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*This is an honest to goodness review of the film The Hunger Games. There will be spoilers. Consider this a fair warning*

Days leading up to tonight’s advance screening of The Hunger Games, many reviewers who have already seen the film gave it glowing ratings.  The Flickfilosopher MaryAnn Johanson even claimed that it is “perfection.”  I stayed away from all the madness, though. I didn’t want my own Hunger Games experience to be colored by other people’s opinions. 

But that didn’t stop me from feeling optimistic.

Oh how I wanted to like the film.  Oh how I wanted to be one of those who will cry during the sad moments, squeal in delight during the kilig moments, and just be there, 100% of my being, totally lost in the middle of the arena among the other tributes onscreen. Oh how I wanted to be one of those who will give it a “two-thumbs up! Waaay up!” I wanted to be one of those who will offer marriage and dowry to the film, if it were possible.

Well, I liked it, yeah.

But not enough for me to call it ‘perfection.’  Let’s put it this way: I came out of the theater with only 1 thumb missing.

I didn’t feel like proposing to it, you get my drift?

Is it because of high expectations, you ask? Maybe.  But then again, it’s very rare for me to have low expectations when it comes to the movies I watch. I mean, why bother wasting money and time over something you expect to disappoint, right? So I always hedge my bets in favor of the film. So I would say it’s not really having high expectations, no.

Oh, it’s because of the cretins in the theater, you insist.  Probably.  I mean, the two girls to my right would give Caesar Flickerman a run for his money. The way they were commentating on every scene. . . .I kid you not.  On EVERY scene. I kept on shushing them but either they were deaf, or pretending to be deaf, or were just savages altogether. I’m guessing it’s the last one.  And those other cretins sitting behind me. I could swear somebody from that row took off his/her shoes. Oh God, the stench. No amount of ethyl alcohol could mask the funk. Then again, I blame my highly developed sense of smell. I mean, really. You can make fun of my hearing, or blame my poor eyesight, but never my olfactory glands. My nose knows, always.  Only this time, it was almost the death of me.

Or maybe it was what I was eating while watching the film? I ordered chicken adobo pandesal (sandwich) from Mrs. Fields but I swear all I ate inside the theater was bread. There was no chicken, adobo or otherwise. I kept hoping to bite on some thread of meat, but there was nothing.  All I had was starchy flour. Then again, part of me couldn’t help but chuckle. I’m just a girl, sitting with my bread, about to see the boy with his.

But hey, I’ve watched a gazillion films in worse cinemas, with no snacks, and in worse companies before.  So the above reasons will not hold as excuses.

So what’s with me and my hesitation to propose to this film?

Let me count the ways.

I felt as if the entire film wanted to get right into the heart of the matter and finish with a bang. It was one set piece over another set piece over another. Let’s show District 12, and cut away to the poverty. . . and bam. Reaping.  And bam, train ride for the Capitol. And bam, training sessions. And yes, you guessed it, bam, the parade. Bam, the interview with Katniss in her red gown. And then the Hunger Games itself. And bam bam bam. The killings. Bam, the alliance. Bam, there goes Rue. Wham and bam, the cave scene. And then the mutts. And then? Wham, bam, thank you, ma’am, the victors of the 74th Hunger Games are. . . .

I three-finger salute you back, Ms. Everdeen.

While I don’t mind wanting to show the action and the gore (the source material is indeed very gruesome, one of the many things I enjoyed while reading the book), I would have loved it if the film invested on some of the quieter moments that would have connected the set pieces seamlessly.  There were some moments I enjoyed, to wit: Rue and Katniss talking about what happened while Katniss was knocked out by the tracker jackers.  The almost rueful (sorry, just had to say that, hahahaha) remark of Rue, “is it true? About you and that boy?” was totally in character, and totally right on the mark, it gave the little girl something to play with in terms of personality. And it was a good moment for Katniss to show some personality as well, the way she subtly brushed aside the question and changed the topic.  It was very Katniss. Or how about the way Katniss roughly hugged her mom right after she volunteered at the reaping? That, I think, is one of the film’s glorious moments. It was very quiet, not very emotional (this is Katniss practically reprimanding her mother, in a sense acting like a mom to her own mom), but it worked. She said, “don’t cry, don’t cry” and you could just feel her torment, her struggle not to cry herself.

