Wednesday, April 04, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES -- Greatest Movie Ever?

Jennifer Lawrence went brown, not black. If you're going to dye, why not dye it to the correct color?
Okay, okay. Let me clarify right away: I don't actually think The Hunger Games, Lionsgate's hugely successful, more or less faithful adaptation of Suzanne Collins' young adult sci-fi bestseller, is the greatest movie ever made. That honor, of course, goes to Monty Python's Life of Brian. But the strangest thing happened as I sat there watching this film: for a brief time, I did actually think Hunger Games was the shizzbombdiggityest film ever. Seriously.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

Going into the movie, I wasn't expecting much. My daughter is a big fan of the book series, and I'd read a few chapters of the first one. I found the writing pretty good, but was not really compelled to keep reading. I'm old enough to realize that The Hunger Games is just a young adult ("YA") version of The Running Man and The Most Dangerous Game. And so, feeling this material was about as fresh as the mini Baby Ruth in the Easter egg I planted under the sofa last year but only just found yesterday morning, I put the book aside. Turns out, however, that those unfamiliar with where the story was lifted from found the material bracing, the heroine, Katniss Everdeen, inspiring, and the post-apocalyptic world of Panem dark, exciting and new.

And so as I watched the movie on opening day with three 12-year-old girls--target audience, yup--I was expecting to enjoy the film perhaps slightly more than a colonoscopy. Sure enough, as The Hunger Games went through its paces, I was not especially interested. The whole premise just seemed, well, stupid. In case you're unfamiliar, in the story, the 12 districts (which are all supposed to be suffering from severe hunger, although there is nary an emaciated person to be found in the entire movie) choose tributes--children from 12-18--to participate in a gruesome, televised fight to the death --bread and circuses, without the bread. Problem here is, there is a BIG difference between a 12 year old and an 18 year old. 12 year olds are kids; 18 year olds are grown-ups. Having them compete on the same battlefield makes zero sense. Nor does the hyper-gory nature of the competition. WHY kids? Well, to  appeal to the YA audience, of course. But in reality, does it make any sense? Of course not. And this is underlined by exactly what happens in the movie--when a young girl who touched the audience (Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg) dies in the competition, riots begin. Yeah, you know, in the 70-some-odd years they've been doing these games, I'm sure this has NEVER happened before. No one ever got upset over the killing of one of the contestants and went ballistic. No parents ever organized or tried to stop the madness. It's idiotic. What fascist state would ever persecute the ones most likely to engage the public's emotions, to potentially ignite rebellion? Far more likely: adults would be chosen for these games, not kids, and most likely they'd be prisoners or outcasts or enemies of the state... oh, wait, that's Running Man again.

Katniss and Rue
But wait, I said Greatest Movie Ever! I haven't said much positive yet. Here's the thing: the filmmakers did one thing very, very right. Midway into the movie, they focused on the battlefield relationship between Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Rue. This accomplished several things: firstly, it made Katniss super-empathetic. Rue became her charge, Katniss the mother/protector. This, coupled with Katniss never killing the other competitors offensively--only defensively--made her someone to root for, a good person worth our emotional investment. It's like Ripley once she took Newt under her wing in Aliens. We all liked the character to begin with, but having to protect a young one brings out that maternal instinct that we can all relate to (yes, even dads who begrudgingly take their daughters to YA movies.)

Secondly, these scenes break up the more or less uninspired woods stalking/fight scenes. Let's face it, how interesting is it to hunt people in the woods for two-thirds of a major release? It all feels pretty stale, and the few token attempts to enliven the action by showing that the woods are actually like the Enterprise-D holodeck, and the gameskeepers can create new weather and creatures at any time, are pretty much a fail. But because Katniss bonds with Rue, we lock in and we care, too, and we don't stop to think that much about the lack of creativity in envisioning these sequences and indeed the very premise.

Lastly... they killed Rue. (I said spoilers!) This can't help but move us, and it injects the movie with some much-needed heart at just the right time. To ice the cake, Director Gary Ross wisely cut to scenes of Rue's grieving dad igniting the protests, and then the riots spreading (which according to my daughter did not happen in the book,) all of which tap into our own visceral, "Yeah! Get those bastards!" feelings. And thus, for a fleeting time there watching the movie, I actually thought: Wow. This is the greatest movie ever.

Anyway, that went away pretty quick. The ending in particular was a real fizzle. We're hoping that Katniss steps up and becomes the voice, the embodiment, of the new resistance. We're hoping that she uses her status as the winner to make a speech, to motivate and unify people to effect change. We want her to step to the maniacs who instituted this system in the first place, to use her archery and her passion and her chutzpah to do something. Yeah... nope. See, apparently that all happens in book two, so the movie ends on one hell of an anticlimax.

I walked out of the theater thinking this was a good movie -- flawed, but good. Within two hours of thinking about some of these issues and others -- such as why Heymitch (Woody Harrelson) is a drunk in his first scene but then inexplicably stops drinking (motivation?,) where's the hunger (apart from the title,) why--if the battlefield is indeed a hologram--woods at all? Why not a messed-up futuristic Wipeout-style obstacle course, complete with vehicles, armor, explosives, etc.? And of course, the inevitable, why do all the older teens all look to be in their mid twenties? Sigh.

All of that said, kudos should be given to the filmmakers and writers for hewing the adaptation closely to the source material (although my daughter and her friends certainly had quibbles) and more importantly, for a savvy marketing campaign. If you see the film, you'll likely enjoy it. Just try not to think about it too much afterwards. Or during.

--Jim C.


Erik Bauer said...

I had just read the book before seeing the movie, which I think was a mistake -- I kept thinking about the adaptation instead of the movie I was watching. Good casting. Weird camera direction/faux '70s style. Overall, decent flick.

Admin said...

Yeah, the handheld work was at times just BAD. Can't believe they let that go.