In the future you get to shoot a Kardashian in the face: “The Hunger Games”

March 26, 2012

The best example of why the The Hunger Games works came in the juxtaposition of two scenes. The first was a teaser trailer for this fall’s Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part Two, when a newly-vampirized Bella Swan casts her red-eyed gaze on a grazing doe as ominous music swells. Eeek! The trailer squeals, will Bella actually eat that poor deer? Has she become a monster? Five minutes later, in one of the first scenes of The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen stalks a similar-looking deer (probably the same one…a stunt deer, no doubt) , and the movie makes no bones about the fact she wants to kill this deer to feed her family, and sell to her starving neighbors. One of these two films has genuine stakes attached to its storyline beyond, “is our heroine going to do something grody.” The stakes that this film, and by extension, the rest of the series, is nothing less than life and freedom. And if there’s one thing our preteens need to learn, it’s that at any moment the State might make them kill and die for all our amusement, right? Right? Okay, well, anyway…

So here we have another mega-anticipated presumptive blockbuster based upon a wildly-popular series of YA novels. Yeah, we’ve been to this well before, but it’s new to me, because I’ve actually read these books. I’ll get this out of the way right now: I thought the movie was fantastic. It’s not perfect, and I’m not sure how it plays to the uninitiated, but as a fan of the books (even the controversial final one), I think director Gary Ross and his co-screenwriters (including Suzanne Collins adapting her own book) did a great job of bringing the story to the screen. More importantly, Jennifer Lawrence manages to fully realize Katniss, and not simply portray her. And that’s half the battle right there.

Pictured: 80% of the movie's success...

So, the story, in case you’re not up to speed, takes place in a future dystopian nation-state called Panem (as in panem et circenses) which consists of an ultra-modern capital city flanked by poorer districts which provide the capital with its necessary supplies, and which the capital rules with an iron fist. Every year, the districts are forced to offer up a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in the Hunger Games, a battle to death in a simulated environment, which is broadcast live to the entire population. Yeah, there’s more to it than that, but if you really need to know, just read the Wikipedia entry here—I’m not gonna recount the whole thing.

Okay, we’re all up to speed now? Good. Collins has crafted an ambitious allegory about the intersection of violence and the media, as well as the inherently dehumanizing effects of reality television and the way it simplifies the complexity of our world in order to craft an easy narrative to sell us. Later books expand upon this theme to demonstrate how narrative can tip over the line into propaganda. This is heady stuff, but urgent stuff—particularly, when you consider that Collins got the idea for the books when she was channel surfing between an episode of American Idol and footage of the war in Iraq. Amazingly, much of this freight gets unpacked in the film.

Ross takes his time, and doesn’t skimp too much on the first two-thirds of the story before we ever get to the gladiatorial combat. He follows Katniss and her co-tribute Peeta from their impoverished coal-mining district to fabulous wealth and decadence of the capital (brilliantly rendered in makeup and costuming to look like Marie Antoinette’s court after dropping a fuck-ton of acid). Likewise, he puts genuine work into showing Katniss and Peeta navigating the alien world of the Games’ PR apparatus, wherein they must unique create characters to sell to sponsors who will pay to send them tools and medicine inside the game.

Does Elizabeth's Banks' vanity know no bounds?

And here we have to acknowledge the career-making performance by Lawrence. Okay, she did a great job in Winter’s Bone, but seemed subdued and was easily pushed to the margins of X-Men: First Class. Here, she’s front-and-center again, and if she was anything less than amazing the film wouldn’t work. Fortunately, Lawrence does masterful work here, communicating Katniss’s inner turmoil without any big speeches or vanity scenes. Lawrence isn’t a movie star in any of her scenes, but a consummate actress. I can’t imagine any other actress of her generation being able to pull off the sheer terror she feels before stepping into the game (Lawrence trembles bodily and has to struggle simply to move). She brings to life the smart, resourceful Katniss of the books who can hunt and track and survive in the wild, but is awkward and uncomfortable playing to the cameras. Watching her navigate those shoals and invent herself as “The Girl on Fire” is as satisfying as seeing her skewer some dude with an arrow.

Lawrence is backed by a solid supporting cast. As her handler, the facile and oblivious Effie Trinket, Elizabeth Banks (a co-producer of the film) manages the tricky task of being a symbol of the capital’s veniality, and yet strangely sympathetic. Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, Haymitch, is ably portrayed by Woody Harrelson, though he’s given criminal short-shrift. Additionally, we get a flamboyant Stanly Tucci as MC of the games (a sort of dystopian Ryan Seacrest, if you will), and as the game’s architect Seneca, Wes Bently rocks the coolest beard I’ve ever seen. No seriously, I want that beard.

This is the beard of the future...

On wobblier ground are Katniss’s two love-interests. Her childhood friend and potential boyfriend-in-waiting, Gail is played by a towering slab of man-candy (Liam Hemsworth, Thor‘s brother), but he gets sidelined before he has a chance to make much of an impression, and she spends the rest of the film playing opposite Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). It makes for an interesting pairing since Hutcherson is at least a good three inches shorter than Lawrence is. still, Hutcherson manages to sell the character as physically unimposing, but wily and adept at winning over the crowds. His motives are never quite as suspect as they should be, but the movie moves so breathlessly that isn’t a huge problem.

If you had to bet on one of these three...

Ross is a solid director, not great, but serviceable. That said, he does a good job with the arena portion of the film, and manages to thread the needle of maintaining the novel’s violence, while portraying it in such a way to maintain the PG-13 rating. Despite the comparative lack of blood, there were audible gasps from my audience at many of the killings. More importantly, he never allows the audience to feel satisfaction at the death of Katniss’s enemies, instead short-circuiting that impulse by showing the horrific aftermath.

Okay, so what didn’t work? I’m not going to dwell on how much more detailed the novel’s world is, since that’s just a given with nearly every film adaptation. But there are a few things independent of that which the film could have done better. Harrelson’s Haymitch, for example, isn’t as fleshed out as he should be. He’s just a cantankerous enigma, and I had to remind myself that this was a guy who did horrible things to survive the arena, only to be rewarded by having to spend the next 25 years mentoring young men and women that were surely to die. And the ultimate evil, President Snow, Donald Sutherland just doesn’t project the necessary menace and malevolence. Sure, Sutherland can be horrifying, but mostly when he’s naked, such as in Don’t Look Now (my brain shudders when I think of that movie). I’d’ve preferred to see Terrence Stamp in the role. I mean, does anyone doubt Stamp would have teenagers fight to death for his amusement? Does anyone know that he doesn’t?

If the ball lands in old man Stamp's backyard, just write it off...

Those quibbles aside, Ross and Collins have crafted a great adaptation of the novel. It delivers the goods without diluting the themes and characters that made the books so popular in the first place. The Twilight films did little more than expose the dross empty-headedness of the novels, and the Harry Potter films were mostly just in-jokes for readers of the books until the final movies. With The Hunger Games we finally have a film that can stand alongside the novels and teach tweens and teens for generations to come that if they watch too much Jersey Shore, they’ll end up having to kill their friends in gladiatorial combat. And isn’t that a lesson worth learning?

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