Thursday, March 22, 2012

The Hunger Games Review

Greetings, Internet!  Be prepared - I have quite a bit to say about The Hunger Games.  I am a relatively new fan of the series.  I read the entire trilogy only a few weeks ago, after much prodding from one of my friends.  I immediately fell in love with the characters and universe created by Suzanne Collins (who also is credited as a co-screenwriter for the film) and was enthralled by the sweeping narrative that played out brilliantly over the course of three books.  The first book is, in my opinion, the strongest of the three and would hopefully translate well to the big screen.  And it has very, very well indeed.  For those of you who have not read the book(s) or don't want the film spoiled, I suggest you stop reading here. 

***Warning - FULL spoilers for both the book and film version of The Hunger Games are abound***

Still with me?  Alright - I have alot to say about THG and how it relates to its written counterpart.  I'm going to come right out and say that I absolutely loved the film.  Its everything I thought it would be and more.  Right off the bat, one of the issues with adapting the book would be the externalization of Katniss' thoughts and feelings.  The entire trilogy is told essentially from her point of view; we are never privy to things occurring outside her immediate area.  This poses quite a huge problem for the medium of film.  There are plenty of films that deal with one character's perspective; 127 Hours, Buried, and more recently, Silent House all present those types of narratives and are quite effective at doing so.  Neither of those are big-budget, franchise-starting, tent-pole films like The Hunger Games.  There are really only two ways to deal with something like this - either introduce an inner monologue for Katniss (which would almost absolutely come across as corny and ineffective), or externalize the information we get from her thoughts in the book to the outside world.

The screenwriters chose the latter - rather than learn about trackerjackers or the "alliance" formed between the Careers and Peeta by reading what Katniss is thinking, director Gary Ross cleverly cuts to quick clips of Cesar Flickerman (the always-fantastic Stanley Tucci) and Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones) providing commentary to the audience of Panem watching the Games.  This rather effectively provides narrative insights that we would either have to infer for ourselves, or just be left in the dark.  While I do appreciate the out-of-the-Games scenes, including the aforementioned, but also several visits to the Seneca Crane's Head-Gamemaker's-control room and a few conversations between Crane and President Snow (played quietly ominous by Donald Sutherland), I can't help but feel that some of them are too on-the-nose with delivering their message.

For instance, I appreciated seeing Haymitch's (Woody Harrelson) reaction to Katniss' burn and his immediate campaigning for the salve that would heal her wound.  It was an effective scene, in which no dialogue was shared.  We, the audience, were able to fully understand and comprehend what he was doing and why he was doing it.  Jump to early in the Games when Katniss first sees the Career gang with Peeta on their side.  We can obviously see that Peeta has teamed up with them.  That's all we need to know.  However, we cut to Cesar making a comment about an alliance forming.  Duh!  We just saw that play out on screen.  We don't need everything spelled out for us.

On the flip side, a lot of things are not spelled out or explained at all.  That is both the strongest and weakest aspect of the film adaptation.  The already-fast-paced book is trimmed and made into a lean, mean, killing machine of a blockbuster.  We get but a fleeting explanation about the trackerjackers, but don't get any information about the other muttations - the mockingjays or the wolf creatures in the climax.  Much more time is spent in the actual Games in the book; Katniss alone, with Rue, and then finally with Peeta in their cave.  Even the final events at the Cornucopia are trimmed in the film.  All of these diversions from the source material exist to service a fast-paced, taught, action film that delivers in many ways.  As a fan of the book, I was disappointed that certain aspects were changed/altered/excluded, but ultimately film is a different medium and requires a different type of storytelling to convey the narrative.

The performances, on the whole, were spot-on to what I envisioned for these characters.  Jennifer Lawrence is absolutely fantastic as Katniss Everdeen.  She's quiet, reserved, contemplative, calculating, and cold.  Katniss rarely shows emotion, but when she does its quite gripping and moving.  A perfect example is her compassion for her sister as she is chosen at the Reaping.  I knew what was going to happen, but I was emotionally moved by Lawrence's passion and intensity.  Same goes for Rue's death.  Again, despite knowing what was going to transpire, I was able to be wholly engaged in the horrific events unfolding before my eyes; something that the performances of the cast were able to help me achieve.  Equally strong, but perhaps not given enough screen time, is Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark.  The majority of our time with Peeta is spent while he is injured, resting in their cave near the end of the film/book.  The book allows us to get to know Peeta more and delve into who he is and his motivations.  The cave segment is trimmed considerably, meaning that we don't get to be with Peeta as much as we possibly should have.  Both train sequences are considerably trimmed - another setting in which Peeta is quite prominent.  I liked his character enough, and the performance is fairly strong, but I just wish there could've been more dialogue between him and Katniss.

As a film, The Hunger Games is very good.  It absolutely does not feel like an almost two-and-a-half-hour film.  Ross stays with each act just long enough; from the Reaping, to the Capitol, and finally with the Games themselves.  I was not bored for a single moment, despite already knowing what was to come.  And that says a lot.  Some of my favorite films evoke real emotion in me, even after multiple viewings.  The Hunger Games did this on multiple occasions; the Reaping, the countdown to the games, and of course during Rue's death.  Even when Katniss pulled out the nightlock berries.  I was drawn into this well-crafted narrative through the superb character-work and fantastic world-building, pulled off with aplomb by Collins and her fellow screenwriters.

I cannot recommend this film highly enough.  And the book trilogy as well.  While the book is about children killing one another, all of the deaths are done tastefully; they aren't glamorized in the least bit.  Not much in the film is glamorized at all.  And that was the point.  District 12 is dirty and run-down.  The Games are chaotic and violent.  The Capitol is clean and technologically advanced.  These descriptions are complimented beautifully by Ross' decisions for using hand-held cinematography for most of the film.  There are a lot close-ups and shaky-cam.  And I'm talking about Bourne Ultimatum-style shaky cam.  I very much enjoyed the grittiness of the hand-held nature of the film making; it lent an air of reality to the proceedings and grounded the film in a way few others are.  The shaky-cam was a bit hit-and-miss for my tastes.  I have no problem with its implementation in films - the Bourne trilogy is one of my favorite franchises and that has shaky-cam written all over it.  Most of the shakiness comes during combat scenes in the Games themselves.  For the most part I was able to distinguish what was happening and who was who, but there were more than a few moments where I wish they would've cut to more wide shots that gave us a clear and calm view of what was happening.  The worst examples involve action around the Cornucopia; when Katniss and Clove are fighting and during the final confrontation with Cato in the climax of the Games.  It was very difficult to tell what was happening.

I can't help but feel that I'm complaining a lot about the film, but at the end of the day I loved it.  Its going to make a ton of money, and is already tracking higher than the last few Twilight films (thank goodness).  I plan on seeing THG many more times, and cannot wait for Catching Fire in 2013/2014.  Go see this movie.  I don't think you'll be disappointed.

The Hunger Games is an exceptional Hollywood blockbuster, that doesn't look at all like a Hollywood blockbuster.

Bullet out.

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