Monday, March 26, 2012

The Hunger Games Reviewed

The best thing about having such a diverse pool of friends is I can sometimes call on an individual to give me their thoughts on a topic they have been knee deep in for some time where as I know next to nothing. In this, they have an emotional connection with the item in question, and that is something I can not hope to muster in a short time. Case in point: I went to see The Hunger Games yesterday and was fairly taken aback by the power of the film's message ...and that this message was not designed like a giant anvil to strike the heads of movie goers entering what was expected to be teen movie fare. While the carnage of the Battle Royale-esque arena sequence was surely muted for that teen audience, it was not missed. The over-all execution of the content moved me in a way I did not expect. I've now got nothing but praise for the film. So...surely someone who has read the books and is emotionally invested in the series would feel the same way, yes? Morgan Elektra gives us a reader's perspective on the film adaptation and pulls no punches.

Book adaptations are always tricky business. Even more so when the book in question is wildly popular. Millions of fans go in with a passion for characters and story, and sometimes ridiculously high expectations. Filmmakers have to walk a line between adherence to the source material and their ‘dramatic interpretation’ of it. Plus, there’s the added difficulty that, even in our age of advanced technology, some things just don’t translate well from page to screen. There’s so much going in to making a “page-turner” into an “edge-of-your-seat-er” that one or two seemingly small ‘off’ things can muddy the entire effort.

Unfortunately, that’s the case with writer/director Gary Ross’ version of ‘The Hunger Games’. In Suzanne Collin’s best selling book, America as we know it no longer exists. Sometime in our future the country revolted against a corrupt and controlling government, only to lose the rebellion. The result of this is a society where the twelve remaining districts (district 13 having been bombed into a wasteland) are enslaved to the government. The citizens are basically indentured servants who farm, mine, and manufacture goods for the pampered denizens of the Capitol.

In addition to this, every year, each district must provide two tributes, one male and one female, between the ages 12 and 18 to fight in the annual Hunger Games; a televised fight to the death in which the victor and their district are showered with wealth and gifts. Ross sets this up with a quote from the ‘Treaty of Treason’ before the movie begins, and while I understand the need for back story here, it just feels weightless. Beginning this way holds no meaning when we don’t know the world in which this treaty came about (and for those of us who do, we don’t need it anyway), and in order to set up enough of background to give it due weight would have resulted in a scroll that would put Star Wars to shame. It becomes especially pointless when several minutes later we’re shown (along with the gathered peoples of District 12) a video which establishes the Hunger Games in a much better framework.

The introduction of Katniss Everdeen, comforting Prim during a nightmare, sneaking beyond the fence to hunt, sharing a bonding moment with best friend Gale discussing treason and getting ready for the Reaping, is rapid fire in order to quickly bring us to the first big emotional moment... when Prim’s name is called and Katniss volunteers to take her place. See how much information that was in such a small space? Yeah, that’s how it was on film, too. I was already frustrated with the pacing at this point, but figured things would slow down and take their time once we got to the Capitol. That never happened. We continue at what feels like a breakneck speed for almost the entire film, with only a few moments taken out to slow down for ‘emotional’ scenes’. For me, this was the biggest issue with the movie version of Collin’s story.

There are things that were done right. Jennifer Lawrence was a brilliant choice to play Katniss, with a palpable quiet strength and the kind of natural beauty that sort of sneaks up on you. She looks cute and somewhat plain in her braided hair and prairie-like dress at the Reaping, and then you dress her up in something clearly designer and put on a little bit of makeup and she looks gorgeous. Even when paraded about in fancy attire beyond her lifestyle, you can still see the shrewd calculation in her hazel eyes. She’s believable as a cold hunter, rough around the edges socially speaking, and as a flustered young girl confronted with more attention then she knows what to do with.

The rest of the casting choices looked their parts surprisingly well, though none of them really get the screen time to inhabit them (there’s that pacing issue again). Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch has barely any interaction with his tributes, and his drunkenness and bad attitude seem played more for laughs instead of the clearly damaged survivor we got in the books. There, seeing what had become of Haymitch after his “winning” the Hunger Games gave the reader a real sense of dread. His presence gave testament to the fact that even if one of them was the victor, the things they had to do to get there will most likely haunt them forever. I loved Elizabeth Banks as seemingly fluffy headed Capitol lackey Effie Trinket, which is why is was really unfortunate that her best scene - a rambling, cheery speech about how wonderful it must be for the tributes to get to experience the lavish train trip and how much they must be looking forward to visiting the City - was muted in order to highlight Katniss’ facial expressions as she reacts to the luxury. The fact that Effie views what she’s doing (delivering teens to nearly sure slaughter) as a job, and her hopes of them doing well have more to do with her wanting a promotion out of being in charge of dismal, loser District 12 than wanting them to live underscores the vast differences between life in the Capitol and life in the districts far more than her outrageous clothing. Of course, these are things we learn in the book through her talks and interactions with Katniss, Peeta and Haymitch, very little of which was translated to the screen. The same goes for Cinna, Katniss’ designer portrayed by Lenny Kravitz, and Rue, the young girl tribute that Katniss befriends in the arena. Ironically, the secondary character I felt we got to know best was Wes Bentley’s awesomely bewhiskered game-maker Seneca Crane, whose role in the books was pretty minuscule.

Because we don’t get to really know these other characters, those scenes that should be emotional don’t hit home. The movie follows the book pretty closely but it’s a superficial adherence. I can’t help but think that if Ross had cut down on the time spent in the control room, watching Crane orchestrate the Games with flashy electronics, and more attention paid to Katniss and the other tributes, then the heart-in-the-throat moments would have carried through and given this spun sugar version of The Hunger Games the substance it lacked. Punches were pulled, both in the characterization and the depiction of the violence in the arena, and it shows. Non-fans of the books will most likely find some enjoyment in the flash and fighting and Jennifer Lawrence’s performance, and fans of the book can revel a bit in seeing beloved characters in the flesh. Just don’t expect to find the deeper personal and social commentary of Collin’s books here.

Morgan Elektra is a regular contributor on

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