Starving For Attention: Let The ‘Games’ Begin!

Event movies are rare these days. Most films that studios would have you believe are “events” are anything but — sheep in wolves’ clothing. They hardly give us a reason to go to the theater at all, let alone line up opening night.

The Hunger Games, however, is an event. Certainly 2012’s first, and unless you count the final installment of Harry Potter —which, by the eighth film in the franchise, held very little surprise for its audience, since we all knew exactly what to expect — it is the first true Event Movie to come along since… oh, Inception, maybe? Avatar? (As a rule, I don’t think straight-off sequels really count as Events, unless there’s something truly novel about them — a la The Dark Knight with the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. In addition to drawing crowds, an Event Movie needs to have a palpable excitement surrounding it, an expectation on the audience’s part for the film to deliver, have an impact. The Transformer movies may be huge, but no one expects or even desires much from them. They play, minds shut off, and eyes glaze over.)

Not the case with The Hunger Games.

Based on the massively popular YA books, the series has now transcended any pretense of being “young adult” since so many actual adults have read them. Harry Potter never quite escaped its roots as a children’s book in the public eye — it is about a boy wizard, after all — and the Twilight books were deemed acceptable only for teen girls and dopey women who think like them. But thanks to its stark violence and the competence of its overall conceit, The Hunger Games needn’t really be viewed through that prism. As a sci-fi parable, it’s as valid a vision of the future as 1984 or A Clockwork Orange. Will it become such a classic? We’ll see.

Suzanne Collins’ novel is deceptively thoughtful, giving us ample food for thought but not necessarily instructing us to do that thinking. This jaunt through the thirteen districts of Panem can be as meaningful or as hollow as you like, based on how carefully you choose to read between the lines; it has the capability to be viewed as nothing more than a slick piece of entertainment, and it is certainly that. But there is a richer subtext to be drawn out, too, amidst its crafty simplicity. I’m not claiming its messages are anything groundbreaking, but it has a hell of a lot more on its mind than your average blockbuster, particularly one aimed at teens.

And now, here is the movie.

The Twilight comparisons are inevitable, so forgive me. But my biggest fear when I heard about The Hunger Games movie was that it’d be dumbed down for a “Team Jacob” audience, an army of young women who seem curiously satisfied with wooden acting, corny special effects, and an overall disregard for thinking. (Any thinking at all, really, pokes so many holes in Twilight that the films evaporate before your very eyes — like a vampire when it steps into the sunlight. Oh, wait…) And if that’s good enough for the Twi-Hards, why make The Hunger Games any better?

Well, because it is better — pure and simple. As a story. As a series of books. And, praise the Lord, as a movie.

I won’t waste too much time summarizing the intricate plot, which can be found elsewhere. But for those who don’t know, Katniss Everdeen is a resident of the impoverished District 12 of Panem, which holds the Hunger Games every year — broadcasting a brutal fight-to-the-death of 24 teens on TV until one lone victor remains. When her sister is chosen as this year’s female tribute, Katniss volunteers in her place, joining the baker Peeta, who once showed her an act of mercy and has been harboring a crush on her ever since. The two are briefly trained, then left in a forest-like “arena” to fend for themselves while the world watches. The film, directed by Pleasantville‘s Gary Ross, is predictably faithful to the book, as such adaptations of massively popular young adult novels tend to be. (Whatever you do, don’t upset the fans!) Any discrepancies between them are superficial. Unless you’re a real stickler for every word of Collins’ prose, nothing will be missed.

But the book and movie have curiously different strengths and weaknesses. One minor criticism I might lodge at the first novel is that the reality TV angle seems almost incidental. It may be necessary for many elements of the plot to make sense — and for the parable to work as well as it does as a commentary upon modern times — but there was always a slight disconnect between the no-frills dystopia of the Districts and the idea of a bloodthirsty audience of privileged folk watching the tributes’ every move on TV. In the books, Panem feels rather low-tech compared to sci-fi societies in other works. It didn’t really feel like there were cameras present in the arena. With a few tweaks, the whole TV angle could be eliminated and the games might be a mere fight to the death in an arena, unsupervised and untelevised. We, the readers, had a hard time grasping, who, precisely, the audience was. Who, exactly, was watching. The depictions of characters from the Capitol were always a bit thinly sketched.

