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Hunger Games – Character Thoughts

March 23rd, 2012

I went with two of my kids to watch The Hunger Games for the midnight showing. I think I came across the books from reading tweets of my LOST friends, and determining to give them a read on my Kindle. Then I found out that both my daughters had read the book, and my son was trying to get through it. I ended up getting engrossed with the story, and soon devoured Catching Fire and Mockingjay, and really enjoyed the story and the characters. Taking a good book story and making it a good movie story is a difficult task, but something I think the producers, director and cast of The Hunger Games did extraordinarily well. At least well enough to get me to write a blog post, which lately has seemed monumentally difficult.

I write this book as a reader and a movie goer, and while I won’t spoil the movie, I can’t really discuss the characters without getting into some plot points, so if you haven’t at least read the books stop before the fold. I hope this post helps you enjoy the movie as much as my kids and I did.

The story of The Hunger Games is told through the eyes of Katniss Everdeen and her experiences after growing up in the severely impoverished District 12 of Panem. Panem is set in a future North America where all the power and riches have been consolidated in the Capitol, which were victors in a savage battle for power. To keep it’s boot on the neck of the Districts, the Captiol requires an annual reaping, the selection of one boy and one girl from each of twelve Districts to enter a game where there is only one survivor. That is the setup of for the story of Katniss Everdeen, the older of two sisters, whose father died in a mining accident. Katniss is forced to provide for her family after his death in part because her mother checked out emotionally when her husband was killed. Katniss learned to hunt at her father’s knee, and her skill with a bow has been the only thing that has put food on their table. I think knowing how disparately hungry the Everdeen’s are is key to understanding the story, and something that I think wasn’t played up enough in the first few scenes of the movie. With that let’s get to the characters. Caution ahead if you haven’t seen the movie.

Like I’d said before the story of The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss, and Jennifer Lawrence’s performance was stellar. There is so much of Katniss’ story that is told in her head, that it’s really hard to pull that into the screen, fortunately Lawrence has the range to pull of different emotions than a pouting scowl (I’m looking at you Kristin Stewart). Playing a range of emotions from disgust at the decadence of the Capitol, to severe sadness and from comfortable friendship to a tenuous pull at romance, Jennifer Lawrence was more than equal to the task. It’s helpful to remember that part of Katniss’ characters arc is playing to the camera to gain support from the watchers of the games, to a kind of self-loathing that she has to play to the cameras to survive. If Katniss doesn’t work, the whole film doesn’t work, regardless of the rest of the cast. Luckily, Katniss is awesome and so is the rest of the cast.

Katniss tribute pairing from District 12 is Peeta Mellark, a 16 year old son of a baker. He has a bit of a past with Katniss, and Josh Hutcherson is excellent in playing the part. The same duplicity of gaining support from the rich people in the Capitol while trying to figure a way to survive the games adds a layer for the character that Hutcherson executes very well. Peeta is supposed to be a likable person, social and easy at making friends, while Katniss is supposed to be mostly the opposite. Lawrence and Hutcherson execute this dynamic well on screen. Katniss’ other boy friend (not boyfriend) is Gale Hawthorne her hunting partner, and while Liam Hemsworth doesn’t get much screen time in this film, he fills the role well.

After the three teens we get to the wonderful supporting cast, probably the most important character to nail is that of Haymitch Abernathy. Haymitch won the Games 24 years early, the last person from District 12 to survive the games, and the status of champion makes him rich and famous, but the guilt of surviving the games has driven Haymitch to the bottle. Woody Harrelson’s characterization wasn’t what I’d imagined in the book, I was thinking of a more Hagrid-like character, but I think Harrelson really nailed Haymitch beyond my expectations. As Peeta and Katniss’ mentor his job is to prepare them for the games, and to help win them sponsors from the rich citizen’s of the Capitol. Haymitch is worn down from 23 years of watching his fellow citizens be killed in the games, and having to watch their demise in a front row seat, often helplessly. Harrelson pulls of the battle-weary nonchalance with ease. I look forward to seeing more of the character’s progression in the sequels.

Haymitch’s colleague in the preparation of the reaped contestants is Effie Trinket. Elizabeth Bank executes Effie’s naive allegiance to the Capitol and it’s dystopian system well, as is her reflexive coping strategy of seeing the doomed tributes as being blessed to experience the riches of the Capitol in the days preceding the actual games.

Katniss’ styler Cinna was superlatively underplayed by Lenny Kravitz. Cinna’s calm, almost sad, resolve to give his chosen charges the best advantage they can get by making their pre-games appearances as memorable as possible to the rich, out-of-touch, citizenry of the Capitol is an important facet to the story, and Kravitz’s performance was pitch perfect, from his mannerisms to his costume and makeup, true to the words on the page.

A few other characters round out the odd-mix of American Idol like celebrity with the savage iron boot of political control that carries The Hunger Games story. Stanly Tucci’s portrayal of the Host of the Games Caesar Flickerman is effortless. The odd mix of likability, showmanship, and hucksterish glee with which Flickerman’s hosts the opening build-up then savage play-by-play of the games is flawless. The maniacal laugh that Tucci brings out is picture perfect, both joyful and dreadful at the same time.

The demon behind the games is President Snow also wonderfully acted by Donald Sutherland. In my mind, Snow was more of a Terrance Stamp (General Zod – Superman 2) or Malcom McDowell type. But Sutherland is another awesome choice (who also has the requisite north american accent). His portrayal of the duplicitous President Snow is at once menacing and grandfatherly gentle.

The rest of the 26 tributes are great to watch, from the rich district’s highly trained and confident volunteers to the impoverished districts sacrificial youngsters. Amandla Stenberg’s Rue is wonderful, as is her fellow District 11 tribute Thresh (Daniel Okeniyi).

Altogether, the film version breathes a fresh air into the dark tale, making the premise all the more frightening. The Hunger Games isn’t a feel good tale, but a morality play that underscores the primal inhumanity that is ever present in a world where power corrupts, and ultimate power corrupts ultimately. I’m ready for Catching Fire and Mocking Jay to hit the big screens.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

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