Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games *** ½ Directed by: Gary Ross.
Written by: Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray based on the book by Suzanne Collins.
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Paula Malcomson (Katniss' Mother), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Amandla Stenberg (Rue), Dayo Okeniyi (Thresh), Leven Rambin (Glimmer), Jack Quaid (Marvel), Latarsha Rose (Portia), Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove).

The Hunger Games is a very good movie based on a great book. Yes, I know that The Hunger Games books are aimed at teenagers, but as a series they are as good as Harry Potter, and much better than Twilight. Fans of the book will likely like the movie more than non-fans – because they will be better able to fill in the gaps. The movie doesn’t change anything from the book – but it does leave out a few details – and it’s in the details that make this series go from very good to great.

The movie opens in a dystopian future. A failed revolution decades before has left the Capitol all powerful, and the other districts trembling in fear. There are 12 districts outside the Capitol – each poorer than the ahead of it, and they live in fear because the 13th District was destroyed by the Capitol. One of the ways in which the Capitol keeps the District under their thumb, living in fear, is The Hunger Games – an annual event in which one teenager boy and one teenage girl from each district are put into a huge arena, and left to fight till the death. To the people in the Capitol, this is all little more than reality TV taken to the extreme – and of course they love it. For everyone else, it can literally be life or death.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is from District 12. She has been the sole provider for her mother and younger sister since her father died years ago. At the “Reaping”, the draw to see who gets the “honor” of taking part in The Hunger Games, she is shocked and horrified when her young sister Prim is selected – without thinking, Katniss steps up and volunteers to go in her place. For the boys, it is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) who is selected. So, they board a train for the Capitol along with their “mentor” Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) – a former winner of the Games – to participate.

What the movie gets right about the book is the propulsive, brutal energy of the novel. The movie doesn’t soften the blow of the violence – even if it may be less bloody than it should be, in order to get a PG-13 rating in America. When the games start, it is still kids killing kids – some with brutal, unrelenting glee, some reluctantly, but everyone does what they need to do to survive. Some have pointed out the similarity between The Hunger Games and the Japanese film Battle Royale – a true masterpiece – and it’s true they have similarities. But then, so does The Hunger Games and two Stephen King stories – The Long Walk and The Running Man. And of course, you can trace this basic premise back to William Golding’s literally masterwork The Lord of the Flies.  The idea of kids killing kids, or people dying for the entertainment of others, is not an overly original idea, but it is one that when done properly still retains an undeniable power.

What made The Hunger Games, as a book, stand out to me is that addition to the kids killing kids angle, it was also a dead on media satire. Katniss becomes a star at the games, not because of who she is, but of how she looks. Aided by a stylist, Katniss looks great, and hence garners fans. When she and Peeta, with the advice of Haymitch, learn to play the media and the audience, to become stars. The movie implicates the viewers in the Capitol – and by extension the readers of the book – in the bloodlust on display in the book. The over the top TV show produced by The Hunger Games is little more than an extension of the current reality TV shows. This is the aspect of the book that made The Hunger Games great – and it is mainly missing from the movie. The audience is barely viewed, and the movie rushes through too much of the rest. And that’s a shame.

But The Hunger Games is still a very good movie. For one thing, they have found the perfect Katniss in Jennifer Lawrence. I didn’t realize it before, but her Oscar nominated performance in Winter’s Bone shares a lot in common with Katniss – both being strong, self-reliant, responsible teenagers who are effectively raising their siblings in a world that doesn’t give a shit about her. Lawrence carries the movie and it is a great performance. Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks -  as a representative from the Capitol, Stanley Tucci – as an over the top TV personality – and Donald Sutherland as the evil President provide effective support. Co-writer and director Gary Ross, who was an odd choice for the material, does a very good job behind the camera, keeping the pace going, and giving the movie the violent edge it needs.

The Hunger Games stops short of being a great movie because it doesn’t push things far enough. Perhaps it was simply a question of running time – something had to go, and it’s easier to cut satire than violence. But hopefully the next two movies – which will almost certainly be made and as quickly as possible now – goes a little farther. The series is going to get much, much darker before it ends – and the filmmakers need to push themselves farther.

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