May The Shaky Cam Be Ever In Your Favor: A Review of The Hunger Games

There is an eternal tension when adapting a work from one medium to another. How true do you stay to the source? How much do you embrace the qualities of the new medium?

The Hunger Games is a decent film, for many reasons, but my highest praise for it is just how well it handled this tension. The film is true to the source material, in nearly every aspect, yet at the same time it pushes the story firmly into the new medium. And it does it extremely well.

One decision best epitomizes this: expanding the point of view outside of Katniss.

They didn’t have to do it. They could have gone with voice-over narration, like Twilight, and delivered plot points to the audience with constant exposition.

Instead, they showed us events from all different points of view. And they used this expanded view to show more of the world, to give a better sense of what it is like to be a Panem citizen, and to explain what was going on without resorting to exposition.

Watching the Gamemakers changing the arena, setting traps, and forcing the combatants together was exciting. We didn’t need Katniss imagining – and narrating to us – why these things might be happening. We didn’t need her to explain to us what a tracker jacker was, we heard Caesar mention it in his commentary.

And most of these scenes were done in an efficient and economical way. They packed a lot of information in without taking time or attention away from what was happening.

When Haymitch starts to transition from jaded drunk to helpful mentor, we see two quick shots. One shows Haymitch sitting on a bench, grimacing as he watches two young children pretending to stab each other. Another shows him refusing a drink while discussing strategy over dinner.

Katniss doesn’t need to explain that “maybe he wasn’t always a drunk. Maybe, in the beginning, he tried to help the tributes. But then it got unbearable. It must be hell to mentor two kids and then watch them die. Year after year after year.” By avoiding exposition but giving us some smart, economical shots here and there, we can figure out that on our own.

It’s refreshing to see a film tell the story this way, especially an adaptation. It’s risky too, because you might lose people who haven’t read the books, you might not provide enough information. But I’d rather see a film take that risk and fall a bit short, then play it safe and treat audiences like they’re idiots.

And it did fall short in some ways. Mostly with the character Cinna. It’s hard to imagine someone who hadn’t read the books understanding who he was or why he was a part of the movie. For them, it’s just Lenny Kravitz showing up here and there to give hugs. “Who is this guy? Why does Lenny Kravitz have a job?” All good questions.

The movie didn’t really have time to explain his role. I don’t know how relevant the character is in the sequels, but perhaps cutting him entirely would have been a better choice.

There’s also the matter of laying groundwork for the next films. Is leaving out the Avox girl or who the muttations were going to cause problems in the sequels? I’ve only read the first book, so I can’t answer that. But we all know the dangers of spending too much time setting up sequels.

You could also make the argument, that without hearing Katniss’ thoughts her ambivalence around Peeta wasn’t fully explored. I wouldn’t have minded more conversation and relationship development between them. But you still get the basics.

Again, with an economy of shots, you see Katniss smiling at Gale, Peeta looking worried. It’s not as deep as the books, but it’s enough. Katniss doesn’t know who she likes, cue love triangle drama.

My favorite scene of the movie was Rue’s death. This scene is unmistakeable proof that breaking from Katniss’ perspective was the right choice. In the book, when Rue dies Katniss imagines that the people in District 11 are watching, and she holds her three fingers up to the camera in support. That’s all we get.

The movie, though, shows District 11 watching. We see Katniss on the huge screen, three fingers held high, and watch as District 11 unleashes hell on the peacekeepers. Taking an already powerful moment, the movie elevated it to something amazing. It was by far the most gripping scene in the movie, and something that was absent from the book.

Why Does This Matter?

It matters because it’s using film for what its good at. Sure, you can pull off voice-overs and have a great movie. And you can have characters giving a lot of exposition without it ruining the tension. But unless you’re a pro, it’s likely to hurt the film.

In a book, we need to be told what is going on. We need a character’s actions and facial expressions and feelings described to us. It’s the nature of the medium. And that’s great. But in film you have so much more to work with. So much of communication is non-verbal, it’s the look in people’s eyes, their body language, the tone of their voice, the way they breathe or pause or eat or sit or laugh. With good actors and a smart director, you can use these things to communicate – often unconsciously – almost everything about your characters. Speaking of good actors: Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks stole every scene they were in. And Jennifer Lawrence, perfect Katniss.

It matters because adapting a book this way shows respect for your audience, doubly so for a “teen-movie” that is expected to pander to young people. People, including teenagers, aren’t idiots that need everything spelled out for them constantly.

And while we’re on the topic of respect, I have one major criticism of this movie.

Zoom Out And Buy A Fucking Dolly

Based on the title of this review, I’m guessing you know what this criticism is about: shaky cam.

I remember a time long ago, when shaky cam was occasionally used in a war movie. Back then, you could buy the justification that it made things more “gritty” and “realistic.” Now, shaking the camera like a goddamn lunatic has become the defacto way to shoot an action movie. It’s out of control.

If someone had shown me some of the scenes from The Hunger Games out of context, and told me they were made intentionally as a parody of shaky cam, I would’ve believed them. There are scenes with two people sitting in a field talking and the camera is bouncing and jumping and swinging around them wildy. Why?

This doesn’t make me feel more immersed. I don’t better empathize and understand what the characters are going through. In fact, it actively distracts me and calls attention to itself. Why won’t this camera just hold still so I can actually see these people act?

And in actual action scenes, forget it. Maybe if you’re lucky, you can catch a blurry glimpse and tell what is happening. Otherwise, sit back and wait for the aftermath. During the final fight scene the lighting is so dark, cuts so fast, and camera so shaky that it was like watching someone drop a camera down a well.

Gary Ross, show the audience a little respect, man. We actually would like to see what is happening in your film. Isn’t that the camera’s job? It’s not to throttle us into “immersion.”

This is the major thing holding the movie back. I would have no hesitation labeling this as a really good film, better than the recent Harry Potters, if it wasn’t for the ridiculous amounts of shaky cam.

Conclusion

The Hunger Games is good, better than expected. And it’s even better if you’ve read the book, simply to enjoy how well it was adapted. But if you get motion sickness or just can’t stand shaky cam, then may the odds be in ever in your favor.