Monday, May 7, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012) Review
The Hunger Games

As someone who didn’t get swept up in the hype of reading Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, this film adaptation of “The Hunger Games” was my first introduction to the world of Panem. I didn’t have any preconceived notions of the film living up to expectations, because I honestly didn’t have any. My only thoughts about it before viewing it were: it’s the new big phenomenon that I should see, this could be Jennifer Lawrence’s huge break into the mainstream, and the premise feels very similar to the controversial Japanese novel and film “Battle Royale.”

As punishment for a rebellion, the Capitol of Panem has envisioned an annual ritual called the Hunger Games, where each of the 12 remaining districts that rebelled have to offer up a boy and girl in a fight to the death. The Hunger Games also serve as entertainment for the rich citizens of the Capitol, who can bet on their favored contestant and act as sponsors to help them out in the games.

When Katniss Everdeen’s sister is chosen as the girl representative for District 12, Katniss offers to take her place in the games. Her and Peeta, the boy representative from District 12, get sent off to the Capitol in preparation for the games and are trained by previous District 12 winner Haymitch. During a press interview before the games, Peeta reveals that he has a crush on Katniss, making the games that much more personal for the both of them.

While the basic idea of how the Hunger Games play out is similar to that in “Battle Royale,” the world that Collins wrote around them ensures that this isn’t a flat-out ripoff. The dark political implications going on behind the scenes add substance to what could have been just another kill fest or cheesy love triangle story. The contrast between the gaudy people of the Capitol and the poor, oppressed ones of the districts emphasized the cultural divide between the two and how the luxuries of the Capitol thrive on exploiting the workers in the districts.

There is a definite Big Brother vibe going on with the extent of the Capitol’s control, such as how they are constantly monitoring the progress of the games through thousands of hidden cameras and their ability to alter the trajectory of them for audience satisfaction. The recent influence of reality television in our society is one of Collins’ biggest targets too, and the way that everyone stays glued to their screens watching these children murder each other has a chilling effect.

I was fairly skeptical of director Gary Ross taking the reins on this dark material, considering that the different tone of his earlier works, “Pleasantville” and “Seabiscuit,” wouldn’t indicate that he was the right choice for this. Thankfully, his approach to the story is unique and different than expected, although it is not without some quibbles. I very much liked how Ross chose to shoot the film as if it were an independent property, not a slick blockbuster. His handheld camerawork gives greater intimacy to the characters and grounds the fantastical elements in a relatable, down-to-earth way.

What doesn’t work so well is how he handles the shaky camerawork during the action scenes. Given the huge young adult audience for the film, I expected the film to be contained within the PG-13 rating instead of R, and Ross is occasionally able to convey moments of brutality by obscuring it with his camera framing. At other times, notably in the fights with the vicious Clove and Cato near the end, the choice to go shaky becomes more of an annoyance as the punches become an indistinguishable blur.

The eclectic cast that Ross has assembled here does a magnificent job of elevating the material when the writing and direction don’t always come through spotlessly. My favorites of the supporting cast were Woody Harrelson as the alcoholic and humorous Haymitch and Lenny Kravitz as Katniss’ stylist Cinna. It was a nice surprise to me that Kravitz could hold his own against all the more seasoned actors surrounding him. Josh Hutcherson was great as Peeta too, but the movie belongs to Jennifer Lawrence. Her ability to subtly convey Katniss’ fear and strength, as well as the character’s selfless sacrifice to save her sister, instantly drew me in to her fight for survival.

However, I did have one major problem with how Katniss was written once the games begun. There are multiple points where another contestant comes into her line of sight, but rather than take that person out to ensure they won’t cause trouble late, she would actively avoid the confrontation. It feels as if Collins and Ross avoided having her kill the others unless in self-defense because they felt the audience would lose sympathy with her, which is completely untrue. It would have been much more compelling to show her deal with the pain of having to take someone out, which would contrast with the sadistic nature of someone like Clove or Cato.

On account of these flaws, “The Hunger Games” ended up settling on being very good, but couldn’t push it to the next level of greatness that it could have achieved. The bleak themes and maturity of the material are worthy of acclaim and make sure that “The Hunger Games” is better than many of the other pieces of young adult fiction out there. The pieces are all there for a truly subversive piece of entertainment, and “Hunger Games” remains an involving and accomplished film, although the second installment “Catching Fire” needs to unleash its claws if the franchise wants to show its full potential.


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