the part where you, Suzanne, weren’t looking out for him.  Look, I know you had other screenwriters, and in my head, I picture meetings where they took you to task, and said, “But we can’t…” and “But we have to…” and told you that they knew better.  Maybe that’s how it went down, I hear you.  There were three of you, so it’s not all your fault, I know that.  But these people, they were born of your thoughts and ideas and heart, and you weren’t looking out for them!  Haymitch, when he was the age Katniss is now, was forced to kill or witness the killing of FORTY-SEVEN other children in order to win his Games.  And since then, for the past twenty-five years, he has watched two more children EVERY YEAR march to certain death, with nothing he can do about it.  Nothing.  And so: he drinks.  A lot.  Do we EVER know that from this film?  Is he anything other than a weak man who has weak needs and offers weak advice and then kinda sorta comes through with pithy notes toward the end??  He is empty.  But he is also Katniss’ father figure, and matters so greatly in the other two novels–have they forgotten all about foreshadowing in Hollywood?  Can you not build us a bond between the two that makes them make sense in their world, or must we make do with milque-toast people who have nothing to offer one another?

Finally, the art direction and cinematography.  Brilliant, absolutely brilliant.  I mean it–I loved them both.  I thought the look of the film was mesmerizing, and Gary Ross can’t be ALL bad, because the development he did ahead of time was really lovely.  The shaky-cam in the Districts becoming steady-cam in The Capitol, then back to shaky-cam for the arena: nicely done.  The look of the film, with the lushness of the forest outside the district paralleling the artificial lushness of The Capitol, which is rotten underneath.  The costuming of the citizens, all well done.  But the acting.  Oh, my.  I mean, poor Thresh.  Here’s a kid who wanted, WANTED to give us some emotion.  And he gets a crappy line where his best, most meaningful scene was ripped from him.  Katniss lies on the ground, Thresh kills Clove, but rather than turning to Katniss and hearing that she buried Rue–an unthinkable act in this world, in this arena, given the circumstances, beyond comprehension that someone would risk their own life to offer respect and condolence to a competitor and her people, something that stops him in his tracks and builds his character as well as the world as a whole–he spits out a dumb line WHILE WALKING AWAY that subtracts from the entire message of the film.

This is a book about humanity.  Katniss is the Mockingbird: something The Capitol never intended to exist.  She becomes that grudgingly, against her will, and is forced to overcome every barrier they have put in her way since before she was born: constant hunger, constant fear, an inability to trust, a fear of love.  The three books chronicle her struggle, and quite frankly, do such a good job of creating a character who is realistically sixteen and confused and vacillating and irritating that the first time I read the book, I thought, “This girl is a complete dumbass.”  Seriously, she was infuriating.  I wanted her to SEE.  But the book is like a grenade: it wasn’t until LATER that I understood more and could see more clearly, as could the character.

Where does that happen in this movie, Suzanne?  When do I care enough about these people that I WANT to know more?  There were so many chances for a word here, a line there, a gesture, that could have built the emotional content of this film into something much greater.  It wasn’t taken.  And I’m totally bummed by that.

So, my unsolicited advice: poor Gary Ross has got to go.  The movie was a good action romp, certainly watchable, but no classic because it had no heart.  Get someone to direct #2 who likes PEOPLE.  Because while the action sequences here were really awesome (I can’t believe I’m saying this, but the bloodbath ROCKED), the connection between the individuals was sorely lacking.  And in the end, all we have are the people we love.  Even if they’re occasionally fictional.

Yours very sincerely,

Deborah Moebes

Reluctant but ardent fan

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  • Diane Christy
    March 26, 2012 at 12:41 pm

    Do they give reviewers on Rotten Tomatoes this much space?
    I’ve got to read the other two books – pronto.

    • Deborah
      March 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm

      Ha! I doubt it. And for good reason. 🙂

  • Rebekah
    March 26, 2012 at 12:44 pm

    Oh boo 🙁 I’m still eager to see the movie, but I’m actually really glad to hear your critique. Every single person I know who’s seen it has raved about how awesome it is, but I’m usually really picky about movie adaptations of my beloved books… At least now I can go into it with tempered expectations!!
    At first I felt the same way about the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, because she is so beautifully healthy. I’ve had time to accept it, and I’ve really liked her in some other roles. But even in the trailer, sigh, and this just shows how picky I can really be lol… When her sister gets chosen, and she is struggling to take her place, in that instant I felt sick the way I did while reading the book. Just this connection with how horrifying it would really be to have someone try to take away your sister. But in the very next moment she is calm and robotic in a way that didn’t seem to convey the any real, raw emotion. And I got a little worried.. (Really, really picky.)
    Dang it. I was too caught up in my passionate comment and let my quesadilla burn lol!

