Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Hunger Games

According to the box office, most of the country has already seen The Hunger Games, and that’s a good thing because it’s a good film. Not superb, not quite excellent, but very good.

So thank God, it’s way better than its trailers.

From the best-selling novel of the same name, the story takes place in the future where the United States has become Panem, a country with obvious echoes of the Roman Empire (Panem is the short-form of a Latin phrase meaning “bread and circuses”). Thirteen districts, kept in poverty, provide the resources the Capitol needs to maintain an opulent life style of leisure and excess. At one point, the districts rose up in revolt. The revolt is put down in brutal fashion, with one district (13) being annihilated. Because of that revolt, each year, each district will send one boy and one girl, ages 12 to 18, to the Capitol. These “tributes” are placed in an arena where they will fight to the death, leaving only one survivor. This fight is called the Hunger Games. Holy echo of the gladiatorial games in the Coliseum.

The film begins with the selection process for the 74th annual Hunger Games. 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played to perfection by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers for the games when her 12-year-old sister, Prim, gets chosen via lottery. Peeta Mellark, played less perfectly by Josh Hutcherson, is chosen as the boy tribute.

As far as novel-to-film adaptations go, The Hunger Games is one of the best. It’s biggest failing, as an adaptation, is leaving the “hunger” out of the games. The winning tribute is not only granted a (relative) life of luxury when they return to their district, but the district itself is assured sufficient food for the coming year. This helps keep the districts in line, and helps suppress a natural urge to revolt at the notion of watching your children go off to fight and die year after year.

That aside, the changes made from book to film are well chosen and executed. Writer-director Gary Ross keeps things moving along, letting the contrasts between poverty in the districts and unrestrained wealth in the Capitol go by without needless commentary by the characters.

In several key scenes, the film actually exceeds the novel. The opening, where Katniss shouts that she volunteers to take Prim’s place, is relatively sedate in the novel, but it packs a wallop in the film. There are other moments that are likewise more powerful.

James Newton Howard’s soundtrack is subdued. Rather than use standard musical cues to drive a scene of bloody carnage, Ross and Howard let the action speak for itself.

It’s a good choice because, if anything, this makes those moments even more horrifying. This is, above all, a film about kids killing kids. To maintain a PG-13 rating, Ross keeps much of the gore off screen, but he doesn’t flinch from showing you the faces of the dead. Even if they don’t have names, or aren’t even known as anything more than “tribute from District 3,” the simply image of a slaughtered child speaks volumes.

Jennifer Lawrence, in many ways, reprises her Oscar-nominated role from Winter’s Bone. While she’s not quite that good here, she easily hoists the film onto her shoulders and carries it.

The young actors playing the other tributes felt interchangeable, which isn’t as annoying as it sounds. They’re more like forces of nature than characters you want to know anything about. Key exceptions are Gale, Katniss’s maybe-more-than-just-a-friend from the district, and Peeta, the boy she’s stuck with in the arena who, we discover, is actually in love with Katniss. This is the love triangle that rocks much of Katniss’s world, and at least Peeta could have been a bit better. Hutcherson’s acting isn’t bad, it’s just not on a par with Lawrence’s. Lian Hemsworth, as Gale, barely has sufficient time to properly brood.

The adult casting is somewhat better. Stand-outs are Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman (master of ceremonies for the games) and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch (survivor of the games, mentor to Katniss and Peeta). Special shout-out to Wes Bentley as Gamemaster Seneca Crane. One of the ways that the film varies from the novel is that it leaves the games to see what’s going on in the world of those operating the game. Watching Crane try to manage what is going on within the arena, while pleasing the casually evil President Snow (played with ease by Donald Sutherland), is a nice touch.

On the production side of things, parts of the film feel...cheap. The Hunger Games is brilliant in that is avoids CGI like a plague, but in the few instances where it’s needed, it falls short. And the peacekeeper (police) uniforms make me laugh.

The use of excessively tight shots, usually done hand-held in order to simulate documentary photography, is more annoying than effective. A few are all right, because the games are filmed and broadcast across Panem. The close shots are often contrasted with steady medium shots, some from unusual angles, giving the subtle impression that you’re watching the action from the point of view of the games’ production cameras, and thus the viewing audience. This almost works.

In contrast, use of the shaky-cam never really works and is an abject failure in at least two critical fight scenes. One fight starts, ends, and you have no idea how it got from Point A to Point E.

The film’s biggest problem is its anti-climatic end. It screams to have the words “To Be Continued...” appear on the screen during the final shot. There are, after all, two more books (Catching Fire and Mockingjay), meaning at least three more films, given the wild success of this film. Still, here the book is superior and a little bit of its emotion should have been incorporated here.

At the end, though, I had a simple way of knowing how much I enjoyed the film. I walked out of the theatre and immediately wanted to turn around, buy a ticket, and see it again. And that’s a success by any measure.

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