by Raj Ranade
A series of questions regarding The Hunger Games:
– No one likes the literalists who turn their noses up at entire films just because minor detail X would, like, never, ever happen, but even as kid-literature universes go, isn’t The Hunger Games particularly ill-conceived? (Disclaimer: I have not read the books, although I should not have to for the movie to work.) The core idea, of forcing Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and 23 other citizens of a post-apocalyptic dystopia into a gladiatorial death match for the public’s amusement, has a rich cinematic tradition. But the particulars here are awfully confusing. Who would actually want to watch the games in the way they’re set up here? Bloodlust is one thing, but the film takes pains to point out that a large percentage of the participants, loosed into wilderness environments, die from infection and dehydration – is that good TV? (One character ends up unconscious for several days – do they save that for sweeps month?) Moral concerns aside, what kind of game pits prepubescent girls against full-grown teen jocks? There’s a reason boxing doesn’t throw featherweights against Mike Tyson. And wouldn’t the fans of the Games, who have apparently kept the contest running for 74 years, be a little miffed when the organizers change the rules of the game to help contestants that they like? It would be like the NCAA Basketball organizers suddenly deciding to ignore any points scored by players with unibrows. (Go Cats!) I wish this film really had ripped off Battle Royale, as some have accused it of doing – at least that film had a consistent internal logic.
– Most of the choices that director Gary Ross makes here are similarly baffling. Ross and his team painstakingly render their characters’ fashion throughout most of the film – 1930s Dust Bowl frumpiness for the poor masses, equal parts Marie Antoinette and Harajuku girl for the ruling elites. So why is it that when the contestants are out in the wild, the elements do so little to muss up their Abercrombie model sheen? That may sound like a minor issue, but it’s symptomatic of a bigger one –that, save for a bloodbath at the outset of the games, a real sense of danger seems conspicuously absent. Part of the problem is that a PG-13 rating means that the film’s many murders are tamer than your average UFC brawl. But gore isn’t a prerequisite for suspense, and Ross botches the latter through his inept staging of action and his carelessness with the details that might convey a real sense of fear, adrenaline, thirst, or, you know, hunger.
– What Ross is very good at is flailing the camera around wildly. Is there any cinematic method more obnoxious, lazy, and uninteresting than the shaky-cam at this point? A smart director can inject energy into a shot with a little camera movement, but nowadays the shaky-cam usually serves as a lazy crutch for directors who don’t want to do the work of choreographing a fight or a foot-chase. Instead, you get a bunch of unintelligible movement as a lame stand-in for coherency. No one would let Suzanne Collins pencil in “IOU One Fight Scene” instead of actually describing her action, but that’s not too far from what Ross does here.
– Why is Jennifer Lawrence’s performance so uninteresting here? Katniss is an interesting enough character – a frontier-woman survivalist action hero who saves her love interests instead of waiting for them to save her. And Lawrence is certainly a fantastic actress – Ross was clearly thinking of Lawrence’s fiery Oscar-nominated performance in the backwoods noir Winter’s Bone when he cast her (Katniss’s home district is strikingly similar to the decaying Ozark towns of that film). But Lawrence fails to invest Katniss with a similar spark or charisma, resulting in a character that feels like a generic everywoman. There’s sharp work done by other actors here. Stanley Tucci has a wonderful sleazy charm as the TV host for the games, and Woody Harrelson (on a roll after brilliant performances in Rampart and the HBO movie Game Change) plays an alcoholic former champion with trademark wit. But once the games have actually started, these characters effectively disappear, leaving us with the somewhat sketchy portrayal of Katniss, an even sketchier portrayal of her love interest Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and what are effectively cartoon stick figures as the other competitors. (This last part is a major issue – we’re constantly being told how inhumane these games are, and yet the film has little interest in humanizing the other participants.)
– The Hunger Games doesn’t really bother with crafting a satisfying conclusion; there’s just an abrupt cut to the credits that implies they’ll finish all this up in the sequel sometime next year. For those of us who expect a book adaptation to stand on its own as a self-contained story, this is frustrating. The die-hard book series fans will likely not care, however, since they know how the story really goes and are just glad no detail of their story has been fussed with (there was a backlash among Hunger Games book fans when Lawrence was cast because she is blonde and Katniss is a brunette – a hair dye compromise was eventually deemed acceptable). Should we just start treating this kind of adaptation as an illustrated novel companion instead of a free-standing work of its own? It solves a lot of problems – didn’t have time to provide any depth for your characters? Send your audience to chapters 5 and 7. Is your ending too abrupt? It’s done more thoroughly on page 346. Maybe you could have your book lovers buy a DVD so they can watch/read in the comfort of their home! And maybe we could save the theater space for better movies!
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