    • Deborah
      March 26, 2012 at 2:32 pm

      She had some good moments. That instant where she cries her sister’s name gives you chills, and is spot on. There’s the scene when she’s with Cinna and about to enter the arena that’s very strong and full of emotion. But every instant she’s with Peeta is white bread boring. It’s a shame. I expect she’s very talented, but wasn’t given much to work with.

      The movie’s worth watching, but I think they missed the mark, and it concerns me because I feel it was dumbed down for the audience–who have proceeded to lap it up. Unfortunate for the future of good films!

      Sorry about your lunch!!

  • Jana Floyd
    March 26, 2012 at 1:44 pm

    I haven’t read the books yet and I haven’t seen the movie, but my SIL is BONKERS over it. Based on your review and her delirium, I am so intrigued! Must read/watch ASAP.

    • Deborah
      March 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm

      They really did take me a minute–I thought it was largely hype at first, and didn’t love the books the way everyone else seemed to. But I couldn’t shake the whole world she’d created, and caught myself puzzling over WHY Katniss was such a dumbass. When I began to allow that maybe she wasn’t, but rather was an unreliable narrator and there was more to read between the lines, I really began to love the story!

  • beth lehman
    March 26, 2012 at 1:53 pm

    I REALLY can’t decide whether to see it or not. I love what you say about ‘hunger’. I can see how many folks will miss the point.

    • Deborah
      March 26, 2012 at 2:34 pm

      Totally worth seeing the movie–it’s pretty, and exciting, and the action sequences are well done. It’ not an emotional ride, though, and doesn’t reflect the richness of feeling you’d expect if the world in the film were real. I don’t think I wasted my evening, though, and will certainly see it again on DVD/etc (just to see if I still feel the same way the second time through!).

  • Rachel
    March 26, 2012 at 2:03 pm

    Oh wow. Now I have much to say on this too. I did LOVE the movie, possibly more than the books, but I think that is because I didn’t really like Katniss or Peeta, but I like them moer in the film. I liked Gale more in the books though. I disagree on a few of your points though. Firstly, I agree that they are supposed to be staving citizens, oppressed for years, and you don’t rally get that while watching the film. I noticed that everyone in district 12 was pale though, not sure if it was intended or not. But Katniss being “TV fat”, i do not agree with. ALright, starving and everything yes, but I feelshe wasn’t at all fat, she was moer of a normal size. And surely this is what we want teenages to be watching, especially in a popular, influential film. you may think differently, but this is what I think, and i for one am sick of seeing skinny sticks on screen!
    And oh yes, I agree about the lack of information about the Capitol. Also about the Mockingjay, the significance of how it almost becomes her symbol, and the meaning of the hand gesture. I suppose this may be mentioned in subsequent films, and it would be difficult without some sort of voice over, but still. And I HATED that dragging out the past thing…I was confused about why she was in the rain!
    Haymitch though. I agree again. Maybe his story will be explained more in the second one, as it will be 25 years so he may explain more? I also thought of him as slightly fatter though, with a beer belly or something, not tall and well dressed and everything.
    Anyway, those are my thoughts, and I did enjoy it, and am looking forward to the second one(if there will be one) but I just thought I should let you know of my opinions! Thanks (:

    • Deborah
      March 26, 2012 at 2:38 pm

      I agree: in real life, I think Jennifer is probably smaller than average, and I do love seeing someone who isn’t waif-thin on screen. I’d vastly prefer that my girls admire her than one of these eating disorder actresses! It’s just a shame that Hollywood finally embraced that look for the ONE film where being emaciated is necessary–the book repeats multiple times that Katniss could “see [her] ribs through her skin” and it’s a BIG part of the store that she can find food when the Careers, who have led easier lives, can’t. Her look is part of the plot, you know? So I had hoped the filmmakers would recognize and honor that in an effort to bring the message forward. It bothers me that they’ve simplified the story so greatly that now what WAS a book about a larger message–and not about violence, as some people have complained–has become a movie that’s largely about ONLY violence, and doesn’t seem to want to repeat the same message as the book. What a bummer.

  • Nancy@OwensOlivia
    March 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    THANK YOU!!!!!!!!!!! I feel the exact same way. Out of the large group of people I went with to see this, I was the ONLY one who expressed disappointment. Lack of relationships, lack of no food, which is the driving force for kids to win, Katniss a bit more emotional in the movie, Rue as an afterthought, and the list can go on and on.

