Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) *Review 2*

In September of 2008, the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy, called The Hunger Games, was released by Scholastic.  Written by Suzanne Collins, it was geared for young adults, the same niche of readers who have propelled the Twilight series (and its movies) to such astronomical success.  As was the case with Stephanie Meyer's series, The Hunger Games transgressed both age and gender groups, appealing to seemingly everyone who picked it up.  And now, on the conclusion of its film adaptation's colossal weekend at the box office (earning an estimated $155 million and setting all kinds of records) fans of the books are talking about one thing: how did the movie hold up?

From the midnight Thursday shows to the Sunday estimates still coming in, two kinds of moviegoers entered theaters: those who have read the books and those who have not.  And that is the first obstacle any adaptation faces.  How does director and writer Gary Ross (Collins helped co-write the final draft of the script as well) satisfy the cults of fanatics who make it their business to know every detail of Collins's dystopia (the kinds who make take it upon themselves to map out the futuristic rendition of Panem) while simultaneously introducing it to newly invested others?  The answer, of course, is to reach some kind of idealistic medium between staying true to the books wherever possible and reworking one writer's work into a based-off but stand alone cinematic one.  Easier said the done.

Ross wisely chose to precede all footage with some introductory text about Panem, an oligarchical near-military state that is what the United States has become, and the Hunger Games, a free for all to the death between 12-18 year olds, two picked (one male, one female) from each of the 12 districts that make up Panem.  This lovely system, we learn, has been put in place by the Capitol (the governing center of Panem situated in today's Colorado) to remind all the Districts the danger of rebellion and anarchy.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen
The first quarter of the film takes place in District 12, a coal-mining district which lacks in just about everything else, especially food.  There are plenty of shots of impoverished citizens and families in squalor for audiences to understand the generally grey-stricken gloom which lies heavily upon the folk of District 12.  It's here that we're introduced to the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), an earnest sixteen-year old who illegally hunts game in the fenced-off woods to provide for her dazed mother (Paula Malcomson) and little sister, Primose Everdeen (Willow Shields).  Katniss is especially protective of Primrose, so it comes as no surprise that when her little sister is selected as the female "tribute" in her first year of eligibility to participate in the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers in her place.  This scene is one of several in the film that so deftly connect viewers to the helpless plight of citizens of Panem, and furthermore those selected for the Hunger Games.  To the credit of Gary Ross, you will not only feel but identify with the frustration and anger that is pent up behind Lawrence's stoic personage.

Along with District 12's male tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss begins her journey on a train to the Capitol where she becomes acquainted with Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), a sort of dolled up representative-escort, and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only ever Hunger Games champion to come out of District 12 who is tasked with the advisor/trainer role for the tributes.  These two members of Katniss's and Peeta's entourage provide a sort of balance in that Effie is ostensibly of the Capitol's crop in terms of her unquestioning attitude and support toward the Hunger Games, while Haymitch presents himself as a disaffected drunk, never buying into the glamour of the Games.

As the luxurious train ride there was something Katniss could only have imagined, the Capitol itself is absolutely beyond all comprehension given her humble origin.  It comes across as a complete antithesis of District 12, bursting with colors, waterfalls, loopy architecture and wonderful technological innovations.  Its people at all times flourish the streets and are simply entranced with either themselves, their surroundings or probably both.  In other words, Katniss has found herself in the desirable eye of the dystopian storm.

It is here Katniss undergoes her preparation for the Games.  She is immediately introduced to her fashion advisor, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who is vital to her making a splash in the many pre-Games ceremonies and earning a devoted following, something that Haymitch describes as of the utmost importance to her survival.  In the book, Katniss forms a unique connection to Cinna.  As we are a fly on the wall to her inner monologue, we know she constantly remains skeptical to those around her, almost never opening up.  With Cinna it is different.  She feels a certain empathy resound within him and in turn comes as close to trusting him as any other character in the book.  From the dualistic standpoint of reader and moviegoer, the lack of development here was disappointing.  First and foremost I took issue with the casting of Kravitz who could not have been more stonefaced in his role.  It seems almost likely that this may in fact be the reason their relationship comes across so rushed - perhaps the Kravitz portrayal of Cinna in these crucial scenes was so devoid of efficacy that an executive decision was made to only give viewers the opportunity to witness them by way of the DVD menu.  For the non-reader moviegoer, I should think that their relationship comes across as almost arbitrary: it beginning with Cinna bursting onto the scene, Katniss uncharacteristically latching on to him, and then their melodramatic departure when she leaves for the Games.

On the opposite end of the Thespian scale was seasoned actor Stanley Tucci's portrayal of Caesar Flickerman, the television celebrity-personality host of the Hunger Games.  The character serves as the true archetype of Capitol citizenry.  While not without human emotion and courtesy (he'll engage a tribute and shatter their nerves during an interview) he just as willingly sanctifies the Games and all of its atrocities by endorsing its entertainment always, and providing analysis throughout with horrifying insensitivity.  This paradoxical clash of human nature is executed to perfection by Tucci.  Gary Ross has stated in interviews that before anyone else was cast, the role of Flickerman, in his mind, had to be Tucci.  In the movie adaptation, the role is perhaps even of a greater importance as it provides a vehicle to subtly impart backstory and commentary to the real life audience just as it does with the Panem audience.  It's a great tool that Ross and Tucci employ beautifully.

