April 5th, 2012

Review: 7/10 Can of Whoop Ass


The Hunger Games


            There is a lot of pressure on a film attempting to adapt a novel that is so recent and so popular.  Fans adored The Hunger Games, spawning it into an international bestseller.  With popularity comes a high level of expectation and obsession.  Every decision the film makes will be rigidly compared to the collectively-held vision of all those that experienced the story in book form first.  In addition, The Hunger Games is just the first installment of a trilogy, meaning that the filmmakers must take into consideration the two films to come, creating a tone and style that can be maintained and recreated later on.  Also, as someone who read the books, people like me are eager to see how the story in our head translates to images on a screen.  Overall, director Gary Ross did a fine job juggling these concerns.  In addition, he deserves credit for his willingness to take the film to darker places than the novel dared go.

            The story is simple, yet jarringly dystopic.  The world has evolved into an all-encompassing super nation called Panem, consisting of 12 districts and one mega-metropolis, called the Capitol.  In remembrance of a failed uprising almost a hundred years previous, the Capitol imposes The Hunger Games upon the citizenry of the outlying districts.  Each district must present a teenaged boy and girl to be offered as sacrifices for an all-out scramble to the death inside a computer-controlled arena.  Our hero, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to enter the arena in lieu of her younger sister, Prim, who has been chosen at random as District 12’s female tribute.  After some prep time and a few flaming dresses, Katniss enters the arena and the death begins.  There are twists and turns during The Hunger Games, which I won’t spoil here, but with Katniss obviously returning for the next two films, it’s safe to say she comes out of the carnage alive.  The dilemma becomes whether her life is worth the trouble that it causes; a question that plagues Katniss throughout the trilogy.

            The Hunger Games novel was written in first person, making it a very intimate account of senseless, desperate times.  While films can center around one person, and Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) is on screen for the vast majority of the lengthy runtime, movies are not depicted with a first person point of view.  First person narrators are indicative of a perspective, and a film could never replace the perspective of the viewer.  Films, in a highly artistic way, allow viewers to be their own narrators, judging and evaluating everything they see and hear: making predictions, gauging emotions, and deeming worth.  So, while The Hunger Games book was almost solely predicated upon the viewpoint of Katniss, the film necessarily broadens the scope of several other characters.  Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and the other arena combatants come to life, unimpeded by the filter of Katniss’ perspective.  This allows the film to be less personal and more sociological than the novel, creating a richer tapestry of personalities.

            Visually, the film goes to great lengths to show geographical difference.  We begin in District 12, soaking up the bleak realities of peasant life.  The colors are dreary and muted; the faces of the people are haggard and downtrodden.  Later, in the Capitol, everything is aesthetic to the point of exaggeration.  The colors are bright and vivid; the people are cackling caricatures.  Most of the exterior shots of the Capitol are done in CGI, but it’s a very conspicuous CGI, as if the filmmakers wanted the viewer to note the utter artificiality of the Capitol’s decadence.  The plain clothes of the district dwellers hearken to the past; the quirky garb of the Capitolers hints at some ostentatious future.  It’s hard to believe these places are on the same planet, let alone only a few hour train ride away from each other.  The obvious culture clash hints at the impossibility of co-existence.  The districts cannot live with such intense suffering while the Capitol lives with such grotesque happiness.

            The violence of the film is still reserved, as it was with the book, but some of the images evoke the stark reality of The Hunger Games in practice.  In Suzanne Collins’ novel, she writes her away around the violence, particularly when involving Katniss.  In a winner take all fight to the death, out of 23 possible victims, Katniss kills ONE PERSON directly – and even that is tempered by a frantic reaction to an attack on her friend.  The camera in the film dwells on the still faces of fallen tributes and it is shocking how young they look, even in death.  Collins presents a brutal world in her novels without getting too caught up in the brutality.  Movies are just moving pictures: if a child is murdered, we are forced to see it happen.  Even though Rue’s little flesh wound (after getting split in half by a spear) is not what you might call gore, the visible violence is a reminder that The Hunger Games are no joke.

            The problems with the film are mostly negligible, but irritating nonetheless.  Predominantly, the camera work is damn near maddening.  It shakes and bobs the entire film.  It feels like an intense affliction of vertigo.  Jennifer Lawrence looks too old to play the 18 year old Katniss.  It’s not that she appears too aged; it’s that she has the body of an adult.  And I’m not just referring to “womanly curves.”  In one scene in particular, when the tributes are lined up to do their pre-arena interviews with Caser Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Lawrence stands behind the actor playing Thresh, who is described as a giant brute from Disctrict 11.  Lawrence looks a good 2-3 inches taller than the “giant brute.”  Liam Hemsworth, who plays Gale Hawthorne, also looks to be in his mid-twenties, far too old to still be considered for the reaping.  The principal concern I have with older actors playing these teenagers is that it adds a level of sexuality that the story doesn’t require.  When Katniss and Gale are out in the forest for the last time, they look like young adults ready to get it on, not pubescents questioning the merit of the world they live in.

Donald Sutherland was probably miscast as President Snow, as he’s a bit too stately to be the conniving, vicious snake that Snow proves himself to be.  Lenny Kravitz is almost a joke as Cinna, looking far too masculine and detached to be the sensitive and cognizant Cinna we know from the novels (there’s no way Katniss would get attached to the Cinna portrayed by Kravitz.  Stick to music, Lenny.  On second thought, just stop doing anything.)  Still, the cast is mostly spot on.  Lawrence captures the anxious intensity of Katniss and Josh Hutcherson finds the sincere indolence of Peeta.  Tucci, Harrelson, and even Elizabeth Banks, as Effie Trinket, all grew on me as the film wore on.  Particular shot out to Wes Bentley, playing Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker, charged with the difficult task of expanding a role that was largely absent in the novel.  Diehards might object to his intrusion, but with the role being so seamless to the story and the way the character mixes us with sympathy and hatred (he faces the same life-threatening pressure that the tributes experience), his addition is a welcome one.

Above all else, the film brings a level of discordance to The Hunger Games that was sorely lacking in the novels.  Collins seemingly wrote the trilogy as a children’s story, along the same vein as the Harry Potter novels, skirting around the violence and ignoring the naughtiness.  Harry still went to school for seven novels, even though an evil wizard wanted him dead.  Though the main characters at Hogwarts progress well into their teenage years, sex is never mentioned once.  Those books, like The Hunger Games, were ultimately written for children.  For example, what of the sexuality of the Capitol?  If they are so desirous of instant gratification and public displays of wealth and status, wouldn’t that lead to some pretty interesting sexual perversions?  Collins writes of starvation, murder, and dictatorship from a distance, through the starry eyes of a teenage girl.  The film delivers those things a little more openly.  I would have preferred the film went further, revealing the blood and guts and mental torture that would accompany a real life Hunger Games, but dreams like that fold underneath the marketing concerns of the film industry.  Admirably though, the film reaches into the darker areas of the themes presented, ending on a bleak note: the inevitable war is coming.