REVIEW: The Hunger Games

23 03 2012

From the very beginning of “The Hunger Games,” it is very clear that this literary adaptation has in common with “Harry Potter” only the hype surrounding their release.  While Rowling and an army of talented directors transported us to a universe accessible only in our wildest imaginations, writer/director Gary Ross shows no such inclinations in bringing Suzanne Collins’ best-seller to the big screen.  As her novel is meant to hold a mirror up to our own reality-TV saturated culture, he plants the film in an America just a little bit of social upheaval removed from our current one.

He has no interest in sweeping formalist cinematography that basks in the beauty of castles and countryside.  Ross’ style adheres more closely to the films of Danny Boyle with a kinetic desire propelling every shot; watching the struggles in the wilderness harkens more to Aron Ralston’s fight against nature in “127 Hours” than it does to anything in the Forbidden Forest.  The editing is more deliberate, too, lingering on the actors to communicate internal monologues with their eyes rather than conveying that the editor forgot to take their Ritalin.

Of course, not everything in the film looks as gritty as District 12 and as unyielding as the Arena.  The Capitol, where the rich and the elites bask, is embellished to the maximum for an especially emphasized contrast.  The men and women look like they walked out of Hunter S. Thompson’s acid trip, and their lavish makeup and attire are nothing short of ridiculous.  (So don’t be surprised if “The Hunger Games” takes home a technical Oscar or two next February.)

All of this makes Panem, a strange society born from the ashes of an America that tore itself apart, a fascinating place to build a story of triumph over the odds.  16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, volunteers to participate in the Hunger Games in place of her younger sister.  The Games require the competitive edge of an Olympic athlete in addition to the cut-throat inclinations of a Real Housewife of Beverly Hills, and it gets worse for Katniss as class bias is institutionalized in the rigid caste society of Panem.

Given the nature of the movie, there was really no one else to play Katniss but Jennifer Lawrence, and she’s just as responsible as Ross’ filmmaking for achieving the realism of “The Hunger Games.”  Once she enters the Arena and the games begin, she doesn’t get to talk much.  Katniss was the narrator of Collins’ novel, so the reader was always attuned to her thoughts.  Here, all that thought has to be internalized, and there’s not a moment when Lawrence isn’t making those emotions evident.  It’s a performance that gets to be a little bit flashier than “Winter’s Bone,” which netted her an Oscar nomination and likely this role, and she proves herself once again when no proof was required.

Speaking of reality, it’s a tough task adapting any text that has been voraciously devoured by millions of readers and unrealistic to expect a carbon copy.  All things considered, Ross, who wrote the screenplay with Collins, did a reasonably good job capturing the essence of the novel.  Their visualization of Panem was a really neat experience, and the gentle excoriation of television’s hegemonic power over a nation was kept largely in tact.  The overtones of fascism were much more pronounced, however, with the portrayal of monolithic guards, propagandistic government publications, and a Reaping scene with such a muted color palette that it felt ripped out a Holocaust film.

But the spirit doesn’t necessarily make up for some of the fine print being a tad askew.  The male characters feel particularly underdeveloped, making the in-game romance between Katniss and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), her fellow competitor, a little less convincing.  All things considered, they really could have played up a “Twilight”-style love triangle a lot harder, and thank goodness they didn’t.  Yet it’s just ever so slightly off, and who knows how that will affect the later installments in the series.

The time devoted to the ending of the movie is disappointing as well.  The expository portions of “The Hunger Games” that lead up to the main event are brilliantly captured, paced nicely to introduce Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) in all of their eccentric and colorful glory.  Yet when it comes time to end the movie, Ross rushes through the climactic events when they could have been drawn out for more meaning and power.  Nonetheless, given the colossal task of visualizing a wildly popular story, finding the humanity in it, and making it acceptable to fans as well as outsiders, Gary Ross deserves a large pat on the back for doing this well.  B+

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One response

11 04 2012
The Cinemaniac

I’m always glad to find critics on WordPress, but it’s quite rare that I find one as good as you are. I love your blog, and I agree completely with your assessment of this film. I use a letter grading scale as well, and I gave it a slightly higher grader; here’s my review if you want to check it out:
http://themoviefreakblog.wordpress.com/review-the-hunger-games

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