Friday, March 23, 2012

Review (and Spoiler Alert) for “The Hunger Games”

For those of you who haven’t read the numerous reviews of the new blockbuster movie “The Hunger Games” by professional film critics -- and even for those of you who have – here’s the word from the street.

My kids and I are big fans of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy and had been itching for this movie to be made since reading the book three years ago. Let’s just say after following the entire production process from financing to hiring the director to casting to filming, I was quite excited to obtain passes to a screening from my friend Marci, founder of the movie club and website Cinemoms. So my two older sons (and a friend) and I headed off to stand in line for an hour with a few hundred other rabid fans, anxious we’d be turned away due to possible overbooking by the promoters. Thankfully, it was a large theatre and much of the press didn’t show up for their reserved seats.

So, how was the movie? Was it true to the book? Did the actors live up to the strength of their characters? Was it too Hollywood? Did it leave all the good parts on the cutting room floor? Was Jennifer Lawrence able to carry the entire film and truly embody Katniss Everdeen? Could the producers and director effectively make the leap from page to screen?

My simple answer, from only one viewing – and I plan to see it again – is, it was good…good enough to see a second time in the theatre. Not without flaws but at least they didn’t bring the story down. I was surprised at how well the actors fit their roles – the only real disappointments for me were 1) how short Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark) was, and 2) the cast from the poor districts looked too well-fed and not miserable enough. Oh well, it’s a long shot to starve the actors for real.
For the two or three of you left in this country who still aren’t familiar with the plot, here’s a quick summary: North America is now a post-apocalyptic nation called Panem with a ruling, prosperous Capitol surrounded by 12 impoverished districts that serve it. In their past, rebels tried to overthrow the government and were subdued. In order to quell any future rebellions, the leaders have created a brutal annual tradition as a grim reminder of who's in charge. The Hunger Games is a competitive, televised event, a gladiator-style fight-to-the-death between teenagers, or “tributes”, who are randomly chosen in a Reaping. There is only one winner. It’s basically a combination of ancient Rome’s throwing Christians to the lions and “Survivor”. And an incredible commentary on totalitarianism and Reality TV.

The film opens with a brief scene introducing the heroine Katniss and her fragile little sister Prim, showing the audience their tender relationship. Jennifer Lawrence “takes the stage” from the start, showing her spunky, gritty personality (much like her rough-around-the-edges character in “Winter’s Bone”). For a 20-year old actress, Lawrence believably played a youthful yet vigilant 16-year old. When she goes to hunt outside the electric fence boundary in the open woods of the Appalachians, we get a glimpse of District 12, shot in the mountains of western North Carolina. It looked like a Walker Evans photograph from the Depression. Snappy shots of world-weary people on porches of their dilapidated homes in drab-colored clothing, quickly and wordlessly illustrate the backdrop of Katniss’ dingy coal-mining village.

Gale, her hunting buddy, played by hunky Australian actor Liam Hemsworth, playfully interrupts her (to muffled squeals of young female audience members) and we immediately see their bond as fellow food providers living on the edge. Hemsworth totally looks the part though his character isn’t well developed in this movie. Gale’s growing rebelliousness and desire to escape soon become apparent. By the Reaping scene, the energy drawn from his long-suppressed anger emerges as he channels it into advising Katniss.

We meet Peeta (even more screeches), the baker’s son, at the Reaping and straight away we see his innocence and sweetness. Josh Hutcherson has the perfect personality for Peeta – though a little short, he’s good-natured, likeable, earnest, tough yet tender.

Effie Trinket (Katniss' "handler" from the Capitol) is fabulously and irritatingly played by Elizabeth Banks. Her giddy but intense character, outrageously dressed, gives the first real insight into the shocking disparity between the lifestyles of the Capitol and that of the districts. It’s basically Tim Burton-esque, garish, surreal decadence vs. 1930’s-like browbeaten masses. Retro and futuristic all in one weird world.

Woody Harrelson, whom I couldn’t have imagined playing Haymitch Abernathy, the only District 12 winner and mentor of all tributes from his area, was surprisingly engaging. The book portrayed him as a raving drunk, perpetually soaked not only with liquor but with winner guilt, grief, and cynicism. The film highlights only the latter but also shows both his frustration with and mounting investment in Katniss and her unexpected success despite her defiance toward the Game Makers. He develops as an ally, though not a warm and cuddly one.