The film, however, expands our time spent with characters from the Capitol, and it’s one of the highlights — we get an array of colorful extras comprising its citizens. Everyone in the audience looks like Lady Gaga or Nicki Minaj. This is one of the perks of cinema, allowing visuals to impart information in a single frame that might take hundreds of words to convey in writing. Key to the first half of this film’s success, Stanley Tucci takes a role that, in the  book, was more or less unmemorable and makes it integral to this story, the glue between the savage games and their gaudy, spoiled observers. As TV personality Caesar Flickerman, he’s our window into how all this agony and carnage is repackaged into entertainment, and it echoes what we’ve actually seen on our own TV screens — real-life meltdowns edited, scored, and advertised for our viewing pleasure. Here, and not so much in the book, the Hunger Games feel like a pretty close cousin to The Real Housewives and American Idol and Survivor. And dammit, they look pretty compelling. If such a thing really was on TV, do you think it’d possible to not watch? Here the film is at its savviest.As social commentary, the movie is perhaps even more successful than the book at feeling so very relevant, so very now. It jumps right into the story, depicting District 12 as a bleak, desaturated place where everyone is on edge always, speaking hurriedly and quietly. Gary Ross evokes a Paul Greengrass/Alfonso Cuaron style of filmmaking (rapid cuts, handheld camera), adeptly conveying an unsettling sense of urgency. The mood is nothing if not tense; right away, we understand he’s not doing any Twilight-style fucking around for the sake of an insipid audience. These early scenes are actually where Ross shines most — in contrast to the book, which is most gripping once the games begin.

The script effectively sets up all the information we’ll need in a proportionally-prolonged training sequence. Katniss becomes the “Girl on Fire” (which unfortunately doesn’t look quite as awesome as it was described by Collins); the scene in which she fires an arrow at her sponsors is a delightful doozy. (Any future Oscar campaigns for this film should pull the photo of Katniss’ sour curtsy with the text “Thank You For Your Consideration.”) Woody Harrelson provides some welcome comic relief as Haymitch, and ditto Elizabeth Banks as Effie. Lenny Kravitz’s Cinna is warm but mostly unnecessary; Wes Bentley and Donald Sutherland as Seneca Crane and President Snow, respectively, are given beefed-up roles with scenes not found in the book, including one terrific scene with Snow explaining why they allow a single survivor — the power of hope. But overall, it’s a problem.

In the novel, we were stuck with Katniss, experiencing the games as she did. She explained a good number of rules to us as they happened — gifts from sponsors, the ways Crane and company manipulate the arena to make the games more interesting (such as shooting fireballs at Katniss). We also were witness to her keen strategizing. By contrast, the movie finds it necessary to keep cutting away from the arena to explain how and why it’s all happening, making the actual games less immersive. Do we need all these glimpses behind the scenes? I don’t think so. It’s that timeless Hitchcockian rule — the shark in Jaws — that the unknown is more frightening than what is depicted. The Hunger Games doesn’t allow us to wonder or guess what’s happening enough. Too often, it just tells us.

Perhaps Ross and company needed a device to explain a few of the trickier plot elements to moviegoers unfamiliar with the books — but did he really? I can’t help but feel most of these added cutaways from the arena are a mistake, eating up valuable screen time that would have been better spent stranded in the woods with our diminishing number of contenders. While nearly every event in the novel is also present in the film, it feels like a few episodes get short shrift — the alliance with Rue, the time spent with Peeta — perhaps unavoidably, given the number of characters who must be axed both literally and figuratively. Still, it seems perhaps a bit of a compromise was made to give screen time to the more established actors, while the mostly unknown teen actors make less of an impression. It feels unbalanced somehow.

Cinna, Effie, President Snow, Caesar, Seneca — they made fine characters in the first book, each serving a purpose. But then they disappeared. The real stars of the Hunger Games were the contestants — some more sympathetic than others, but Collins never let us forget that they were all ultimately just children fighting for their lives. Foxface, Glimmer, Thresh, Clove, Rue, Cato — they stick with you, as brief as most of their appearances are. It’s that time spent in the arena that makes The Hunger Games such a page-turner as we think, well, surely Collins isn’t going to kill off all these characters. Not sweet little Rue, right? There must be a loophole!

The movie doesn’t quite allow enough time for all this dread to sink in, for the one-by-one nature of the killings to have such an impact. One of few true missteps in the movie is the script’s tendency to vilify most of the other players, turning them into sneering, sadistic teen stereotypes — thereby making it “okay” for Katniss to kill them. The whole point of the book is that it wasn’t okay, and each demise had a tremendous underlying sadness. Katniss felt true remorse at what she had to do to survive, and that’s a lot of what made the games portion of the novel so thrilling. Here, unfortunately, it’s where the Hunger Games movie falters. Is this just a necessary evil for any PG-13 film aimed at a reasonably young audience? Maybe.

