I Review The Hunger Games Film (And Mostly Complain About the Jumpy Camera Work)

Books, Film, Movies, Reviews, Writers

So the wife and I went to see The Hunger Games last night. By way of readerly context: she ate up the trilogy in a spare week; I listened to the first audiobook last summer, and wrote about it here, including these sentences which loosely sum up my feelings:

Look, I get that these books are for kids, and that they’re probably a sight better than Twilight, but sheesh, exposition exposition exposition. There’s nothing wrong with letting readers fill in the gaps (especially when your book is ripping off The Running Man + a dozen other books). Also, there’s a character in this book who I think is named after pita bread.

However, I was prepared to accept that the plot of The Hunger Games could make for a fine film—I mean, it’s basically “The Most Dangerous Game,” or Lord of the Flies, or The Running Man, or Logan’s Run or whatever—so I went with an open mind.

By way of context/citation, here’s a trailer that gives a fairly accurate visual sense of the film—up to a point (I will belabor that point momentarily):

Short review:

Plot—fine.

Dialogue—fine.

Pacing—not bad.

Acting—better than average, especially Jennifer Lawrence as lead Katniss. (Lawrence stars in a better film called Winter’s Bone, which is like the real hunger games, by the bye). Woody Harrelson brought more to his character, drunken mentor Haymitch, than Collins’s cardboard book allowed, so kudos, bro.

Music/score—surprisingly good and rarely overused. I think T-Bone Burnett supervised. Also, no forced obtrusive pop songs from the “soundtrack.”

Set design—fine, I guess, although who knew the dystopian future would look like Coal Miner’s Daughter (for the plebes) and future-Vegas/Logan’s Run (for the aristocrats). The scenes in the capital city will look incredibly dated in ten years, but whatever. The thunderdome itself where the kids fight it out was underdeveloped, but this had more to do with plotting and pacing. But hey, the movie was already almost two and a half hours long, which is long, so, fine, I guess.

Editing/camera work: Not fineHorrible. I’m probably referring more to the director’s choices than to the acutal work of the DP and cinematographer here—I mean the lighting was good — what I’m talking about was the shoddiness of the framing of each shot, of the camera’s faux-unsteadiness, as if a shaky-cam in someway connotes realism or drama. The shaky cam connotes headache and nausea — especially when used so liberally. The camera seemed unable to ever simply rest on an image, particularly during the first 30 minutes. The shots—from bizarre and disparate angles—jump-cut around, refusing to actually show the audience the staging and action.

Particularly frustrating is an opening scene where Katniss hunts a deer in a lush green forest. There’s the potential here for an excellent introduction to the character—to her seriousness, her gravity, her skill, her keen attenuation to environment (all extremely relevant later, of course) — the camera could simply show the audience the hunt, linger a bit even — I’m not talking about Malickian nature-gazing, but simply taking the time to attune character to setting. Instead, the camera whips around frenetically with a nervous energy that seems to have nothing to do with Katniss’s calm, steady bowhand. It’s as if the director does not trust the audience to attend to a specific shot or angle for more than 2 seconds.

My frustration grew after this initial scene, as the director seemed determined to withhold any simple shot that would establish place or character. This frustration culminated in a climactic scene at the beginning of the Battle Royale—excuse me, Hunger Games tournament—where the contestants, admitted to the arena, either run for weapons or cover. There’s a bloodbath here, one that highlights the intense Darwinian stakes in play—only, again, we don’t really get to see it. The camera whirls around as if it were in the hands of someone’s dad at a birthday party, two beers in, as he tries to capture everything all at once on his cheap Sony — and therefore misses everything. Sure, the conceit might be that this shaky unsteady whirling is how Katniss experiences the scene, but the Hunger Games tourney is televised, so obviously we could see what the home audience could see, right? I’m not asking for gore or explicit violence here, to be clear: I simply don’t understand why the camera refused to show the basic action that was happening on the screen. Repeat this criticism for every single fight scene.

The clunky, clumsy fight scenes reminded me of Christopher Nolan’s shoddy work in the Batman films or even the sheer incomprehensibility of Michael Bay’s stuff : is this what audiences will accept? Are these what pass for action films? I’m not arguing that these Hollywood blockbusters need to adhere to the precision that we can find in Hong Kong martial arts films (or even Ang Lee’s arty take on such films, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon)—but, c’mon, even the Jason Bourne movies and recent James Bond movies respected their audiences enough to adhere to a modicum of verisimilitude.

