I, like the majority of the western world, saw The Hunger Games on opening weekend. It had been nearly a year since I’d read Suzanne Collins’ book and I hadn’t yet started on the sequels. (I’m doing that now — and at the moment, I’m on Team Finnick. Sorry, Peeta! This is subject to change, though.)
I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, though I came away with slightly mixed feelings because the anticipation had been so great. Mostly, I was just relieved that it was so, so much better than that damn Twilight. (You’d think, sometime after passing the billion-dollar mark at the box office, they might actually try and make them at least a little bit good. But then again, why bother?) I came away feeling like I needed to see it one more time to be certain of my opinion.
And now I’ve done that.
Now, many of you may not know that one of my (many) pseudo-careers is giving notes on ailing screenplays, in hopes of improving them so that they A) get made; B) don’t suck if/when they do. By now I’ve provided my services on something like 400 scripts, most of which will never see the light of day (because they’re terrible). But it still irks me when a movie is made already, and it’s too late to make those tweaks that improve it exponentially. I just can’t understand why every studio doesn’t send their multi-million dollar projects to me before making such a gamble! Don’t they know I could make them flawless?
Such is the case with The Hunger Games, which I reviewed favorably upon first viewing — but with reservations. I had to see it again, now knowing what to expect, to see how it held up after I’ve had some time to process. The results? Predictable. A few moments came off better the second time; the first half of the film is excellent — nearly perfect, by my estimation. (Particularly those early scenes in District 12, which actually improve upon the impact of the book.) And, unfortunately, a few of the book’s more powerful moments are a bit lacking in the film version.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games is a terrific piece of entertainment — the rare blockbuster that actually deserves the scores of millions it’s raking in. Kudos to everyone involved, particularly the strong cast led by Jennifer lawrence and Josh Hutcherson — both of whom impressed me even more on the second go-round. I also appreciated James Newton Howard’s score more this time. But you know what made it even better? Imagining that the film had already been improved in exactly five ways, according to my “notes.” They’re reasonably small changes, but they would have had an enormous effect on the movie as a whole. And it would have made double the money it’s making now, and swept the Oscars, and then everyone would have thanked me in their speeches. Oh well.
Of course, it’s too late now. And of course, no one likes a 7th-inning quarterback, or whatever. But here are my suggestions for how to rewrite The Hunger Games movie anyway.
FIVE WAYS TO MAKE THE HUNGER GAMES FLAWLESS
1. Katniss needs to feel truly betrayed by Peeta upon seeing that he formed an alliance with the Careers.
Even in Suzanne Collins’ book, I don’t think readers ever bought that Peeta had formed an alliance with the Careers. Peeta’s too likable for that; rather, it was obvious (to us) that it was a strategic move to keep Katniss alive. But Katniss didn’t know that. Peeta is something of a smooth operator in front of the cameras, so it’s easy to see why she might jump to the conclusion that he’s been playing her all along. The movie doesn’t make such a big deal of this development, but it should have. Seeing as we can’t read Katniss’ thoughts the way we do in the novel, we need them visualized and externalized and made more cinematic.
It’s simple, really. To sell this, Peeta might even have to be cruel to Katniss in front of the Careers, taunting her up in that tree — which would have had the unfortunate effect of actually hurting her. (Maybe Peeta even thinks she’s in on the joke her, underestimating Katniss’ defensiveness.) And it would have been equally easy to show Katniss feeling betrayed — even by merely giving Peeta the finger from up in her perch to let us know how she really feels. Instead, the movie undersells this moment, making it less satisfying when it turns out Peeta’s been on Team Katniss all along, trying to help her survive by placing himself in danger with this precarious alliance with the Careers.
Also, the dialogue in the cave near the end of the film — which, as is, comes across as a little ho-hum compared to how this relationship played out in the book — would have been helped if there was more of a sense of competition between Katniss and Peeta earlier. The cave scene would have been a good time to show us the cameras again, and let us know that these two (Katniss, especially) are playing it up for the audience. As is, it was pretty hard to tell how much of this was genuine and how much of it was all for the Games.
I was initially impressed by the trippy sequence that follows Katniss getting stung by the tracker jackers. She stumbles through the woods, hallucinating an appearance by Cesar before flashing back to her father’s death and her mother’s subsequent catatonia. This works fine, except The Hunger Games already adequately explained this backstory back when Katniss demands her mother “not check out again” for Prim’s sake. Seeing it visualized in this way isn’t redundant, yet there were other elements of this story that could have been better utilized here.
Why not provide information we don’t already have? Stuff that would be hard to visualize if it weren’t a fantasy sequence? Two primary elements spring to mind — Katniss’ bond with Rue, which in the novel comes about because she reminds her of her sister. This doesn’t really come across in the film adaptation, but imagine if Katniss hallucinated that Prim was in the arena taking care of her, and then gradually it was revealed that it was actually Rue who’d been tending to her for the past two days. Then her sudden affinity for with Rue might have had a whole lot more emotional impact.But even more importantly, why wasn’t Gale a part of this fantasy? In the book, Katniss frequently tries to guess what Gale must be thinking while watching the Games, constantly hoping that her fake relationship with Peeta isn’t hurting the boy she kinda-loves back home. It’s of paramount important to Katniss in the book; it’s not in the movie at all. Of course, we can’t have our heroine wandering around the arena, muttering to herself about how this all looks to Gale. That’s why the hallucination is the perfect opportunity to keep Gale alive in the story and let us know he’s still on Katniss’ mind.