The film, it must be said, is faithful to the source material.  Too faithful, I think. Is there such a thing? Yes. I felt as if I were flipping through the pages of the first book. As a fan, it’s not a bad thing, no. But as a film critic, there has to be something more in the film to make it a successful enterprise.  I want to watch a film adaptation on the big screen, not watch acted out scenes from a book. I still want that feeling of suspense, that feeling of anxiety over the fate of some sympathetic character. I still want to be surprised despite the fact that I’ve read the book and that I know how it will all end.

Well, I didn’t feel all of that. I wanted to, oh how I wanted to.

There were some moments that did surprise me,  and pleasantly, yes.  The way Peeta touched Katniss’ braid before the attempt at a Romeo & Juliet death pact was good. Very Peeta, I must say. Or that winner of a line, “give me the bow”, and after a beat, “just kidding” to Katniss right before he went to scavenge for food (and unfortunately, or is it fortunately? found nightlock instead). You see where I’m getting at?  These moments were not in the book, but they worked perfectly, character wise, narrative wise, and theme wise.

While watching the movie, all I could think of was, “oh, that’s exactly how it was in the book”, or “oh they decided to change it a bit, okay”. That doesn’t bode well, I think, for any adaptation. Being faithful to the original material is not simply putting what is essential and removing the superfluous. Faithfulness, fidelity if you wish, is more than saying the same lines, or showing the same scenes, or giving us the same characters. It’s being true to the spirit, the very essence of the book. The book is all about people. The Games are merely the smoke and mirrors that should highlight the hunger, the frustration, the discontent, the combined fear and courage of the characters. The movie went for the action of the games, and downplayed the people and their roles in the narrative. The characters in the film were simply tools to move the narrative forward, when it should have been the other way around. The narrative, the plot should move forward to illustrate the power of the characters.

I would have liked it if the film was not too afraid to lay the foundation for the Games. I’m not just talking about the hunger games, no. I’m talking about the people in the districts. I’m talking about the simmering rebellion. I’m talking about the relationships, and the friendships, and the feeling of frustration and desperation. I could see attempts to show some of these, yes, but sometimes they came out of nowhere it felt so disjointed.  Like when they showed District 11 right after Rue’s death. Oh the mob. Yes, you have to show that.  But one is left to wonder—young people have died in the games before, right? What makes Rue’s death different? Why show the district and the people’s attempt at rebellion now? While we readers know that a rebellion has always been simmering in some districts, the non-reader wouldn’t know this.  The non-reader would wonder, “why now?” The perfect counter to this should have been, “it’s because of the girl on fire.”

It’s because of Katniss, the future poster girl of the rebellion. She should have been used cinematically for all her worth.  But she wasn’t.  We see her wailing. We see her practically pulling her hair out after Rue’s death. Almost moving. But I didn’t feel it. It didn’t feel real to me. I didn’t feel her desire to one-up the Capitol.  I didn’t feel her angst (and boy, Katniss is not just the poster girl for the rebellion. She’s the poster girl for Angst with a capital A, yes?). A necessary roughness would have been good.  In the book the first person POV contributed a lot to the book’s success.  We were exposed to her thoughts all throughout her journey. There were no secrets between Katniss and the reader. Collins sometimes even banked on some dramatic irony, with the reader seeming to know more about a given situation, even about Katniss’ objectives for doing something, than Katniss knows about herself or about anything around her. It worked perfectly. But in the movie, that relationship between the reader and the main character is lost. And with it, our emotional investment. We don’t feel as attached to her as we were in the book. She feels like a distant tribute, not the Katniss we fell in love with. And what’s up with her screaming around for Peeta right before she realized that it was Foxface who died from eating those berries? It was justified in the book, but in the movie it wasn’t. Out of nowhere, it came from. Too forced, it was, methinks.