    • Deborah
      March 26, 2012 at 2:40 pm

      I know–I feel like the lone voice amongst folks to whom I’ve spoken. Even the books–I really think the second one is better, since it contains the single plot twist I never saw coming (the Quarter Quell requirement–WHAT a surprise!!). So I’d be willing to watch the movie again when the book isn’t so fresh and re-evaluate my opinion, but I don’t think I’m going to get past the coldness of the relationships and the fullness of the bellies. And Rue! Talk about Collins throwing THAT relationship under the bus! There was really NO reason in the film for Katniss to care enough to cry over her–big crying scene, but nothing building up to it, making it feel forced and disconnected. Le sigh.

  • Sara
    March 26, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    You articulated my feelings. I had some serious issues with the book but expected much more from the movie than I got. The relationships and character development was so poor I couldn’t sink my teeth into it. And it was over 2 hours long!!! The relationships and characters should have and could have been developed in that time.

    It was a decent movie, but dissapointing. thank you for articulating my thoughts because I was having a hard time doing it on my own. 🙂

    • Deborah
      March 28, 2012 at 9:42 pm

      I think the biggest problem for me is that, with the film, we ARE Panem: we have turned the Games into entertainment, and have lost the central meaning of what they represent. I disliked having the decision to make me a blood-sport spectator taken from me, and losing the backstory that gives the reader a chance to be more analytical and critical of the political world-view the Capitol perpetuates.

      Just because it’s Young Adult lit doesn’t mean it’s for dummies.

  • Diane
    March 26, 2012 at 5:09 pm

    Sing it Sister! Enjoyed the books and won’t bother with the movie. I’d rather use my mind’s eye to create Katniss’s world than see a disappointing film that takes away from the books.

  • Holly
    March 26, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    That is exactly the conversation I had with my friends after we saw the film. I was most disappointed with the lack of development for Haymitch – he became one of my favorite characters but was so flat in the film…
    There were so many missed opportunities here, and I have told everyone I know that they really need to read prior to seeing the film in order to be able to fill in the blanks and silences with what was really going on. I just do not think one could infer everything essential to the message through what was presented on screen. They need a do-over.

  • Yzobela
    March 27, 2012 at 1:53 am

    I agree, I think the movie would have been hard to follow if you hadn’t read the book, however, the studio is counting on the fact that a huge part of the audience will be familiar with it. Also, because I’ve worked in the film industry, it’s important to remember that it’s very unusual, VERY unusual, for an author to be allowed to give any kind of notes on a film once it is in production, unless that was part of the original contract when she sold the rights (again, most studios won’t give that), and her screenwriting credit was probably for the initial adaption of book to script – after that it would have been handed off to the writers hired by the studio – there is no collaboration among scriptwriters (unless it’s a writing team, which you can tell by them being credited with a “&” joining their names – not an “and” – very specific these movie titles!). Suzanne Collins most likely had no say in any changes made after she submitted her draft of the script and cashed her cheque.

    That being said, it’s a big book – big in terms of theme and character and emotion, and this did not feel like a big movie, it really felt that they were rushing to get all the necessary moments into the 2hours and 20 mins or whatever it was, when really, more justice would have been done by making the first book into two movies – then there would have been time to develop all the story points and characters more authentically. I loved the look of the movie – the production design was great, and I loved that it referenced so many dystopian classics with that postwar look (loved those 40s style dresses!) like Huxley and Orwell (meaning when those books were written, not when they were set!).

    But I’m with you, the directing seemed to be the biggest weakness, that and the studio’s need to cash in on the books regardless of how authentic the adaptation was. However, I still really enjoyed watching it, and I did think Katniss was great. Sorry I babbled on for so long!

    • Deborah
      March 28, 2012 at 9:43 pm

      Ever since I read your comment, I can’t help thinking that the best solution would have been to make the FIRST book into two films and the LAST book into one, rather than the other way around, as they’ve planned. It would have given the time and space you mention to really develop and have some heart.

      • Deborah
        March 28, 2012 at 10:03 pm

        Also: I read somewhere that Gary Ross got the director job beacuse he began the production design before even being hired. He set up shop and had assistants and everything, making maps of the Capitol and laying out a vision for the look of the movie. Perhaps that why that part of it is so well-developed: that was where *his* heart was, rather than with the characters. He clearly likes dystopian lit, because I agree that there was a lot of Huxley and Orwell and even some Bradbury in there; and the fact that he did “Big” and “Pleasantville” makes it SO, SO hard to understand why he didn’t love these characters the way he loved the ones in those other movies. Perhaps here it was the *world* of the story that attracted him, more than the story itself.

