Friday, February 22, 2013

The Hunger Games

There was so much hype flying around regarding the release of the feature film adaptation of The Hunger Games that is was almost suffocating toward the end of 2011 and the beginning of 2012. I had never heard of the book or the fact that there was even a following for it since I haven’t been targeted for the teen reader demographic for about 20 years. Once I heard that the movie was based on a young adult novel I completely lost interest because the first thing that came to mind was Twilight, and I will not give that property one moment of my time. I ignored stories about it on my favorite movie websites, tuned out when I heard conversations about it amongst friends and avoided looking at the novels whenever at book stores.

But then something funny happened. I was perusing the local Half Price Books and I overheard two employees who were stocking shelves in the next row talking about the newest novels they’d read. One said, and I quote “Some of the most fucked up shit I’ve ever read happens in that book.” I was immediately interested in whatever book they were talking about. The other responded simply with “The next time someone turns in a copy of The Hunger Games put it aside for me.” I was genuinely taken aback since I had known nothing about the novel. Within the next week I had all three books in the series in my possession… and they were awesome (including Mockingjay).
The story takes place in a future where a civil war has left the United States, now called Panem, divided into twelve districts. Each district is filled to capacity with the destitute and poor who work non-stop to provide amenities for the wealthy and decadent occupants of The Capital. In order to quell another possible insurrection The Capital hosts an annual event called “The Hunger Games” in which a young boy and girl from each district are thrown into an arena to fight to the death until one is left standing. When the young sister of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenager from District 12, is chosen to participate in the games she steps in and offers to be tribute instead. She now must fight for her life.

When the movie was released I was ready. I had just finished reading the first book the night before I saw it and my hype level was at DefCon 1. I was not disappointed. The movie was just as I envisioned it in my mind. The casting was perfect, the set design and costumes were spot on and the in-your-face filming style worked wonders to pull you into the world of Panem. Director Gary Ross came out of nowhere (the last film I saw of his was Pleasantville back in the late 90s) and knocked it out of the park in every conceivable way.
Jennifer Lawrence, who was nominated for an Oscar at age 20 for her performance in Winter’s Bone, is a revelation as the lead. Not only does she have the acting chops to take on this complex character but she excels at her action scenes as well. She gives Katniss a nice amount of vulnerability that I didn’t think would come through in a feature adaptation, and some minor issues aside I think she found the defining role of her career.

Josh Hutcherson takes on the equally important role of Peeta with a great deal of enthusiasm, which is a nice contrast to Lawrence’s more internal performance. He pulls off the character’s immense charm from the novel without a hitch and you really get involved in his world view where he doesn’t want to become a product of the system and remain true to himself during all the media hype surrounding the games. There is a minor issue I have with him as well that I will discuss later.
The casting of Woody Harrelson as their mentor Haymitch is not quite what I expected since I envisioned the character as a sort of drunken buffoon and he comes off as more of a hard ass alcoholic. But regardless, he is great as Haymitch and makes him extremely likable.

The rest of the supporting cast, be it Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Stanely Tucci as Caesar Flickerman or even Wes Bentley as Gamemaster Seneca Crane (who really didn’t have a prominent role in the novel), is all pitch perfect.

I have to give props to Lenny Kravitz however. His performance as Cinna is spot on and is probably one of the main highlights of the film for me. He IS that character and I never thought this ex-rocker-turned-actor would be able to take me by surprise the way he did. Kudos sir!
The violence has been toned down in the extreme, but it’s understandable that it would have to be in order to for the teenagers who are the target audience to be able to turn out in droves. The book would definitely have an “R” rating, but this needed to be “PG-13” to be successful. We do get to see just enough of all the messed up stuff going on during the games to drive the point home. It’s still a brutal movie regardless.

My issues, which I mentioned earlier, are how certain events aren’t explored enough to make them believable. The main topic is the relationship between Katniss and Peeta. We do get a feeling for the unspoken love between Katniss and Gale at the start of the film, or at least the fact that they respect each other immensely. Katniss realizes that in order to survive in the games and win the audience’s admiration she needs to appear to be in love with Peeta since earlier in the story he proclaimed his feelings for her publicly. But all we get is one scene where she just spoons him while he’s injured in a cave and that’s it. It doesn’t feel like there was any real thought put into it on her part, just that Haymitch left her a cryptic note about it and the next thing you know she’s throwing googly eyes his way. There should have been a shot or two of her realizing that there was a camera filming them in the cave, and that she decided to play up to the audience by pretending to love Peeta. Out of all the events that take place in the film it’s this part that irks me the most. I never bought into it at all.
I’m not comparing the movie to the book at all since I’ve always felt that they are two different mediums and things that work wonders on the page don’t always come off the same way on the screen and vice versa. I’m just saying as an audience member that in the movie certain plot points aren’t given enough time to breathe. The pacing is so swift that events that should be explored are glossed over to keep the story moving forward and the runtime below 2 ½ hours.

Outside of that this is a fantastically adapted film that definitely captures the spirit of the novel on which it’s based. Technically it’s a marvel. It looks amazing, sounds even better (the score is pretty rad), features crazy action (that firestorm scene is nuts) and the casting is almost perfect. A few tiny glitches aside it’s one of my favorite films of 2012.

Bring on the next chapter, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire!!!

4.5 out of 5

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