To clarify: The latest installment of the Hunger Games series (I almost said trilogy, before I realized that you don’t make as much money with three movies as you do with four) is reasonably faithful to the book. I don’t necessarily mean in terms of whether every plot point in the film is exactly as it was in the book — my memory isn’t all that great. I mean that the film captures accurately, the tone of the book.
This, sadly, is not a compliment.
There is an extraordinarily moving scene right at the end of We were Soldiers, the Mel Gibson-Barry Pepper starrer about one of the first major American military offensives in Vietnam. The Pepper character, a reporter named Joe Galloway who had flown in with the unit and witnessed the entire battle, is accosted by a bunch of reporters who have been flown in after the battle is over. They’re looking for a soundbite. Joe and the soldiers just look and them blankly and move on. Soon after that, you hear the words: We who have seen war, never stop seeing.
That’s the mental state you expect to find Katniss Everdeen in. Maybe worse, given her age. Her narrative voice has the slightly dispossessed quality of one whose daily life has given her a case of PTSD before the T proper has even begun. How do you expect her not to want to strangle the people around her who expect her to care about how she looks on TV? The hunger games themselves, as I wrote earlier, feel like an inverted version of a reality show: unreal world, real emotional response. You can think of the arena as a laboratory, almost. But the world outside the arena, which is where most of the action takes place as the series progresses, cannot have that luxury. I get what Suzanne Collins is going for — Greek mythology meets pick-your-favourite-satire-on-the-public-obsession-with-tv meets pick-your-favourite-post-apocalyptic-dystopia. But the ingredients don’t mix as well as they should, and the result is inconsistent at best.
To be fair, the problem may be with the whole idea of writing a book series revolving around teenagers placed in increasingly dark situations. You either have to go at a pace at which there isn’t much room for the horror to truly settle in, or do justice to the emotions that these characters would plausibly feel. I know we’re supposed to be horrified when a murderous game is treated like an everyday reality show, but how will that work when a teenaged girl who has volunteered to be (most likely) killed in place of her sister behaves like a sheep in a slaughterhouse when a costume designer wants to discuss how he is going to make her look? This is the tone — no, these are the conflicting tones — the film is going for.
Given that this isn’t the sort of film where things keep getting blown up every two minutes, the only way this works is if our emotions are manipulated skilfully enough that we stay with Katniss through the entire ride. She is, after all, our window to this world. That doesn’t work out too well either. There is, for instance, a scene early on where Katniss visits District Twelve (her home) and sees the bombed out ruins that remain. You see the grief begin to build up in her eyes, but before she is allowed to express it, the scene cuts to a calmer Katniss going through her belongings in the still-intact Victors’ Village. The effect is jarring, to say the least. I see why, in hindsight — the big scene with the ruins is not this one, but a later one where Gale talks about what happened, and letting Katniss have her moment of grief too early might have diminished the impact of the later scene. But then, why let her emotion build up before cutting it off? Wouldn’t it have been better to find a quieter way for her to express her horror and circumvent this compromise entirely?
But why am I even bothering to agonize over this? The film has apparently made nearly $500 million already, of which the price of one ticket came from me. Maybe Suzanne Collins was on to something after all.