Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

Here's the deal.  It's currently 3:21 AM.  I've returned from the midnight showing and after a (rather longer than necessary) nap earlier, I'm going to attempt to crank this review out.  I've learned that if I don't write one up immediately, I probably won't write one, as is evidenced by my lack of reviews for Safe House, John Carter, 21 Jump Street and Man on a Ledge, all of which I've seen, some of which I've liked.  So, since I've already shot my diet for the evening (curse you Bowtie Cinemas popcorn!! I'm shaking my fist at you as I type) why not stay up a little longer and get the thoughts fresh from my brain, zombie style.
The Hunger Games is based on a wildly successful Young Adult literary franchise (is there really any other kind of YA franchise?) focusing on a dystopian, but all too realistic future.  The film opens with a textual explanation of why The Hunger Games exist, but here's some quick additional background.
In the remains of North America, there are 13 districts (colonies anyone?) after a revolution has caused the dissolution of the nation all of us are familiar with (seriously, George Washington anyone...Bueller?).  A Capitol remains, surrounded by the protection of The Rockies, but the other districts, of which there are 11, are all essentially slave colonies, working to provide the Capital with means to continue in their opulent ways.  You see, as a warning to the other districts, 13 was completely obliterated.  Now 12 remains the farthest lying district, responsible for providing coal to Panem, the new name for this revised world.  And this is where we meet our heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence).
Katniss, as well as all of the other under-18-year-old citizens of Panem must gather once a year for "the Reaping", a drawing of 2 names, one boy and one girl, who will become tributes in The Hunger Games.  They will represent their district in a brutal form of entertainment, meant to both enthrall the Capitol and remind the Districts of their place.  As Katniss herself says, 24 go in and only one will come out.  (For anyone wanting to make a Battle Royale reference right now, let me cool your heels and remind you that Battle Royale was also based on something: the ancient idea of blood for sport, it's been around since the Romans and probably before that.)  When Katniss' sister's name is drawn, Katniss offers to replace her, volunteering to go in to the arena.  Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is the boy chosen to be Katniss' team member and, ultimately, competition.
What follows is a trip to the Capitol, where Katniss and Peeta, along with their 22 other modern-day gladiators, must become camera-ready, presented to the world of Panem as tributes, and trained for what will be the fight of their lives.
Once in the arena, the tributes face not only themselves, but any number of additional problems: genetically altered animals, dehydration, starvation, or lack of shelter, most of which is controlled by the Gamemakers, led by Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) also known as the guy with the topiary beard. Since many have read the books, and the books are a trilogy, I'm going to go out on a limb and say that you MIGHT be able to guess what happens to Katniss, but I won't fully ruin the journey here.
So, with all of the publicity (literally moment to moment casting news being the tip of the iceberg in The Hunger Games juggernaut), does the movie live up to the hype? My answer to that is...mostly.  Here's the simplest explanation I can give for that answer: Adaptations of successful and engaging novels are almost always doomed, in one way or another.  To further clarify, for a film that runs 142 minutes (boy, the producers are optimistic about the Tween attention span) there's, quite simply, not enough of anything from the books.  There's not enough character development, there's not enough violence, there's not enough Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) or Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) or Effie (Elizabeth Banks) and I think the reason is that, they're already banking on this being a trilogy.
It's almost as if we get the montage version of everything, with a couple of (at least to me) important changes in the transition from text to screen.  The introduction of the Seneca Crane/President Snow storyline, which doesn't happen until after the first novel, and the reaction of District 11 after one of its tributes meets their death is evidence of the shifted focus to the larger story, but that places limitations on the story that should be told at the moment.  I realize that changes happen, and believe me, as a fan of the books, I can confidently say that they get more right here than wrong, but I would also understand if other fans were disappointed with the changes, one of which I feel could truly alter a character, if it isn't addressed in subsequent films.  However, since there is still time for that something to happen (if Lionsgate decides to give the go-ahead for the other 2 films that is, which..I mean, come on, they will), I'll try not to harp on too much about it.  I will also try not to harp on the fact that there was at least one line that seemed outrageously dated.  Poor Katniss, she tries to sell us on the "Damn You" but, I have to say, everyone in the audience just laughed, already being part of a generation that says much worse, usually by 9 am, and occasionally to their parents.  And I certainly won't harp on about how the talents of Toby Jones go almost entirely wasted.  Stanley Tucci does make the most of his scenes as the flamboyant Cesar Flickerman, so that's a plus in the pro column.
What goes very right, for me, is the visuals.  The cinematography is gorgeous.  Shot mostly on location in North Carolina, I was surprised by how real the entire setting felt.  For some reason, when I was reading, knowing that it was a "dystopian" future, I had still held in my mind a coldness of the world, envisioning only darkness and dreariness, and seeing it brought to life in roughly the same area that it would really take place in, gave it a humanism that I hadn't envisioned.  It's almost as if I had forgotten that the sun would still be shining.  And I'm sure the Capitol, with it's beyond-couture style and outrageous hedonism was both a dream and a nightmare to the production design, wardrobe and hair and makeup teams, but it all comes off beautifully.
Another great surprise, for me, was Josh Hutcherson's Peeta.  I will confess, I was worried when I heard the casting, but now, I'm relieved.  He's frightened and human, funny and natural, and all of the things that would make a girl go out to almost certain death to save him.  He might also benefit from something that the role of Katniss does not, and that's the fact that we essentially get the same view of Peeta in the books as we do in the film.
The true problem of the conversion lies in the fact that the book is almost entirely from Katniss' point of view.  We hear her voice in our heads, we think her thoughts.  As the reader, Katniss is not only our guide, she's our perspective, our judge, we know what to think about other characters because she tells us.  A movie could never be that, and so, what happens is we instantly become the audience, removed from the immediate action, and perhaps that's another reason why it felt that there was something missing.  To Jennifer Lawrence's credit, I think she's a fantastic Katniss.  I think she gets everything about the character, but I just would have liked to have seen more emotion, or at least, more of an explanation for the lack of emotion (for which there are very good reasons) in the story of the film.
This film works wonderfully as a companion piece to the book, but on its own, I'm not quite so sure. The novel's strength is partially in its creation of world that's believable and beautiful and deadly, and I think the film realizes the surface of that world perfectly.  But even more, the book succeeds in the emotional connections of characters and the sense of desperation and urgency for the ultimate prize, survival.  I'm not sure that the urgency is there in the adaptation.  It's as if everyone is going through the motions, but they're not pushed to the absolute limits that they are in the books.  I never felt as if the film reached the peak of suspense, it just kind of flattened out.  Or as I said before, there just wasn't enough for me.

Overall: 3.5 out of 5


1 comment:

V-Man said...

Wait, it's not exactly like the book? That's a dealbreaker! I'll watch it while giving the screen the crookeye the entire time.