Is it even possible for a film to build up these characters as efficiently (albeit succinctly) as the novel does? Perhaps not, but the film’s later scenes unfortunately don’t quite have the same intensity and emotional impact as those gripping early ones. The climax, though faithful to the novel, feels somewhat stagey and rushed — like perhaps Ross is sticking a bit too close to the source material without really reimagining it for film. Maybe the ferocious “mutts” of the book — constructed out of the dead bodies of fallen players — would have been too gruesome for a PG-13 film, but the kid-friendly beasties here aren’t so effective. This is the only moment when The Hunger Games really betrays its roots as a story aimed at a young adult audience; where we can feel Ross compromising for a PG-13 rating. It may be asking too much for The Hunger Games to have the heft of, say, Children Of Men, but the story certainly has that kind of potential. Here, many of the more action-packed scenes don’t have quite the finesse you’d hope for — and unlike the book, throughout, Katniss and Peeta’s survival feels a bit too telegraphed.

All these are minor detractions from what is otherwise a pretty excellent book-to-film adaptation, given the circumstances. So let’s talk about what truly does work here — how about the casting? Jennifer Lawrence was a clever choice for the role of Katniss, since she already played (and was Oscar-nominated for) such a similar role in Winter’s Bone. She’s utterly believable in her physical prowess, equal parts frightened girl in over her head and badass action heroine. (Credit Suzanne Collins for writing such a strong young female character in the first place. Did you hear that, Stephenie Meyer?) The chief problem amongst many, many problems with Twilight is that the plot depends on two strapping supernatural lads to fall head over heels for Bella Swan, and yet there’s nothing at all compelling about her. She just stands there and watches everyone fight over her. She’s not driving her own story.

But The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen is a true heroine with an interior life of her own. Like Bella, she’s caught in a love triangle, but that’s not where her character starts and ends. Romance is the last thing on Katniss’ mind — survival is her M.O., and only so she can take care of her less-capable mother and little sister. Katniss is a selfless provider, resourceful and calculating, who only finds herself “in love” as a means of survival, a way to win the Hunger Games. In reading the book, sometimes you wish Katniss might lighten up and have some fun every once in awhile. Shacking up with Peeta isn’t all that bad, is it? Couldn’t she enjoy it a little? But Katniss is no Bella Swan. She doesn’t take pleasure in the opulence that greets her when she volunteers for the Games; the clothes, the television appearances, the makeover. We almost wish she would, so we could, too. But then she wouldn’t be a heroine worth following.

I’m not sure if the film expertly conveys the degree to which Katniss’ romance with Peeta is contrived for the sake of her survival; having read the book, I knew going in. Will the rest of the audience? Here, again, is the problem with seeing too much “behind the curtain”; all that time spent with Seneca Crane and company pulls us out of identifying solely with Katniss. We can’t quite get into her head in those crucial later scenes — we don’t see her mind craftily working out how playing “star-crossed lover” with Peeta might just ensure her a trip home. Katniss’ thoughts are so integral in Collins’ book, and yet, without some kind of tacky voice over, it’s impossible to translate that to film. You can’t fault Jennifer Lawrence, but you do wish the film had found a way to showcase Katniss’ conflicting feelings a bit more. The Hunger Games knows it has a lot of story to tell, and once it gets to the arena, it zooms through it.

On the other hand, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta is this film’s secret weapon, coming across as an even stronger figure than he was in the novel — the true heart of this story. He’s the real deal, perhaps because what he’s playing is so much purer — he truly is smitten with Katniss. (It doesn’t hurt that he can actually act, unlike a certain teen werewolf we might mention.) It makes the series’ “love traingle” all but invisible in this first installment — not only because Gale hardly figures into this movie, but also because he is played by Liam Hemsworth in this franchise’s one casting misstep. Hemsworth sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the other denizens of District 12 — he’s too polished, too pretty, like Hayden Christensen trying to convince us he’s gonna be Darth Vader. He just doesn’t belong here. And maybe, in the sequels, when he’s given more to do, he’ll do it capably — but here, he’s given nothing.

If the film had to do so much cutting away from the arena, I wish it had let us see the games through Gale’s eyes more; these cutaways now have no point of view, but it would have been nice to see Gale watching Katniss on TV obsessively, rooting for the girl he so obviously has a thing for. The moments in which Tucci and Toby Jones comment on the action wouldn’t have felt so blatantly “here’s us explaining things to the people who haven’t read the books!”-ish if viewed through Gale’s eyes, and it would have given him something to do in this movie. As is, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would be on Team Gale. As portrayed by Liam Hemsworth, he’s a total blank.But ultimately, these are minor quibbles with something that could easily have been so watered down and bland. So Twilight. The Hunger Games showcases strong storytelling all around, a teen movie in which neither the teens nor the movie are dumbed down. And it leaves you with something to think about. It’s a film I am eager to revisit now that my expectations carried over from the book are quelled — will it hold up to a second viewing? I think so; I expect it to improve, actually.

And already, my belly rumbles for the next one.

Yum.

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