This could have gone down any number of ways — perhaps, in her confusion about Peeta’s apparent betrayal, Katniss thinks it’s Gale who’s telling her to run. Cutting back and forth between Peeta and Gale here would’ve been a good way to visualize Katniss’ conflicting romantic feelings for the studs of District 12, confusing one for the other and running from Peeta because she’s not sure that he’s not trying to kill her. Katniss spent much of her childhood in the woods with Gale, so it makes perfect sense that he’d appear to her now as a “guide” in this altered state. Ultimately, this fantasy scene just seems like a missed opportunity to give us something fresher and more complex. And it would’ve actually given Liam Hemsworth something to do besides stand around, looking like he got really lost on the way to the J. Crew catalog shoot.
Which reminds me…
In the movie, as in the book, Gale is absent from most of the action. And that’s fine by me, because Gale sucks. It’s like Liam Hemsworth is acting in the Miley Cyrus version of this movie, and no one told him this isn’t Twilight; this is an actual movie. But I’ll cut Hemsworth some slack now, because it isn’t totally his fault; the problem is that Gale is 100% useless in the Hunger Games movie, and if he was going to be in it at all, he should have done something substantial, however brief or small. Or anything, really. Anything at all.
Here’s my suggestion — he should have refused to watch the Hunger Games. It’s perfectly set up in the beginning, remember? Gale says that if people stopped watching, there’d be no Games. But then the movie does nothing with it. So Gale should have been defiant and refused to watch at all, maybe even condemning his fellow District 12-ers for doing so, thus buying into the Capitol’s propaganda. A couple brief scenes might see his fellow citizens buzzing about something that’s going on in the Games — Katniss doing surprisingly well, or getting injured, or maybe her romance with Peeta — and still, Gale refuses to watch. (Until the very end, with the berries — but more on that later.) It’d require a mere minute or so of screen time, but would’ve been an actual arc for his character, one that falls in line with who he’s supposed to be — someone who, like Katniss, is fed up with the Capitol’s games (Hunger and otherwise). Instead, he’s just a blank slate; a place-holder for a character until Catching Fire, I guess. So if you’re on Team Gale after seeing this movie, just don’t even talk to me.
The novel takes place entirely from Katniss’ first-person point of view, as novels tend to do. The movie veers away from that, wisely in some cases — particularly in two conversations between President Snow and Seneca. (Resulting in delicious lines such as: “I like you. Be careful.”) It was a necessary departure from the novel, and it filled in a few details we didn’t get in the book — particularly by showing what the control room is actually like. This is good — at first. But the longer it goes on, the less it works. Toward the end, such departures from the arena mostly exist to give us information we don’t really need.
I’m on the fence about the uprising in Rue’s district, following her death. It’s a little sudden, isn’t it? I’d have preferred them to wait for the berries — but whatever. Why, though, must we see the Muttations as a hologram before they appear in the arena? On the whole, we should experience the horrors of the arena as Katniss does. It would have been much more suspenseful (and Hitchcockian!) to hear the fearsome sounds of the beasts before we ever laid eyes on them. (Also — they should have been scarier. Less like real dogs. But I digress.) At a certain point, Ross should have stopped cutting away from the arena and totally immersed us in the Hunger Games just as the tributes are, letting us wonder what the Gameskeepers were cooking up rather than constantly telegraphing it ahead of time. Pretty much everything we needed to see about the control room could have come before the Games began, or shortly after. It’s a bit jarring being pulled out of them so often, and our emotional investment in the tributes’ story suffers as a result.
Not to get too Obama about it, but ultimately, The Hunger Games is all about change. The Capitol is a regime that squashes any opposition, and the citizens of Panem live in fear of ever voicing their protest. Until Katniss comes along to challenge that. Does that totally come across in the movie? Almost… but not really.
If there’s one thing that flat-out doesn’t quite work in Gary Ross’ movie, it’s that climax with the berries. Upon the Gamekeeper’s cruel revocation of the rule allowing both tributes to live, Katniss decides she’s had enough and takes a gamble — betting that if the Gamekeepers have to decide between two victors and zero, they’ll choose to let both Peeta and Katniss out of the arena. And they do. In Catching Fire, we learn that this moment set off a revolution in several districts — why? Because up until now, no tribute had ever publicly questioned the fate the Capitol chose for them. They all played by the rules of the Games and either won or died. So Katniss’ trick with the berries needed to feel like a true act of defiance, the kind of thing that really could spark a rebellion. Instead, it just feels like a random idea she has in the moment, not one she’s all that committed to. It certainly doesn’t have the emotional payoff it should.