At left, Donald Sutherland as President Snow;
at right, Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane.
But who is at the center of the Capitol's dictatorial rule?  That would be none else than the haunting President Snow (Donald Sutherland).  His white hair and white beard match the uniforms of Panem's Peacekeepers (the muscle) and of course his emblem, the thorny white rose.  Though Snow doesn't appear in the first book until the very end, he does so from the onset of the pre-Games festivities in the film.  With a keen eye (and a firm grasph) on the Head Gamemaker, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), Sutherland does an excellent job of conveying the series' antagonist as the main manipulative force behind Panem and its Hunger Games.

And then there are the Games themselves.  Probably the greatest challenge Gary Ross faced in projecting the story was the violence that ensues.  There is no opportunity to shy away from the many murders that take place, committed by and against young teens.  Nothing was as impressive as to me than how Ross expertly maneuvered his way around this treacherous task.  By way of flashing montages, shaky camera work, quick pans and implicative splatters of blood Ross was able to ascertain the PG-13 rating, essential to the film's success.  As a side point, should censors probably review the fact that a film consisting of children murdering each other in cold blood can more easily reach the sensory organs of America's youth than that of one, for instance, which may boast a couple of nude scenes in the aiding of a love scene? Yes.  But that's its own essay altogether.

There is never a dull moment during the course of the Games and so much is kept true to the novel.  Katniss's skill with a bow is a marvel to behold on screen, and the Tracker Jacker sequence is pure suspense.  The score, a collaboration between T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard, is present throughout: a lulling country-folk-bluegrass vibe with an upbeat at times so as to remind you to not get too comfortable in the artificially woodsy, but genuinely fatal arena.  Among all that, however, two character dynamics stand out most.  One is the semi-romantic relationship between Peeta and Katniss which remains obscure and always wavering, teasing the audience endlessly.  When they finally kiss, it's to the delight of all, save Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Katniss's hunting buddy and closest thing to a beau back home.  The movie takes a liberty in showing his reaction to their kiss while watching on a District 12 monitor (the book never leaves Katniss's vantage point), and we're given our first hint at a love triangle.  Hutcherson, who has stated how much he identifies with Peeta's character, gives a great understated performance as the self-deprecated and self-deemed underdog.  The chemistry between Peeta and Katniss, which in the book is a keeps-you-guessing sort, channels faultlessly on screen between Hutcherson and Lawrence.

The second dynamic is that between Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the 12-year old female tribute of District 11 (comparable to District 12 in socioeconomic status).  In the arena alliances are not uncommon early on, and it is Rue who helps Katniss survive an early snag to set the grounds for their relationship.  Unlike Cinna-Katniss, the Rue-Katniss bond adapts with ease to the big screen from the book.  They immediately take to a sisterly kinship, protective of one another.  Rue's character arc is brief but heartfelt in large thanks to Stenberg's ability to win your heart over.

Suzanne Collins, author of The Hunger Games
Series and Gary Ross, writer/director of The
Hunger Games film.
The end result of Gary Ross's adaptation of Suzanne Collins's novel is one that should have her smiling.  The movie holds true to so many of the book's greatest details, and takes liberties where they can improve on the cinematic version of the story.  For instance, how Katniss comes across her lucky Mockingjay pin is completely altered for the movie - but justifiably so as the time and scenes it would have taken to introduce the book's version would have been inefficient and encumbering.  In a late sequence in the film in which Katniss and Peeta are attacked by wild dog-like monsters, the book adds another defining physical trait to their beings that the movie leaves out (namely each bearing a likeness to the deceased tributes).  Once again, it is likely Ross investigated all avenues in trying to hold true to Collins's words, but in the end felt the CGI looked tacky, or that it would not come across as intended.  It's no secret a book's advantage is that it can use its words to describe most anything, and while cinema can't compete in that respect, it can use its visual/audio elements to address those ideas which a novel's words simply do an inferior justice.

Finally, one aspect that occurred to me while watching the film that never did so while reading the book was that feeling that we, just like the rest of Panem, are watching the Hunger Games.  It makes sense that it took the cinematic medium to bring that awareness out since, of course, during the course of a movie you are inherently watching.  It becomes an unsettling thought to consider yourself a spectator, but it's by no workings of chance that the notion may surface for moviegoers.  As touched on earlier, Flickerman's Games commentary are news-anchor style - much like that of a desk of analysts during halftime of a televised sports events - and in keeping with that are addressed directly to the camera.  It was at these junctures I felt the lines between the Panem audience and The Hunger Games movie audience most blurred.  It's a startling sensation, and one Ross surely sought to impart on viewers, that we should bear some part of the guilt of Panem's condoning inhabitants.  For when it comes down to it, they aren't a different or even more evolved species, they are humans, exhibiting some of the worst qualities of human nature but reminding viewers that we too are capable, and unquestionably have committed equal, if not worse inhumane societies and atrocities in our history.  As the movie adaptation is drawn from a piece of literature, fiction is drawn from one person's perception of life; end products such as The Hunger Games act as art's most entertaining, yet poignant reminders of who we are.

--Review by Mike Dorfman

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