The list of movies that surpass their book counterparts is slim. In fact, some people would say that it doesn’t exist, that no movie has ever been better than the book that it is based on. I would tend to agree. However, little do people know that this list is actually quite large. The Godfather, The Princess Bride, and The Shawshank Redemption are all examples of movies better than their books. And after seeing Gary Ross’ adaptation of The Hunger Games, I can say, with some slight hesitation, that it joins that list.
I read the original novel by Suzanne Collins in a single evening, a few days before the movie was released. The book is a speedy read, a violent explosion of imagination. It takes place in a dystopian future, where North America has divided into twelve separate districts, all controlled by a cruel government at the Capitol. In order to display dominance and incite fear in its subjects, every year the Capitol takes two children from each district and forces them to fight to the death in a spectacle known as the Hunger Games. While the book delights the mind with this terrifying concept, the film takes a decidedly different approach, to its benefit. The film plays up the “dystopia” aspect, creating a cinematic color palate that is, at first, full of muted grays and blues. We open with heroine Katniss Everdeen, who takes her sister’s place to fight in the Games. She lives in District 12, the poorest of all. Her struggle to take care of both her younger sister and her ailing mother recalls Jennifer Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated turn in Winter’s Bone, so choosing her to play Katniss should be no surprise. This film belongs to Lawrence*, though she plays her character differently than the book’s version. The book suggests a cold, steely young woman, stone-faced and resolute. Lawrence, however, is unafraid to show her character’s emotions. This is just one of many changes to the book that improve the story.
For example, because the novel is written in the first-person, we never see what goes on outside the walls of the arena once the Games begin. The film version often moves beyond these walls, showing things that the novel never could have. Not only does this serve to flesh out certain characters, but it offers a visceral look at the effect that our protagonist is having on the world outside, an important detail that the book never got to show. This serves to broaden the scope of the story, which otherwise would have contained nearly 90 minutes of action in the arena. This would have become tiring quickly, and I’m glad that they held back.
I do have a problem with the pacing of the movie. For the first third of the film, the buildup to the Games, things move quickly, spending just the right amount of time on the major plot points. However, once the Games begin, things become almost glacial in comparison. Much of this movie is Katniss sitting in trees and waiting for…something to happen, I guess. Her strategy while playing the Games is never made clear. She basically coasts through on sheer luck, despite the constant assurances to the audience in the beginning that she has all the skills necessary to win. Only once or twice are these skills used in the context of playing the Games. The setup/payoff balance is uneven.
The other problem with the film is the weakly handled themes. Fans can talk for hours about the themes that the story contains, digging into them more deeply than they deserve. The way I see it, these people are seeing more intelligence than is actually there. The themes of class warfare, desensitization to violence, and the way that reality television reflects society are all there, certainly, but they’re never delved into with any real depth. It’s unfortunate, because it’s not like these themes are cut for time to make room for more action. The film isn’t dumb. It just isn’t as smart as it could be.
But ultimately, I lay my main beef with the movie squarely at the feet of Gary Ross. Ross, whose previous credits include Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, is the absolute wrong choice for this film. I applaud him for his dedication to a quasi-documentary style; it’s a decent idea. However, the constantly shaking camera is headache-inducing, and Ross is incompetent at directing the film’s many action scenes. But this is a relatively minor quibble, a small misstep in an otherwise great film. The Hunger Games succeeds in so many areas that any faults found are miniscule. It’s a film that improves on its source material, to the benefit of audiences everywhere. Whether or not you’re a fan of the books, these are Games worth playing.
*Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinkett is extraordinary (as well as unrecognizable). Donald Sutherland is surprisingly good in his few short scenes, though it doesn’t hurt that his character is so well written. Woody Harrelson, however, phones it in.