How to remedy this? Well, it’s all set up in the beginning — first with Gale, who suggests that people should defy the Capitol by refusing to watch the Games. In this scene, it’s Katniss who doesn’t believe change is possible. Even more significant is that first bonding moment between Katniss and Peeta, the night before the Games. Peeta says he doesn’t want the Games to change him; he doesn’t want to be the Capitol’s pawn. Katniss says she can’t afford to think like that. (But, in the end, she does.) This is all flawless.
The problem is, once we get into the arena, that whole theme is pretty much forgotten. There’s no discussion of the injustice of all of this, watching these kids get killed off one by one. Maybe Ross & co. thought it went without saying, but it doesn’t quite. A bit of dialogue between Rue and Katniss might have helped; especially something connected to Prim. Katniss might have said something along the lines of: “A girl your age shouldn’t have to be here,” with Rue replying, “None of us should.” Even that minor spotlight on the tragedy underlying all this killing would have given Rue’s death more punch, and reminded us that, yes, there is something more at stake than any of these characters’ lives. These Games will go on and on forever, killing off 23 innocent teens every years, until someone takes a stand. That call to action isn’t felt once the Games begin — which is a bit of a shame, since that’s what the sequels are all about, anyway.
Another misstep comes right before Cloves’ death scene — the worst moment in this movie. As they fight to death near the Cornucopia, Clove cruelly taunts Katniss about Rue’s death. (It’s unclear how she even knows what went down; she wasn’t there.) In essence, this makes Clove a cardboard-cutout moustache-twirling villain, and goes against what the movie should be about. None of these kids want to kill each other. They’re forced to. That’s the whole point! How much more impact would this scene have if, instead, Clove was crying and apologizing to Katniss — and, at the same time, trying to brutally, fatally slit her throat? The Hunger Games should have portrayed her as just a girl, like Katniss, doing what she must to survive. (And in that case, Thresh coming and killing Clove to save Katniss would have been even more devastating.)
The film tried to make up for it in that final battle with Cato — and, upon second viewing, it was half-successful. Again, though: it needed to highlight the theme of “change.” What’s the real difference between Katniss and the Careers? They’ve been raised to go to the Games —they’ve spent their whole lives preparing to either kill or be killed. That’s pretty tragic. The weight of that doesn’t quite hit home in the movie, but those last words from Cato should have been what gave Katniss the idea to rebel against the Capitol in the first place. In the end, she watches Cato, like so many others, die horribly because the Capitol says so, and she knows this will never change unless she does something about it. That’s what makes Katniss our heroine — the girl who, after 74 years of Hunger Games, finally makes a difference. She doesn’t just accept her role in this the way the Careers do, and that leads the rest of Panem, eventually, to follow suit.
So what needed to happen with those berries? Well, we needed to be reminded of what Peeta said before the Games began. Katniss needed to tell him that this is the moment in which he proves that he’s not just another pawn. Reminding him that thousands are watching. And if ever there was a moment to cut to the rest of Panem — hello! This is it! This moment supposedly sets off everything that happens in the sequel, so why don’t we see anyone watching? This would have been a great time to cut to Gale, see how he feels about Katniss standing up to the Capitol. We needed to feel the stakes here and believe that the Capitol might actually let Katniss and Peeta die — and then see the public reacting to this, troubled.
It needed to be huge. It wasn’t.
There. Those are reasonably easy fixes, right? And before we’re done, three smaller things that jumped out at me this second time around:
Nitpick #1: When Katniss sang the song as Rue was dying, why didn’t the mockingjays start “singing” along? This would have been cool and beautiful, and also, helped make more sense of why the mockingjay becomes a symbol of the revolution later. The mockingjay pin actually never figures into the Games at all, and it needed to. Once we learn Cinna has pinned it to Katniss’ jacket, I’m pretty sure we never see it or hear of it again. Why was it not mentioned by Rue?
Nitpick #2: The first half of the film made a big deal out of Peeta’s strength, and then never did anything with it. Okay, fine — except in that climax, when Katniss and Peeta are outrunning the Muttations, it’s Katniss who climbs onto the Cornucopia first, and she pulls him up. It should have been the other way around! Let Peeta show off those muscles, yo!
Nitpick #3: When they’re in the cave, Peeta and Katniss hear an announcement that all of the tributes are in desperate need of something. We know Peeta needs medicine, but what do the rest of them need? This would be the perfect moment to cut away to the other tributes and show that they’re all suffering — maybe one is starving, another is dehydrated, someone else injured — whatever. For a movie called The Hunger Games, the film downplays the physical demands of the competition. In training, we’re told most of the tributes will die from natural causes, but that’s not actually true in this Games, is it?
Okay, I’m done now. Like I said, I really like The Hunger Games. Otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered “fixing” the screenplay for a movie that’s already been made, would I?
Still, let’s hope these sorts of issues are worked out for Catching Fire, and the screenplay is worked over just a little more carefully. If I could give just a few words of advice to the makers of The Hunger Games for the next installment?
“I like you. Be careful.”