Verdict: The Hunger Games, like any dystopia, succeeds or fails by how well it synthesizes—and then surpasses—its myriad sources. The film, in this case, is simply okay. Dystopia has so assimilated our culture’s collective imagination (from the aforementioned Batman films to political ads to the wild financial success of Collins’s HG trilogy) that its tropes are overly-familiar, to the point that they have become comfortable, well-worn. A more successful dystopian vision—let’s take Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or Alfonso Cuarón’s film Children of Men or Margaret Atwood’s Year of the Flood as ready recent examples—offers familiarity with one hand and utter strangeness with the other. Successful dystopian visions are strange, disruptive, and uncanny—they allow us to project ourselves into worlds we pray are impossible. The Hunger Games feels, dare I say, dull, predictable, and somehow awfully normal. Catch it on cable in two years.

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24 thoughts on “I Review The Hunger Games Film (And Mostly Complain About the Jumpy Camera Work)

  1. I assumed that the fast-moving, jolting camera work was to limit the amount of gore, blood and violence that was appropriate for a pg-13 movie. I thought it was a stylistic choice that reflected the glossing of the violence and gore in the book. Because the nature of teenagers fighting to the death is naturally disturbing when given any dedicated thought, the jolting camera allowed them to show enough of it without making it deeply disturbing. But then again, I’m not very critical of movies and I’m always trying to figure out the reasons filmmakers make certain decisions. Not the same with books, for some reason. If a book sucks, I’m brutal.

    1. The jumpy camera is to give you the view through Katniss’s eyes. Her perception, lack of what to focus on, her surprise, lack of preparation in simulated games as some have had. So you won’t know who or where or what to look at.

  2. I agree – the fight scenes are terrible; there’s no sense of excitement or suspense, especially the climactic battle. Woody Harrelson tries awfully hard but you can see him wishing for just one decent line (I disagree about the dialogue being okay – I thought it was typical Hollywood banal). What really bothers me about The Hunger Games though is how it represents how little movie audiences will accept. The parallels to Logan’s Run are pertinent here because back in that movie’s day – the ’70s – it would be enough to just win the battle; the dystopian society would also have to fall, otherwise what’s the point? In The Hunger Games, there’s no real resolution – who cares of Katniss survives? What good is the outcome for anyone but her? Ah, there’s the rub – wait to find out (and shell out more money) in 2014, 2016, and 2017 (for the fourth part of the “trilogy”, as the movie studio breaks up the last book into two parts to further gouge moviegoers). Oh well, if people will accept this, they get what they deserve.

    1. Shawn, you’re right, the dialogue is banal—when I write “fine” I simply mean average, mediocre, whatever—no real moments where I winced. Yeah, it’s annoying that a movie can’t just stand alone anymore, that it has to be a franchise . . . I remember an interview with Gus Van Sant from a few years back where he says something like, “Hollywood doesn’t want to make Iron Man, they want to make Iron Man 2″ — it’s annoying. My wife’s comment on the film was something like, “It would’ve been better as an HBO series,” which I think is probably right—the story would be far more interesting if the characters had time to develop—even just some long, slow shots of the kids *surviving*, being hungry, hunting, etc. would make a way better story.

      I rarely go to the movie theaters anymore — young kids + mostly crap movies — but I’m still always startled by how stupid the people around me seem to be, how predictably they will laugh at the tired cliches in the coming attractions trailers, how they will laugh exactly where it is their cue to laugh. Most of all though, I’m amazed that they get up the moment the film is done, that they have no interest in seeing the names of the producer, the cinematographer, the person who scored the film, etc. I just don’t get that. I’m always the last one to leave the theater.

      1. We Bought a Zoo was a chain gang of every cliche you could think of. I couldn’t believe it. Matt Damon knows better, so what did he want to make. A movie for his children? The theater was full of families all laughing at every cliche from their childhoods made up to date and modern in WBAZ. I saw it with a 25 year old nerd who was disgusted. The opening day it poured rain then the sun comes out, then the crowds and it’s a big happy success! Oh my!