The film didn’t feel real to me.  While one might argue that that is the point,  that what the film wanted to highlight was the illusory effect of the Games, that the entertainment factor is fake, I will have to counter it with: but while the book is about highlighting the fakery of the games, it also equally highlights the verity, the redeeming honesty that may be found in friendships, in sisterhood, in the quest for freedom, and in keeping true to yourself. In the end, I felt as if the Capitol was more real to me than anything else in the movie. And that is saying something. And that is also scary.

One thing that bothered me, though, was the reaction of the people while watching the games. By people, I mean the people inside the theater with me (not the people watching the Games in the movie). It was practically the audience’s collective response to most scenes, not just the reaction of those cretins next to me, so it deserves a space in this review.  In many scenes the spectators were reacting with an unusual glee when Peeta is shown doing something or saying something saccharinely sweet to Katniss. Fine, a little kilig is to be expected, I suppose. But to react to it verbally and even physically, to actually enjoy what is unfolding onscreen bothered me. And to actually scream in delight when Cato started killing the other tributes, or see Foxface doing what she does best, or go wild while the tracker jackers were attacking Glimmer, or Peeta and Katniss trying to survive the madness of the arena. . .There they were, two tributes from District 12, one I daresay being honest with his feelings, and the other we know to be play acting (we’re fans of the books, so we know Katniss’ objectives for kissing Peeta or saying something equally sweet to him. Can you say ‘sponsors’?), but it cannot be denied that they are tributes fighting for their lives.  Their lives, people! They could be killed at any moment! They could die. Literally! And there the spectators sat idly, with their popcorn and corndogs, squealing in their seats over the star-crossed lovers at the cave. What. A. Moment. What a Capitol moment, I mean. It was as if I was watching the actual Hunger Games with Capitol spectators next to me. I wanted to protest right then, right there. It’s not right for people to feel giddy. Not now. Not ever.

And so I realized what Suzanne Collins must have been thinking while she was writing her book. She wanted to entertain, like Seneca Crane. And the reader, at this point transformed to a viewer, a spectator of the games, shows her true colors as she takes it all in, blood, gore, romance and arrows, all in one. We are the Capitol people. Like the Roman spectators of old, we hold the lives of the tributes at the palm of our hands, quite literally. Thumbs up, they live. Thumbs down, they die.

Oh, rote! There’s the word. Adaptation on rote. It felt mechanical to me, as mechanical as the Capitol’s hovercraft. It was surgically precise, too, almost clinical. The narrative flow was too exact it didn’t leave much breathing room for the viewer. Not enough time to react, or to think, or to empathize with the characters onscreen. Bam, bam, bam.

I really wanted to like the movie.  And I did like it, yeah. It was good, even better than what Hollywood usually churns out. It was glossy and rightfully so. The actors did well, some even exceptionally. All the scenes were right. But as Aristotle once said, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.” The whole should be greater than the sum of its parts. While the parts were all good, the totality wasn’t perfection. Not for me.

It could have been a lot better. If it were, I’d be down on one knee with my precious, 3rd generation bling (with real diamonds, mind), waiting for the film to say, “yes, yes, a thousand times yes!”

During the “Real or Not Real” symposium sponsored by Scholastic last week at De La Salle University-Manila, I mentioned this toward the end of my presentation (aptly titled “That’s Entertainment! The Hunger Games as Cirque du Capitol”, basically a look at the books vis-a-vis television as entertainment):

“while we are being entertained in reading her books, and Collins gets all the moolah for entertaining us in the way she exploits her characters, as all authors are expected to, of course, we get to imagine the violence through her words.  The effect is more visceral, if you ask me.  The power of one’s imagination is a lot stronger than any high definition television.  No HDTV can match the supremacy of one’s imagination.

I’d still watch it for the second time, though. I still have a free pass, so why not? If only for the boy with the bread.   But the book, the first one at least, still gets the cake, or in this case, Peeta’s cake. The author’s words coupled with MY imagination (for as reader, I do have some power over how I control and perceive the narrative) still reign supreme over the collected images on celluloid.