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Blu-ray Review: The Hunger Games

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The Hunger Games is the first film based on the hugely popular book series of the same name by Suzanne Collins. The movie stars Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, Stanley Tucci, Wes Bentley and Lenny Kravitz.

The Movie

In lieu of a brief synopsis of the plot, I would instead like to suggest that if you’re not already familiar with the story told in The Hunger Games, it would be good to start by reading the book (or all of the books in the series). I’ll touch on why I think it will aid the viewing experience in a moment, but on a more basic level the books are quite good and are easy, quick reads. Unleash the power of your imagination by cracking open a book, or something like that. This has been brought to you by The Book Council, whose motto is “desperately trying to keep people reading since the Internet happened.”

There is a generic criticism of movies made from books that the book is better, and hopefully this is delivered by those who read the book first. Often it’s overblown, sometimes it’s defensive, and occasionally it’s just elitist. Here, unfortunately, I think it’s warranted. Movies certainly should be their own property apart from a book, and it’s also true that movies simply don’t have the luxury of time – as in length – that books are able to enjoy. Cuts have to be made and changes have to be expected. But there are some basic elements that both have to master in order to be successful, and at least on those terms the two can be held up to each other for scrutiny.

The fact that The Hunger Games book – and indeed the series as a whole – is told from a first-person perspective that monologues all of the background of this world and perceptions on what is happening presents a challenge for the film that it never quite solves. It shuns the idea of a narrator and tries to fill in this knowledge gap visually, and even then only sporadically. Because of this, there is so much about what’s going on that is simply left unexplained. Characters progress from scene to scene as if playing catch-up with the book more than they are following a logical narrative path of their own.

And it’s not due to lack of length, as the film still clocks in over 140 minutes. But the filmmakers don’t pick their battles particularly well, focusing too much time on new scenes featuring Snow and Seneca, for example, instead of the backstory that makes the situation the President presides over so sinister. The plight of the districts recedes into the background, as they just come across as poor, and the fact that they unfortunately are forced to need what the government is selling gets lost altogether.

Another primary issue is style. The capitol comes off as more of a carnival than anything to fear. The residents are painted up as if they’re attending a Mad Hatter party, and are cartoonish more than anything. Because of this there never seems to be much impending threat for the contestants until they get into the battle sequences.

Fortunately, most of the actors do what they can within these limitations. Jennifer Lawrence delivers an entirely believable Katniss and owns that character. Elizabeth Banks is deliriously oblivious as Effie, and Donald Sutherland radiates icy-cold power, even if the script doesn’t give him much help. Some of the other characters feel neutered for times sake, most notably with Gale, who becomes little more than a footnote in this movie version.

The Hunger Games is disappointing as a movie, much more than it is a failure. At worst it just feels incomplete and missing more than a few necessary beats. But it’s good enough to be frustrating, because it doesn’t feel like it’s that far off from righting itself and becoming a self-sufficient picture and start of a series. If you’re already familiar with the books, you greatly increase your chances of enjoying the movie, so long as you can get past all the inevitable, but important, sections that were removed.

Video / Audio

The technical presentation, however, has no major issues, and not really any minor ones either. This is a pretty commanding visual encode that delivers a very pleasing range of colors and settings. The steel-grey hue of District 12 is stark and almost metallic in its harsh realism, whereas the capitol revels in its gaudy, 90s-disco lighting and bad fashion. Although the shaky-cam look is a stylistic choice, its nonetheless delivered effectively and with no apparent loss in detail, other than simply through motion blur.

And the audio is simply spectacular. The 7.1 DTS-HD Master Audio retreats into subtle background when appropriate, but then roars to life during the game itself. The scene where Katniss is running through fire in the woods will by itself make you feel pretty good about all that money you spent on a home theater system. It’s obvious the sound designers put in some hours, as everything from the chirping of mockingjays to the cheering capitol crowd are meticulously spaced around the surround speakers, always creating a living space for each scene. This is a top-notch audio track all around.

Bonus Material

The Blu-ray release certainly isn’t stingy when it comes to packing in bonus features. And in fact, it may err on the side of overload. There isn’t a commentary track included for the film, but I can’t imagine it would have included anything not already covered in “The World Is Watching: Making The Hunger Games” (HD, 2:02:00), a sprawling eight-part look at every aspect of making the movie, from story adaptation all the way to movie premieres.

“Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and The Hunger Games Phenomenon” (HD, 14:05) is a frustrating feature that mainly interviews reps from the author’s book company patting themselves on the back and speaking for Suzanne, while Collins herself is nowhere to be found. “Letters From The Rose Garden” (HD, 9:08) is similarly self-congratulatory, as Donald Sutherland reads a lengthy letter he wrote to the director about “getting” the character of President Snow, always eager to throw in some of his liberal political leanings as well.

“Controlling The Games” (HD, 5:50) is a special-effects segment focusing on the game center, but also an example of how much computer graphics were used to basically create much of the world of the capitol. “A Conversation With Gary Ross and Elvis Mitchell” (HD, 14:31) has Elvis Mitchell conducting an interview with the director about different aspects of adapting the story and creating the film. Although brief, “Preparing For The Games: A Director’s Process” (HD, 3:00) is actually one of the more intriguing bonus items, as it deals with Ross’ script and director notes that help him shorthand and plan out shots before he ever gets to the shooting stage of the film.

“Propaganda Film” (HD, 1:34) is the full version of the film shown at the reaping ceremony in District 12. There are also three trailers included (HD, 4:59), as well as galleries for both marketing posters and behind-the-scenes photos.

Conclusion

At best, The Hunger Games movie serves as light accompaniment to the book, but it rarely captures enough intensity – or clarity – to stand on its own. Similarly, if you’re not already familiar with the book series, you’re just as likely to be confused as entertained. However, it never completely fails either, and occasionally offers some thoughtful visual commentary on themes within the book. And that’s where things stay for this adaptation, somewhere in this netherworld between success and failure. However, from a technical standpoint, those who enjoyed the film should be more than pleased with its Blu-ray presentation, where the odds seem to always be in its favor. (Sorry, I had to work that in somewhere; we both knew it was coming).

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About David R Perry