  3. I think you’re probably right to some degree, brilliantstella, that the shaky cam work is a way of eliding or glossing over the violence. Still, I think that there are other solutions to getting a PG 13 rating than making your movie nauseating. The scene where Cato (?) breaks the boy’s neck is a good example—it’s one of the few clear shots in the movie that telegraphs concrete action.
    If I seem tough on HG, I think it’s because I think that mediocre airport books can make excellent films (see also: The Godfather, The Shining, 28 Days Later, etc.) — I mean, the story has so many possibilities.

    1. The shakey camera as Katniss sees from the platform just after coming up is TO SEE the scene through Katniss’s perception. Katniss coesn’t have a focused view. All is in flux for her, there is no previous experience for her to see that kind of ordered chaos. So we are getting her view, the way she feels affecting her perception.

  4. Nice honest review Edwin.

    I think I got to agree with you that most viewers complained about the camera work by the director. I’m not sure exactly what’s his purpose but as mentioned in the 1st comment, it may probably be because to contain violence and make it a PG 13 movie. Maybe they wanted to generate connection to the younger audience just like the Twilight saga and cash in on their demographics.

    Anyway, the book is about teens and it’s really made for young adults. I’m just hoping that the next films will be better than the first.

  5. Huge director fail – I think we all agree that the camera looked like it was being handled by an Parkinson’s-afflicted nonogenarian with a short attention span. Furthermore, I am certain the fight scenes were edited by a child with ADD, or possibly by Haymitch himself after draining the liquor cabinet. I had to close my eyes before I hurled all over the seat in front of me Haymitch-style.

    But surely we shouldn’t expect too much. This is a Hollywood blockbuster of the most mass-market kind, unlikely to yield Orson Welles-ian camera angles, Ozu-kian framing or Bergman-esque lighting. At least it was better than Twilight. (Or at least Twilight 3 and 4, which in two moments of debilitating weakness I allowed myself to be dragged to the cinema to see). They were all dross of the most drossiest kind.

    I thought the acting was excellent (given the material they had to work with). Laurence was transcendent (no Winters Bone performance, but I’d watch her in anything, even a remake of Twilight). Harrelson was fine and Tucci was entertaining. Even Pita-bread was palatable.

    But please, pleassssse sack the director for the film of the second book, which from memory is almost identical to the first book.

    1. I’m not expecting auteur-style innovation (although I think that it’s possible for the story, to be clear) — but I think that it’s not too much to expect that the director *show* the action.

      1. Yep, that was way better. Except for that dastardly “throwing leaves in the opponent’s face” move.

        Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t in any way defending The Hunger Games. I thought the action scenes were unwatchable; and that the shaky camera was also used, for some reason, during less “emotionally-charged” moments, such as the deer hunting scene at the beginning made no sense at all.

        It just wasn’t as bad as I expected (clearly I had very low expectations). With a better director, it could’ve been a reasonable movie. Look at what Alfonso Cuaron did with HP3. Instead, HG is a visual mess.

        1. I think Cuaron on HP 3 is basically a model for any director to follow with a franchise — you can still put your style on it and make it great. I think Hunger Games would be great in the hands of someone trying to do a Malick film, or at least approaching a Malick-style . . .

  6. I had just finished reading The Hunger Games and quickly decided to see the movie. I was so looking forward to it. But after 1/2 hour, I had to leave the theater and throw up in the parking lot. I had the worse headache and dizziness from the lousey camera action. This was absolutely the worst experience I have ever imagined. I hope the next movie in this series has a better director that will not mess up this wonderful story.

  7. My family thought I was crazy when I had to leave the theater because my nausea was so overpowering. How can a studio release such a horribly made film? I get the need to keep a PG 13 rating but there has to be a better way.

  8. My friends kept talking about it for days until such time they’ve managed to convinced me to watch the movie. Well, it was a-okay until I started reading the first book an finished it. That’s how I became a big fan of Hunger Games. :)

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  9. I just looked this up. I’m surprised no one has written anything about this other than you. I thought it was horrible. I loved the books and actually stopped watching the movie about a half an hour in because of this. Doubt I’ll be buying or watching the second & third. It was that bad!

    1. I knew I would have your problem if I read the books. So I went cold. As I did for Eclipse which was the first Twilight film I saw. I thought it was a riot. slade made it into pure camp. Then I got to thinking about Foucault and went again. It is a perfect genealogy of The History of Sexuality. Every genealogical cut is in Eclipse in under 2 hours. It was amazing from that POV. My review of it from that POV: http://moviesandfilm.blogspot.com/2011/10/review-viewing-eclipse-through.html

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