For the purpose of my analysis, I think it is important to note off of the bat that I read the books and that I did enjoy them. I liked the books mostly for the storytelling - the prose wasn't brilliant, the idea was not mind-searingly original, and its dystopia was a rather sophomoric interpretation of center-periphery economic exploitation (I'm a sucker for a compelling dystopia). These are books written for teens and they are not intended to become "classics." In my opinion, Suzanne Collins wrote some compelling characters and told their stories in an engaging and exciting fashion. So, I went into this movie as a fan who read the books and "knows" what happens in the end, and, as I will discuss later, important to books-adapted-into-films, I "know" what just happened.
Worst Book-to-Movie Adaptation EVER
Do people even still make that Simpsons reference? Either way, its not true, I am mocking that approach to reviewing. While I have read The Hunger Games and subsequent novels set in Panem, I have read them once and am not among the foremost authorities on the series. In addition, I do not believe that a movie must directly parallel its source material. Some changes are due to the mediums and their relative efficacy in storytelling. These changes are, at times, poorly executed, but they have to be attempted or the movie will be awkward and unable to convey depth similar to the story in the book. Some changes are just that a director has differing ideas about motivations or reactions of characters than the author - these are acceptable to me (in principle) as I believe the movie is an interpretation of the story. Some changes round off the rough edges of a story to make it appeal to a larger audience - I am generally unaccepting of such changes because I view it as "dumbing-down" the story for a suburban audience.
Han Shot First
Most of the changes in the The Hunger Games movie fall into the first category, in my opinion. The movie is quite faithful to the book in most ways (if you've read the books, don't expect big changes - this is not The Walking Dead), but in the books, Katniss has a great deal of internal monologue and the narrator is third-person omniscient. The movie, fortunately, does not fall into the trap of a softly-echoing internal monologue or omniscient voiceovers explaining mockingjays and tracker-jackers, but those explanations required new portions to be written. These changes were relatively safe - they were not great, but they also did not break the story.
There were, however, some small changes that I believe were made to increase the mass appeal of the stories and characters. I'm trying to avoid spoilers so I'm going to be vague - Haymitch is, at this point, not really portrayed as a tragic character - he drinks, but he isn't the same nearly-useless alcoholic. There is also a very slight change to Katniss' motivation the first time she kills someone. It's very slight, but it was one of my favorite parts of her character - one of her traits with which I could identify - and it was changed. Honestly, I am not certain how many people will even notice. There is no real reason to change these things except that it softens the characters and makes them more likable to the audience, especially for parents of the children going to see this movie. To me, it makes characters like Haymitch and Katniss less interesting.
I know these stories and I know their ins-and-outs. Fortunately for the movie, a large segment of the public knows them as well. But not everyone. There are times that I think the movie may move too quickly, with too abbreviated an explanation or exposition on a major plot point. I fear that at certain times, during the changes to the rules of the Hunger Games themselves or to the concept of who Cato and the "careers" are, are explained once and quickly and the audience may not catch these things and become a bit confused as to exactly what is happening. I had similar worries about Watchmen - it is one thing to miss "Easter eggs" because you have not read the books, but sometimes, I worry that directors forget that they are telling their own story and some of their audience has not heard it before. I do not believe that there is anything to which there is no explanation and, as someone who has read the novels, I am unable to tell whether or not it is too confusing.
I think the single greatest feat that this movie performs is that it is an anti-violence film that centers around children killing one another but that does not make violence its center piece. The movie is about the characters and their world, not about the special effects and action. There is plenty of the later, but this certainly is no Micheal Bay movie (I don't think there was a single shot down Jennifer Lawrence's cleavage). As it should be, it is Katniss' story of human survival that takes center-stage.
The movie does fall flat in several places. I have already mentioned my distaste for some of the small, unnecessary, populist changes. However, this movie was clearly made with an eye to the sequels. Considering the time constraints under which a movie must run, there was an unnecessary fleshing out of the world and the villains who are not participants in the Hunger Games (e.g. President Snow). Unfortunately, this limits the amount of the Games that can actually be shown. I said earlier that I was pleased that movie had eschewed the graphic violence that, no doubt, could have brought it an audience. However, the Games in the novels are rife with tension, uncertainty, and horror and the movies never really come close to re-creating the Hobbesian nightmare that Collins described. While failing to create tension is a weakness in its own storytelling, Mary has pointed out to me that these Hunger Games did not seem to wreak the physical or mental destruction that become essential to the characters as the trilogy progresses. The last characters standing are, quite literally, standing - they are not the shattered individuals that require weeks of physical and mental reconstruction before they can be presented to the public. Anyone who has read the trilogy knows just how important that mental and physical toll upon the combatants is to the story and the movie never really creates the type of world that so thoroughly shreds the characters' humanity.
In the end, I have to give this film 4/5 on an almost purely emotional level. The movie has flaws, but many of them come from the "the book is better" school of analysis. These are "missed opportunities" rather than flaws. Jennifer Lawrence was dominant in her portrayal of Katniss; none of the other characters came close to stealing her show (with the possible exception of Buttercup in the beginning). Lenny Kravitz was compelling and believable as Cinna and Woody Harrelson brought out the likable qualities of Haymitch (although the chance to go darker with Harrelson is another missed opportunity). Elizabeth Banks cast her own interpretation on Effie Trinket and perhaps her star shown more brightly than her character was written. Stanley Tucci was perhaps disappointing, but only in the sense that he normally shines in such a role, but in this case was "merely" good. I did find both Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth a bit flat - not bad, but not compelling in the way that main love interests could have been.
In the end, I like this story and this was a good interpretation of the story. It was not great, it was not groundbreaking; it was simply a good story that was well told.