As a Hunger Games fan since 2008, I have to admit that I was considerably nervous at the screening last night. I mean, all the interviews and teaser clips and trailers and images seemed to indicate that Gary Ross was getting things right, but I was still holding my breath. I’ve been burned before. So, yeah, the tension headache I had on my ride home was caused as much by that suspense as by anything Seneca Crane cooked up for the 74th annual games. But I’m here to tell you that my fears were unfounded. I mean, it wasn’t a flawless movie, of course, but it was exactly the right movie. If you want to be surprised by ALL the ways in which it is right, stop reading now. But if you want to alleviate your own tension headache, read on. This will not be too spoilery for anyone who’s read the books.
1. There is no overbearing orchestration. The trailers make it seem like all the dramatic scenes are accompanied by eerie oboes and such, but thankfully, no. There is some music, of course. But at several moments, particularly at the beginning, there is nothing but dialogue and the natural sounds of District 12. Thank you, Gary Ross, for trusting that your actors can act and your screenwriter can write and your audience can understand when to be sad or happy or scared.
2. There are moments of stark realism that will take your breath away. I’m not talking about tributes spearing each other. I’m talking about a grim morning in the Seam. Effie’s overly powdered face at the reaping. The screeching of her microphone. The hollow sound of President Snow’s voice as the Hunger Games propaganda movie is projected to the silent audience. And oh, god, the three-finger salute to Katniss.
3. Jennifer Lawrence. Katniss is not all fierce arrow-slinging badass. Mostly, she is a girl. Even though she’s had to grow up fast and take care of her family, she looks vulnerable and/or unsure of herself at all the right times.
4. Josh Hutcherson. I admit to being one of those doubting that he could be a romantic lead of Peeta proportions. But the soft sensitivity and charm he displays make him every bit the lovestruck baker’s boy. The moment he stepped on the stage at the reaping, close to tears, he won me.
5. Effie Trinket, Caesar Flickerman, Claudius Templesmith and the rest of the potentially silly Capitol citizens. They are not all cartoonish comic relief as they could have been in lazier hands. The falseness of their facade is clear, from their makeup and wigs to their affected accents to the uncomfortable looks they give when things seem the least bit out of order. We can see their shallowness and almost pity them, just as Katniss does.
6. The Arena. When I read the book, I’m not sure I completely pictured how an arena could look like a natural setting. Luckily the art and FX department could. It flips between the woods of North Carolina and an enclosed space with projections on the ceiling quite easily. The hidden cameras and parachute gifts are a particular treat.
7. The Gamemakers’ control room. This is the part that’s a little sc-fi-Star-Trekky, but it makes sense that a big staff looks over a 3-D model of the arena controlling the landscape via fancy touch-screen manipulations.
8. Seneca Crane and President Snow. The added scenes between the ambitious young Gamemaker and the cold, calculating authoritarian leader will give you the chills. They explain the sick reasoning behind the Capitol’s machinations and set the stage quite nicely for the intrigue to come in Catching Fire and Mockingjay.
9. District 11. I really don’t want to ruin this for anyone. But you will probably cry. And possibly find yourself thinking of current political conflicts here and abroad.
10. The gut-wrenchingness without all the guts. Yeah, there’s a helluva lot of killing. But hardly any gore. That sickening feeling you’ll get after the first cornucopia scene will be because you saw kids murder each other, not because you saw their intestines pouring out of them.