Thursday, April 19, 2012

MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins were a sensation in the world of young-adult literature, becoming that rare phenomenon of art created for children which also appealed to adults. Now, at last the film adaptation of the trilogy has begun, with the first movie, The Hunger Games, released to generally positive acclaim and rapturous audiences. The movie version has also become a sensation, this time at the box-office with a over half a billion dollars of tickets sold in less than a month.

The explanation for such a huge box-office hit can be explained by the fact that the original source material has sold well over 35 millions copies, so there was huge built-in interest and excitement about the film adaptation. Credit for the script is given to the original author, Suzanne Collins, the director Gary Ross, and Billy Ray, which also doesn't hurt. The film stars Jennifer Lawrence, who received an Best Actress Oscar nomination in 2011 for the acclaimed indie film Winter's Bone, in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is the central character around which the entire trilogy is built around, and the plot is her story. The other two main characters are Peeta (played by Josh Hutcherson from The Kids Are Alright) and Gale (played by Liam Hemsworth who is the younger brother of Chris Hemsworth who starred in the title role of Thor). This being young-adult fiction, there is the inevitable love triangle between Katniss, Gale and Peeta, similar to the love triangle in the Twilight books between Bella, Edward and Jacob. (I haven't even read the books or even seen the movies and I know that much about the characters in that series, which by the way has been outsold by The Hunger Games!) The casting is somewhat off age-wise because Katniss is supposed to be 16, and Lawrence, while an excellent young actress, is 21 while Hutcherson (whose Peeta is supposed to be about the same age as Katniss) is 19 and Helmsworth (whose character Gale should be slightly older than Katniss) is 22. Elizabeth Banks and Stanley Tucci do a frighteningly good job of portraying sinisterly eager Capitol citizens who have been involved with the Hunger Games for years. Woody Harrelson does a surprisingly good job with the difficult role of Haymitch, a former Hunger Games winner. Max von Sydow does his usual job of playing evil as the President of Panem.

The basic story of The Hunger Games (the book) is that it is a story about a young woman (Katniss) who gets placed in an impossible situation, and how through determination, skill and a bit of luck she somehow manages to survive. (It's not really a spoiler, right? There are three books after all!) The Hunger Games are an annual tournament broadcast live nationally where each of the 12 Districts which comprise the country of Panem are forced to provide a male and female child between 14 and 18 years of age to compete in a battle to the death, with only one survivor. Katniss, Peeta and Gale all live in District 12, which is considered the boonies by the people who control the country and run the Hunger Games in The Capitol. Years ago there was an attempted revolution by the Districts against the centralized authority of the Capitol, and to punish the losers (or commemorate the event by the winners) each District serves up two of its youth as "tributes." The sole winner of the Hunger Games receives food and riches for their family for life.

All-in-all, the film adaptation of the movie is a surprisingly loyal one, because The Hunger Games (the book) is a very bloody and violent tale. At its core it's a story about teenagers killing other teenagers while an entire country watches on live television. There are some really sick and depraved aspects of the Panem society and The Capitol in general and the film depicts these unflinchingly. For example, each district has a resource which it provides to the Capitol, and thus is well-known for. District 12 is a source of coal, and the beginning of the film does a reasonable job (though not as effectively as the book, in my mind) of showing just how bleak and deprived the life of District 12 residents is, especially compared to the bountiful and privileged life of people in the Capitol. The first Capitol citizen we see has what appears to the audience a ridiculous amount of makeup and is a shock of color (bright pink in hair, makeup and clothing) among the drab greys and monochromes of District 12. The art direction, makeup, costume design and production design of the film demonstrate how the cinematic medium can enhance the written word.

I feel that the movie The Hunger Games tells the basic story of what happened in the book The Hunger Games without also effectively capturing the aspects of the books which vault it from basic young-adult fiction into something more interesting and subversive. One, the books are very political (and become moreso as the series continues) and by not addressing specifically what the geographical and temporal setting for the books is, force the reader to think about the differences between our country and Panem and make unsettling comparisons and conclusions. Second, by basically choosing to avoid depictions of most of the violence (we start with 24 teenagers so there are at least a score of deaths to be shown) the film minimizes the horror of these deaths, which are an inescapable part of the original text. Third (and this is probably the most important defect the film has over the movie), the film does a surprisingly bad job of communicating various aspects of the internal motivations and the intensity of the emotions of several of the main characters. I understand that a film can not communicate as much information and nuance as a book, but isn't a picture worth a thousand words? I think that a more skilled director would have been able to more strongly communicate the emotional turmoil of Katniss, Peeta and Gale's complex relationships to the audience.

That being said, the film is a successful adaptation of a well-written and emotionally engaging young-adult novel which captured the imagination and interest of many adults. It will be interesting to see if the subsequent films will be as successful, as the books become even more intense and more political, but also less emotionally engaging as the story evolves beyond Katniss to be more about the people she loves and the country in which she lives.

Title: The Hunger Games.
Director: Gary Ross.
Running Time: 2 hours, 22 minutes.
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images--all involving teens.
Release Date: March 23, 2012.
Viewing Date: April 15, 2012.

Plot: A.
Acting: A-.
Visuals: A-.
Impact: B+.

Overall Grade: A- (3.67/4.0).

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