Welcome to the 74th annual Hunger Games and may the odds be ever in your favor.
A few years ago I was vacationing in California and of course I had loads of fun. I saw the sights, Disneyland, and even some actual celebrities like the real Spider-Man and Optimus Prime! Can you believe they just hang out on Hollywood Blvd? But it was on the way home that something important happened. Our flight from LAX to JFK was slightly delayed so I went into the bookshop and came across “The Hunger Games.” The name sounded vaguely familiar and I was a fan of author Suzanne Collins’ other book series “Gregor the Overlander” when I was younger so I thought I’d check it out. I started reading and I could not put it down, reading it all the way from LA to NY. By the time I got home I had finished it (I’m a slow reader) and quickly purchased the final two and tore through those as well. And when all was said and done, I had but one thing to say: #TeamGale.
With the release of the fourth and final Hunger Games movie, The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2, I thought it prudent to go and re-watch the first three movies back to back to back to better prepare myself, and to save you the trouble of doing it yourself.
So sit back as I break down the Hunger Games franchise for you.
The Hunger Games (2012)
You all know the story: 12 Districts under the rule of the Capitol must randomly select one young man and woman aged 12-18 to compete in the annual Hunger Games – 24 go in, 1 comes out. It’s like Thunderdome but for children. So when Katniss’ sister is reaped as tribute, she volunteers to take her place.
The hype for this movie was so real. With hype that big, it had to deliver and in most ways it did.
The first thing everyone notices, and is possibly the best part of the movie – the cast is on point. Jennifer Lawrence is remarkably strong and reserved as Katniss; Elizabeth Banks is unrecognizable as Effie, Woody Harrelson wandered onto set in a drunken stupor and ended up in the movie, and Donald Sutherland is so smooth as the evil President Snow that he even had me thinking the Hunger Games were a good idea. And Staley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman is my lifeblood.
They all shine in the full, vibrant world that Gary Ross helped bring to life. Stylistically, the world is what I had imagined come to life; I just wish it all felt more lived in. The whole film, the setting and the plot, felt very immediate and didn’t necessarily feel like part of something much bigger as the sequels did. As far as plot, it’s simply the nature of source story, but it still didn’t feel as big as it could have.
Interestingly enough, one of the film’s biggest strengths is also one of its biggest weaknesses: the fact that the film is so faithful to the book. Despite cutting or condensing a few minor moments, the film is incredibly close to the book. However, by trying to fit as much of the book as possible into a manageable runtime, it often gives the film a rushed feeling, rarely letting quieter, more somber moments have the room they need to breathe. The breakneck pace certainly helps in the first half to mirror the way Katniss has been thrust into this overwhelming experience, but the scenes in the arena could have used a little breathing room. This put me off a little when I initially saw the film, but upon revisiting it I’ve learned to love it even more. When it works, it really works.
The film’s strongest moments come thanks to the brilliant cast, but others come from the film’s ability to break away from Katniss’ POV. The film certainly lost something by cutting her inner monologue, but it also helped to show us scenes and places that she doesn’t visit in the book. The scenes in the rose garden with President Snow and head gamemaker Seneca Crane are a plus as are the scenes that put us inside the control room like a lethal Truman Show.
The film moves too fast to let most of the emotional moments or themes resonate as strongly as they should, but it’s still a solid first outing that sets up the sequels with ease and gives Jennifer Lawrence ample opportunity to shine.
Also, is it me or was Peeta’s mouth hanging open in every single shot of him? Seriously, go back and watch him, he won’t close his mouth. It’s the weirdest thing.
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013)
Currently my favorite of the films, Catching Fire shows us Katniss and Peeta after the games as they try to undo the “damage” they did and continue to hold up the illusion of a deep romance between them. All around, the Districts are beginning to revolt and the new Hunger Games are pulling from the existing victors, meaning Katniss and Peeta will have to go back into the arena.
Everything that was wrong with the first film is fixed and everything that was right with the first film is better. The entire cast has greatly improved, even my boy Josh Hutcherson has made leaps and bounds as Peeta, resembling more of the charming baker’s boy with a strong heart that we know and love from the books. Banks adds more depth to Effie, Harrelson shows more insight as Haymitch, Sutherland is still pimping as Snow, Liam Hemsworth has much more to do, and Jennifer Lawrence gives, in my opinion, her best performance to date, and not just in the HG franchise. Not to mention a slew of newcomers like Sam Claflin as Finnick, Philip Seymour Hoffman as Plutarch Heavensbee, Jeffrey Wright as Beetee, Jena Malone as Johanna, and everyone else who knocks it out of the park.
And Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman continues to be this generation’s greatest gift to humanity.
This film manages to breeze through the story without glossing over anything, letting the important emotions and themes permeate deeper. You really get a good sense of the franchise’s take on the world politically, socially, economically, as well as the way media is used to manipulate and suppress its audience.
We feel the severity of this world and the hopelessness of the Districts, giving the events of the film more consequential weight, shining light on the bigger picture instead of just the Games. It’s emotionally potent and tonally dour and I didn’t need to use a thesaurus for that sentence.
This is by far one of the best films that the YA genre has released, giving its audience important things to think about as well as giving us three-dimensional characters in an interesting story that unfortunately doesn’t seem destined for a happy ending. It’s a mature, rich film that Francis Lawrence did a bang up job adapting.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)
Don’t you hate it when someone’s in the middle of telling a story and they don’t take the time to finish what they’re saying?
Covering only the first half of the “Mockingjay” book, this film covers Katniss’ time hiding out in the once thought to be destroyed District 13 run by President Coin (played by Juliane Moore. Yup, this movie got Julianne Moore) and preparing for the final showdown.
I’m gonna be honest, I didn’t love this one when I saw it in theaters. I had just finished re-reading the book so all the details were fresh in my mind, and all the while I knew that we weren’t going to be getting any of the good stuff from the second half. So the whole time I was distracted and, quite frankly, a little bored. But re-watching it again I gained a whole new appreciation for it. Seeing it only as a movie and not an adaptation, I paid more attention to the film’s storytelling and nuances and made peace with the fact that it was just a feature length set up to the main event.
It’s like one of those episodes of The Walking Dead that feels like boring filler at first but when you go back and watch it after seeing the outcome you realize how important it was for character development and set-up for future events.
Katniss here continues to grow as well as fall apart under the pressure of being the face of the rebellion – the “Mockingjay.” It’s one thing to make a female character a “strong” female character by making her a badass with a gun, but she’s far more delicate than that here. She doesn’t want to be the face of the rebellion, feeling she can’t handle it, feeling that everything she does backfires, and only agreeing to do it for her own self-serving reasons for her and her family. But she comes across as human, not selfish or arrogant. It’s the beauty of her performance.
That being said, it is still only half of a story. Katniss spends most of her time making propaganda commercials and walking through rubble. The film thankfully sidesteps this repetitive mundanity by expanding on the first film’s use of events outside Katniss’ POV. We get to experience the uprising in the other Districts and the impact that Katniss is having on the nation, while also giving us some more action. They did the same thing by beefing up the finale and actually showing us the rescue as well as adding some dramatic elements, but it fortunately doesn’t feel as forced as it could have.
I can’t say enough about this cast, they all continue to grow and find more depth. Plus there’s something to be said about watching Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore (who had previously starred together in films like Boogie Nights, The Big Lebowski, and Magnolia) star in a YA blockbuster that involves a scene where a hovercraft is shot out of the air by an exploding arrow. You’re not gonna see that in Boogie Nights.
It’s a good half of a movie, but it’s just that: half a movie. It works as a set up but you won’t feel as fulfilled as you did at the end of the previous two films. But it will do just enough to hold you over until the final film which, if going by the book, will be one hell of an emotional gut punch. After I finished the book I cried for a good fifteen minutes and felt depressed for three days. Hopefully the new film delivers as much.
The films have managed to be faithful to the books while also having plenty of opportunity to feel fresh and exciting. The love triangle, as it were, felt maturely handled and didn’t overwhelm the importance of the surrounding story at hand. The actors as the characters understood that the complicated relationships between Katniss, Gale, and Peeta- while they aren’t the focus – are deeply linked with the story and it creates a nice balance. This is one of the best cast YA films out there (as would be any film that had Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Woody Harrelson, and Jack Bauer’s dad Donald Sutherland) and they all shine in a series that’s socially conscious and politically fueled. It’s equal parts smart and powerful with one of the strongest female characters in recent years. I just hope (and do believe) that the audience took away more than #TeamPeeta vs. #TeamGale (because it’s obviously #TeamGale).
The Hunger Games Mockingjay Part 2 opens in theatres today. Read our review here.
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