        NOW who’s babbling?? 🙂

  • Yzobela
    March 27, 2012 at 1:56 am

    Oh, just to clarify, Suzanne Collins may have written the final draft of the script that made it on screen or someone else may have made substantial changes, I have no idea, just saying!

    • Deborah
      March 28, 2012 at 9:45 pm

      Agreed! I knew about the “&” vs “and” thing, and somehow didn’t really process that she almost certainly worked independently and had no say once her portion was completed. In which case, someone has some ‘splainin to do, because this was the dullest, most emotionless script adapted from a passionate novel that I’ve seen in ages. Just let me get my hands on a copy, I’ll pencil in all the lines I think are missing!! 🙂

  • Marisa
    March 27, 2012 at 9:35 am

    I loved the movie, but I think only because I filled in all those “gaps” with the book. Too bad those who have not read the book will not be able to do that.

    • Deborah
      March 28, 2012 at 9:51 pm

      I have to say I did *not* like using those scenes with Snow and Seneca Crane to fill in exposition that was all narrative in the novel. The strength of Katniss’ story is that it’s first-person limited, and by making it omniscient, I think we lost some of the drive. I did enjoy seeing behind the scenes into the Gamemakers’ “lair,” since I think that level of manipulation would have been hard to understand otherwise–and those scenes created some of the few gasps of “That’s awful!” that were uttered in the theater when I was watching. I recognize I don’t get it both ways–I don’t get to see inside the Gamemakers’ minds but NOT see the conversations with Seneca and Snow, but I didn’t think the latter scenes were a useful way of devoting screen time. They made it appear that *Snow* was the bad guy, which I think actively detracted from us viewing *The Capitol* as the “bad guy,” and hating the system; too easy to hate the man and not notice the machine.

  • Rae
    March 27, 2012 at 9:49 pm

    I agree with you completely already. And I haven’t seen it yet. But I will!!!!

    • Deborah
      March 28, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      Hee! It’s not a terrible movie, just not a great one. Harry Potter–and I know people keep holding that up as an example, but that’s because it’s such a good one–stands alone as a film OR can stand beside the novel, and neither is diminished by the other nor do they require one another to make sense. You can never read the HP books and love every one of the movies. I think that could have happened here, but there isn’t enough love to bring it to life. I call DO-OVER.

  • Darcy
    March 27, 2012 at 10:39 pm

    Just saw it tonight and waited to read this until I’d seen it for myself. Completely agree with you. I knew we were in trouble when they couldn’t even cast BUTTERCUP as a yellow tabby. Downhill from there. I didn’t like the casting for Peeta – no chemistry between he and Katniss. Such a miss. And such a huge disappointment after such amazing books.

    • Deborah
      March 28, 2012 at 9:47 pm

      Ha! I totally thought the same thing about the poor cat!!

      Yes: I haven’t seen on-screen chemistry that weak since Katie Holmes was in Batman. Yikes.

  • Jennie T.
    March 28, 2012 at 2:20 pm

    Fantastic review – I haven’t seen the movie (won’t be seeing it on the big screen anyhow), but these were all things I’d wondered about. Your feelings about Katniss from the books were spot on – she drove me nuts!

    But it was the relationships that gave the books emotion and I’m worried that they are lacking in the film. I’ll get to see it on DVD when it comes out (don’t think taking a baby to this movie would work out well for me!).

  • Jessica
    March 28, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so disappointed with the movie….but you just articulated all my feelings. Agreed with you on all points. Such a shame they didn’t do a better job with it.

    • Deborah
      March 28, 2012 at 9:48 pm

      The up-side is that I actually think the second book is the best one–it has the most unanticipated plot twist of the three, so I’m hoping they’ll make more effort to give us some heart and hope!

  • Melissa
    April 3, 2012 at 12:00 pm

    I read this just after finishing the book and just before seeing the movie. I disagree. While I do you think you made good points, and I think your movie would have also been very good, I don’t think this movie was as lacklaster as your prespective.

    Having been disappointed time and time again on the movie rendition of books, I was hesitant to even see the film. I walked away actually impressed. Sure the book is far better and the world and characters it presents are much richer, but I don’t think all was lost on the movie. And, as they say, the book is always better than the movie.

    I will say, I’m only in the middle of the second book right now, so perhaps I would feel differently if I had the whole picture of the trilogy. Obviously I do not know all that was foreshawdowed in the first book. Thus, I cannot claim to know that it was not lacking in the movie.