Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

     I didn't have a lot of interest in seeing The Hunger Games (2012), largely because I all knew was that it was based on a book I've never read.  Yes, it stars Jennifer Lawrence, who I have been aware of since The Bill Engvall Show (2007-09) and took an interest in after seeing her in Winter's Bone (2010), but that certainly wasn't enough to motivate me to go out an see it.  Then there was all of this talk about it becoming a kind of cultural phenomenon, but I had to assume that the culture involved would be much younger and likely dominated by the female gender.  No, I got off my lazy ass and down to the theater to see The Hunger Games because my mother developed an inexplicable interest in seeing it and asked if I wanted to go with her.  Sure.  And that is how I saw this movie in somebody else's dime.
     Thanks Mom.
     Traditionally, I start any kind of review by listing things I didn't like or what disappointed me and then follow that up with more complaints and negative feelings.  I am going to try to do something different here, largely because I found myself enjoying The Hunger Games all the way through, even in the moments where there were things that would have bothered me in other movies.  This may be in part due to being influenced by how much my mother liked and was affected by the film, but I also think it would be interesting to see if I can find something nice to say when giving my thoughts about a film.
Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) showing off her hunting skills early in The Hunger Games.  For some reason, she loses a lot of her huntress instincts and becomes very reactionary when people are actively trying to kill her.
     The Hunger Games spans the time from just before the Reaping, when a pair of adolescents are conscripted to take part in the Hunger Games through the end of its 74th annual running.  For the most part this is done quite well, with the passage of time being constantly referenced (though not in a grating or condescending manner).  While I was watching it, I thought the introduction to the main character, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and her family went on a little too long, but that was much more likely because I was eager for the movie to get to the teenaged gladiatorial combat rather than allow it to establish the emotional and economical realities of the characters thrown into the games.  And that is just bad on me.
     The movie makes some efforts – usually effectively – to reference back to the situation in Katniss' District 12, and these help give more weight to the scenes that establish the world before the two tributes are whisked off to the Capitol to get killed for the entertainment of...well, those who live in the Capitol.  There seems to be an innate sense of sadness and impending doom felt by those in the outlying districts, a reminder that punishment is an enduring legacy for a rebellion generations ago.  Indeed, it strikes at the youth in their formative years, breeding a very real fear in them while trying to give them an acceptance of the process as something that can be celebrated.
     There were thirteen rebellious districts, but only twelve send representatives.  Some quick internet research reveals why there are only twelve that send tributes, but it remains a mystery in the film.  Personally, I was more curious as whether the thirteen rebellious districts being treated harshly after being brought back into the fold was supposed to remind me of the Reconstruction Era.  Panem seems to be much more of a fascist state than a democratic republic with an axe to grind after attempted secession.  Still, Katniss and Peeta come from District 12, while looking more like West Virginia or Kentucky (not officially CSA states), has a Southern feel to it.  And that is where it ends up on the map I found online.
Sure, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has a skill set that could be put to great use, but apparently all interest in playing War or emulating Rambo have all been lost by the time the 74th Annual Hunger Games roll around.  My question about the character had more to do with how he got his skill set.  Who the hell in his District 12 home town is out splurging for fancy iced cakes?
     Katniss ends up in the Hunger Games in an effort to keep her younger sister from being slaughtered.  This is fine (I believe the Joss Whedon expression would be "noble as a grape"), but there doesn't seem to be much value in this harsh world in young Primrose Everdeen.  It makes me wonder if Katniss has some kind of supernatural sense of morality and individual human dignity that isn't reinforced (it is there, but not in the forefront) in their society in general.  Her fellow tribute, Peeta, is a luck of the draw victim.  He clearly comes from better circumstances than Katniss, and she directs her attention to some dude named Gale (Liam Hemsworth), but it is clear early on that Peeta has more than a casual interest in her.  Because this is done with both humor and a seemingly real understanding of the somewhat plastic nature of adolescent relationships, it plays as both fun and real.
     There are some odd instances of costuming going on.  Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) immediately reminded me of Volmae (Angie Miliken) from the Farscape episode "Thank God it's Friday...Again" (this was reinforced by having Peace Keepers in the story).  Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) gets to wear a stylized beard and suits that are always hinting at him being some sort of devil.  There is a parade of tributes – on chariots – where some are dressed to look vaguely like fish and others like raggedy ice dancing partners.  Katniss and Peeta get some stylish dark suits with blue flames, and it looks good.  Not even a tiny bit ridiculous. 
     There isn't much attention to developing the various tributes.  This is fine, largely because all but one are slated to die; such are the rules of the games.  But it is clear that several of them are supposed to have larger roles to play, and in the film version, they are almost all reduced to just being there. Yes, Rue (Amanda Stenberg) gets more definition than any of them outside the District 12 pair, but it is presented only in relation to Katniss.  I would have preferred trimming about five minutes off the home town build up to give more definition to the tributes, especially those who have the most impact during the Hunger Games.  More than that, it would mean something more when the tributes start dying if I had been given the chance to develop some investment in them.  The film doesn't glorify the killing of the children, but I think it could have (and should have) been more chilling, more shocking for the audience.
I have no idea of this is a more faithful rendering of the characters.  I do know the ones I saw in the film didn't look like this.
     Once director Gary Ross takes the story out of District 12, it moves at a steady and well measured pace. While there were a few dark and grainy shots, most of the film had a crisp (but never glossy) look.  If there were any glaring continuity errors, I didn't catch them.  Ross may have underplayed how scared Katniss was once the games began (there is a shot in a scene that does exist for this express purpose) and that she does not instinctively know to apply her skills as a hunter to the fine art of killing people, but I found that to be more accurate to a person – as opposed to trained soldier – thrown into the situation.  I could have done without the insert shots of Gale fretting about what he sees as Katniss and Peeta progress through the games, but as it is clearly important to the ongoing story, I understand why it was necessary.  And necessary will always triumph over what I want.
     I'm not really sure how this big screen adaptation will play to devotees of the book.  I assume there will be those who think that it dumbs down the more complex elements of the novels.  I likewise assume there will be those who simply like that it gets enough right and looks good to boot.  I hope that what I witnessed is not some Jurassic Park (1993) kind of butchering of a fun novel to quasi-watchable film (at least to those who read the book first), because I enjoyed the movie version of The Hunger Games.  I don't want to be part of the group destroying other people's enjoyment by embracing this version.
     Still, this did not make me want to pick up the novels.  Largely because I have a reading list over 30 books long now, several of which are well-regarded classics.  But also because I would have to start at the beginning, and I feel that would impinge on my current level of happiness with the film.  No, The Hunger Games is not some enduring classic of cinema.  Very few films are, and most of us don't watch them.  It is solid entertainment that clearly has a well meaning point.  It is well acted (hell, Lenny Kravitz managed to find a way to play his character that has me questioning my eternal hate of Lenny Kravitz) and well directed.  If you get a chance to see it, I say take the opportunity.
1) This really helps me better understand the geography of the story.  2) If the Districts are this large, why is the assembled crowd for the Reaping (in the film) so small?  I assume it is a function of budget, but it really felt as though there isn't much population in the Districts.  I have no idea if that is how the books present them.

Now, the good news is that in the Hunger Games setting, I have survived the apocalyptic war that destroys the United States of America (though my citizenship doesn't go away, so I probably have some kind of resident alien status in Panem, which if I am stationed in the former British Columbia, I would need anyway), have mastered some limited kind of immortality, and have a job as a Systems Analyst (which I really wish I could list on the real world résumé, because it probably open a lot more doors).

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