Mar 24, 2012

Film Review: The Hunger Games

Katniss learns Peeta's 'True' Feelings
We can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. The Hunger Games is not a bad movie. In fact, it’s a rather good movie. It's not going to please everyone - fans of the book series on which it is based have been feverish in their criticism of the film from the moment it was announced,
critiquing everything from casting and directorial choices to shooting locations. From the first trailer to opening night, Hunger Games aficionados have combed through the released footage, looking for a glimpse of The Capitol, the arena, the costumes. And now, all of that is over – with Hunger Games playing every half hour in cinemas around the globe, it’s time to look at the product as a whole, to examine from every angle, to poke and prod and investigate. And to tell others what we have seen.

Stylists craft 'The Girl on Fire'
For the uninitiated, The Hunger Games is the first in a series of three novels (by Suzanne Collins) that revolve around Katniss Everdeen, a young tomboy thrust into a world where every mistake could cost her life. After a failed uprising many years ago, the capital city of Panem has created a contest to ensure that all of the surrounding districts understand The Capitol’s power and the futility of rebellion. Each year, at The Reaping, two children (Tributes) from each District (24 children in total) are chosen to fight to the death in a large, bloody, and televised competition. The losers go home in body bags, while the winner goes home with eternal glory and everlasting guilt. When Katniss’s sister’s name is pulled as Tribute, Katniss volunteers to spare her sister a nationally broadcast murder and is sent into the arena in her place, leaving her childhood friend (and possible love interest) Gale back home and squaring off against a boy who once saved her life.  It’s heady stuff – certainly a much more complex and compelling narrative than similarly popular teen-lit (cough *Twilight* cough).

As a fan of the books, it was difficult to put personal feelings aside when viewing the movie. Plot points are changed and condensed to fit into a 2 and a half hour movie, characters are dropped or diminished, the most significant of these being Gale, played by non-Thor Liam Hemsworth. Part of the strength of the story relies on the presence of Katniss's ties to her home, and that is lacking in this film. Given the scope of the film, it's understandable, but regrettable nonetheless.

Tracker Jackers, Katniss, and the too-adorable Rue
Still, the movie is mostly about The Games, and this is part of the movie is extremely well-done. The yearly competition is meant, according to The Capitol president (President Snow, played by amazing whisperer Donald Sutherland) to inspire fear and hope in the surrounding districts. This is done through the innocent slaughter of children, but also by the declaration of a winner (Apparently, you can't give people too much hope). In the books, the murders are gruesome but not dwelt on - Collins describes murder bluntly but doesn't spend much time explaining the gore. In the movies, there is even less time spent on the murders -  director Gary Ross pulls the camera away just as the murder happens, so that only the after-effects are seen. There are spurts of blood and a few cracked bones, but for the most part it has to be imagined. It takes some the weight away from what is happening on-screen - it's difficult as an audience member to wish that the deaths of children were more gore-filled, but the realities of murder are supposed to make the viewer angry, not just momentarily sad. There is one murder, though that is given extreme importance. Not to spoiler anything, but have some tissues handy.

Loose adaptations of novels are often the most exciting. The best Harry Potter movie by far is the third, which is markedly different than the source material. Still, there are a lot of new elements to the film that don't really work:

  • Caesar Flickerman and Seneca Crane, who provide commentary and exposition throughout the movie, are much larger roles. For people who have read the books, these parts seem the most unnecessary. Still, for the rest of the audience, it is helpful. There are a lot of strange goings-on that need to be reported and explained. 
  • The climactic final battle is shortened and de-creepified. In the book, the attackers are way more disturbing than what's on the screen.
  • And every character, Katniss excepted, becomes a little two-dimensional. Elizabeth Banks and Woody Harrelson do the best with what they're given as Effie and Haymitch, but they never seem like real people. They're just random combinations of quirks. And Josh Hutcherson as Peeta is a little too bland - he has some great moments, but he's just a little too earnest, a little too one-note.

Katniss and Peeta, Cave-dwellers
Of course, none of the plot would matter without a strong performance from the lead actress. While other, similar films (Twilight and Harry Potter) can get by with a weak lead performance, The Hunger Games hinges on the fact that Katniss is a real, conflicted person. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, Katniss is a pragmatist, calculating to a fault. She is a survivor and a complex female heroine if there ever was one. She's also alone a lot of the time in the film, and it's difficult to make lonely silence engaging. Thankfully, Lawrence is brilliant, conveying so much emotion with darting eye motions and lip quivers than most actresses of her age and experience can do with their whole body. She was great in Winter's Bone in 2010, and this role requires the same sort of steadfast and quiet character. Lawrence delivers one of the most subtle and engaging performances in the middle of what is likely to be one of the biggest blockbusters of all time - no easy feat.

All-in-all, though, this movie is incredibly gratifying. There will be time to pick apart this film at a later date, but let us just enjoy the movie for right now for what it is: An extremely above average adaptation of a book that is extremely difficult to adapt. Well done. I write this knowing full well how corny it is - May the odds be ever in your favor.

Film Grade: B+
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