Donald Sutherland was not who I imagined in the role of the insidious President Snow (I pictured the bent, scrawny, oily Mr. Burns from “the Simpsons” rather than the bearded, filled-out Sutherland). The film doesn’t explain what the book does about Snow being sickly from drinking small amounts of poison to divert suspicion from his method of eliminating his enemies. Anyhow, over the course of the movie, Sutherland’s face reveals his menacing, evil persona, making him increasingly scarier.

As the tributes prepare, we all too quickly catch sight of who Katniss is up against, some more gentle (Rue) and other “Careers”, those who’ve trained all their lives for the Games, more vicious (Cato, Clove and Glimmer). Rue, played by Amandla Stenberg, is just adorable and just right.

The Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane is built up in the film (barely mentioned in the book) but played brilliantly by Wes Bentley with a wickedly shaped beard. He nails the character’s twisted ambition to create the coolest chess game, despite human collateral damage. He appears without much explanation in the very beginning, interviewed by Caesar Flickerman (the wonderful Stanley Tucci), host of the Games.

Lenny Kravitz was a perfect Cinna, Katniss’ Games stylist. Everything about him felt right – cool and soothing, handsomely stylish but not gaudy. Though a Capitol resident who works for the games, one senses early on that he’s an ally and not entirely “one of them”. Katniss clearly feels safe with him. And no, it’s not clear what his sexual orientation is though fans have concluded from the book that he’s gay – it’s not even relevant.

The fight scenes in the wooded arena? Unfortunately, between our close-up seats and the super fast, uneven handheld camera techniques, many of the action scenes became a blur. One film critic on, called it “frustratingly claustrophobic”. That cinematic method however contributed to the nightmarish sense of chaos and felt less like typical Hollywood stylized fight scenes and more like primal survivalism.

I suppose due to the time limitations, some scenes had to be raced through, like the total body makeovers to prep for the pre-Games presentation.

I didn’t totally feel a chemistry between Katniss and Peeta though I’m hopeful for a better one in the sequel “Catching Fire”.  They work well together strategizing to stay alive.
To whet your appetite --
Cool scenes:
  • The Reaping – very reminiscent of Nazi Germany when people were rounded up for concentration camps
  • Tribute training
  • Images of the Capitol – terribly futuristic, grotesque costume
  • The wall of fire – very effective
  • Katniss blowing up the supply pile
  • The Tracker Jacker swarm --  genetically engineered bees in the arena
  • Awesome scenes of the Gamemakers at work with their virtual roundtable, creating digitized realities (reminded me of “Minority Report”)

For the purist, here is a spoiler alert to emotionally prepare you for --
Significant deletions or alterations:
  • Not enough time spent in District 12
  • No drunken entry for Haymitch during the Reaping
  • Mockingjay pin wasn’t given by the Mayor’s daughter; it ended up being found in the Hob
  • No explanation of the Avox servants (the mutes whose tongues were cut out as punishment)
  • Underplayed poverty and suffering even in the arena
  • The wolf-like mutts didn’t’ have the eyes of the dead tributes
  • Didn’t see the hover craft retrieving the dead tributes
  • Peeta’s leg injury and resulting prosthetic leg was left out
  • No post-games makeover or body enhancements

Overall, I think Director Gary Ross did a good job with this film especially since they apparently didn’t have an enormous budget. Screenwriters and directors will always take creative license to make alterations and not only to truncate storylines to fit show time limitations but to make their mark. This however was a reasonably made film, changes and all. The screenplay was infinitely truer to the book, thanks to having Suzanne Collins co-write it, than “Twilight” screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg who butchered Stephenie Myers’ work.

I think the book’s themes of power, totalitarianism, perseverance, suffering, excess, and good trumping evil were illustrated nicely. It’s definitely and edge-of-your-seat kind of flick. And of course, the final scene with President Snow’s angry, vengeful face and turning to walk away as the screen blacks out lets us know… it ain’t over. Stay tuned for the sequel in November 2013. But go see "The Hunger Games" now!


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