Mar 26, 2012

[Movies] The Hunger Games (2012)

I've often made reference to what I call the "post Harry Potter era" of movies, where successful young adult novels are fated to become the next big Hollywood blockbuster. Some folks hit it big with classics like The Chronicles of Narnia while others don't manage to get past the "pilot" movie like The Seeker: The Dark is Rising or The Spiderwick Chronicles. The point is studios are constantly on the look-out for the next big hit that will take advantage of the youth market in a cross-media marketing bonanza that is bound to make some executives very, very happy.

Thus at the same time it feels like there are so many authors who have begun to write with movies in mind instead of just focusing on the content. I won't name names just yet, but there are definitely a number of cases where you know the author is trying to create his or her own cash cow instead of just creating a fun adventure to follow along with.

Now I first feared that The Hunger Games books would be something along those lines given how quickly they became popular. I'll admit that the book snob in me avoided the hype initially, but in time I had to pay attention to the fact that the movies were receiving critical acclaim and thus perhaps there was more to it than that. And given how much I enjoyed the books, I was pretty concerned about the quality of the inevitable movie adaptation.

No matter how good the book is, it is always possible to come up with a completely lame movie based on it. Sad fact of life these days.

The Hunger Games is the 2012 science fiction action-drama movie based on the popular books of the same name by Suzanne Collins. The movie was directed by Gary Ross, who previously directed movies scuh as Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Ross also co-wrote the screenplay together with Collins and Billy Ray.

In some dystopian version of the future, the nation of Panem is divided into 13 districts that supply all resources for the ruling government in the Capitol. A previous uprising by the districts led to the Capitol punishing them and ruling that every year 2 tributes would be offered for what would be known as The Hunger Games, a brutal fight to the death with only one victor. As much as the victor would be rewarded with food and better shelter for life, it still meant that the Districts would have to sacrifice their children as a reminder of their crimes.

Katniss Everdeen
Katniss Everdeen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
And for this 74th Hunger Games, we meet Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of District 12. She is quite the strong young woman who goes on illegal hunts with her friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) beyond the district's fences in order to support her mother (Paula Malcomson) and her younger sister Prim (Willow Shields). Now that Prim is 12, she is now eligible for the lottery to select the District's tributes. And despite the odds being in her favor, Prim's name gets called, thus forcing Katnisss to volunteer as tribute in her place. For her companion, the baker's son Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) is chosen and thus the two must face the reality that at least  one if not both of them may not return to their families alive.

The movie is still a tad long at 142 minutes, but they still manage to capture a lot of the original story despite some seemingly generous cuts in terms of other details, background sequences and of course a heck of a lot of internal monologue for Katniss. And I'm glad they decided not to go with sticking to her perspective of the story alone since that would feel too much like the David Lynch version of Dune back in the 80's when every character had so much thought-dialog, to the point it was all getting rather silly.

Jennifer Lawrence made for a great Katniss, I'll have to admit. She still maintained how strong and resilient a character she was in the book. At the same time, she also made Katniss a little more likable since  the book version of the character was a lot more cynical and manipulative in order to get her own way in things. That was always a concern of mine in terms of this movie adaptation and I can respect the decision to soften her a bit in order to make her more appealing to a larger movie audience.

For the most part, casting for this movie was pretty spectacular. I particularly appreciated Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket (even though it wasn't clear in the movie who she was) since she really matched how the character was in the books including how silly she seemed. And you have surprise wins like Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, who I was totally expecting to be bad but turned out rather good. And yes, I can respect Josh Hutcherson as Peeta - he did fit the role rather well in terms of the silent intensity backing a distinct love and longing for Katniss. Liam Hemsworth wasn't too bad as Gale either, although most of his screen time was devoted to how well he could stare from a distance, which probably doesn't demonstrate his full range.

The narrative flow for the movie was generally great - they managed to keep most of the core story alive including the build up to the games themselves without it getting bogged down by too many details. Although they did sacrifice a lot of the chances to show just how bad the Districts had it in terms of food and resources - you know, the whole hunger aspect to things. But I did appreciate the additional scenes depicting the reality TV style command center for Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and even the behind-the-scenes negotiations that go on during the games themselves.

I do have concerns with the camera work and the overall technical approach to things. A lot of the shots tend to go crazy with cuts upon cuts upon cuts within a single scene. We were looking for longer shots that tell more of the story as an observer and help establish more tension and drama. And it gets even worse during the action sequences, since clearly the director was trying to keep the violence as quick and hard to understand as possible in order to salvage a PG13 rating from the whole thing.

Otherwise, The Hunger Games is a fine example of how a movie adaptation should go. It demonstrated a healthy respect for the source material but also understood that movies are a completely different medium that require tasteful reinterpretation of scenes and tweaks to the narrative. Thus the movie gets 4.5 non-mutant hounds out of a possible 5.

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