Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Review: The Hunger Games (Gary Ross and Lionsgate)

FIRST THINGS FIRST: THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW – It’s necessary to discuss the text-to-screen adaptation. So if you’re avoiding spoilage, you might give the details of this one a pass after the introduction, then skip to the conclusion and rating for a generalized, spoiler-free summary.

Introduction
Well, amid much fanfare, The Hunger Games opened this weekend to record-breaking numbers.  I feel a sense of strange personal satisfaction in that it completely left the Twilight series in the dust—it shows that tweens and young adults are indeed reading good fiction as well as bad.  As with thousands upon thousands of others, I was there opening night (actual opening night, not the Thursday midnight showing—at my age work trumps late night movies, much as I wish it weren’t so).

Before I dive into the review of the film, let me just say something to all those haughty, snobbish people in fandom who are whining that they “liked it better when it was Battle Royale.

Get over it.  The only thing that Hunger Games has in common with Battle Royale is kids killing each other in an arena, and I’m sure if we all looked deep enough we could find a dozen other properties that also had that same similarity. I get it, really: it’s chic and popular to worship every piece of media that comes out of Japan these days, but really, there is such a thing as parallel development, and I have news for you: Battle Royale was not a worldwide smash hit—outside of the Japanophile community, few outside of Japan had actually heard of it, and I expect that Suzanne Collins never heard of it either before she commenced writing the books.  I could be wrong, of course, as I don’t know Collins personally, but I could be right, and I suspect few of you know her personally as well to say with absolute certainty.  Regardless, let’s give the woman the benefit of the doubt, particularly since the Hunger Games Trilogy is the second New York Times bestselling series she’s written, which shows pretty clearly that she doesn’t need to rip off someone else’s idea to generate high book sales.  

So now that I’ve near-guaranteed some Battle Royale fan is going to show up and rip me to shreds, outlining in detail just how similar the two are, I guess I should get on to the actual review.

I’m not even going to bother with the idiot racists who are complaining that Cinna, Rue, and Rue’s fellow District 11 Tribute are black.  That’s just complete and total idiocy, especially since the book describes the District 11 Tributes as having “dark brown skin.”

Put simply: I loved this movie. I absolutely, through and through, thoroughly loved it. I also have to say by way of full disclosure that I am an unabashed fan of the books, having read the entire trilogy in less than a week. That being said, I will have a few “the bad” things to report, though my lovely wife and our good friend Marya who accompanied me are in disagreement of my negatives.

The Good
I could gush about this flick for days, so I’ll try to keep it brief, focusing on the biggest bonuses of the film.  Firstly, I think this may be the single most faithful text-to-screen adaptation I’ve ever seen. Now, it’s been awhile since I’ve read the book, but I didn’t notice a single important thing that was left out.  Two things I did notice: the source of Katniss’ mockingjay pin is changed, but not in a way that really alters the story (and indeed, may actually provide a bit more emotional impact), and the scene at the end when they are fleeing the muttations (yes, that’s spelled properly).  In the book, Katniss notices that the muttations are created from combining the dead tributes with animals—she recognizes Foxface specifically, and I think I remember her seeing Rue (though that could be my memory playing tricks).  I have a suspicion that making the mutts recognizable as fellow Tributes may have been just a bit too horrific, potentially pushing the film over the line to an R rating. More on that particular issue under “The Ugly.”

The casting in this film was for the most part absolutely top-notch. Every single person in the film looked pretty much exactly like I pictured them in the book.  Jennifer Lawrence is spot-on perfect as Katniss, not just in her looks, but in the strength, intensity, darkness, and emotion she brings to the role. In the scene where a career spears Rue and Katniss shoots him, then spins to see her young friend wounded, the look on Lawrence’s face is priceless, and that scene very nearly brought me to tears. You can read in her eyes that for a split second Katniss sees Rue as Katniss’ sister Prim, and the horror and pain on her face is gut-wrenching.  I was not sold on Peeta and Gale at first, but both won me over very quickly.  My companions felt that Gale looked to old; I’m not sure I agree with that. Gale was supposed to be eighteen, if I recall correctly, and I’ve known some pretty mature-looking 18-year-olds. 

Now, I said this was an exceptionally faithful screen adaptation.  Certainly some people are going to want justification for the (many) additions.  To those people I’d point out that the additions—largely in terms of showing us Game Control and the TV announcers—don’t detract from the story at all, but rather serve as an excellent and clever vehicle to present to the audience important details about the world and story that we are given through internal monologue or exposition in the book.  We get to see the source of many of the dangers that Katniss encounters in the arena—the forest fire, the mutts…and we get explanations of what many of these things are and where they come from. So in effect, these things actually enhance the story, and it’s hard to argue that Collins wouldn’t have wanted them there, given that she co-wrote the screenplay.

The presentation of the story is also excellent.  It starts very dark and grim—you definitely get the impression of a strange cross of medievalism with modern technology. Those who haven’t read the books may at first find themselves wondering what exactly they’re watching (oh, and yes, if you haven’t read the books, Gale does call Katniss “Catnip” at the beginning.  It’s a nickname he has for her). The film moves pretty fast, giving us a real sense of just how dark and twisted this society is through the pageantry surrounding these twenty-four teenagers who are about to be thrown into a brutal death match for the public’s entertainment and benefit. Once the Games begin, once Katniss arrives in the arena and the buzzer goes off, the movie takes off at a breakneck pace and never lets up until the very end.  

The Bad
I’ll be honest: I have a difficult time coming up with much to say about the film that’s bad (and not technical, which will be discussed below).  I guess the biggest thing that I can come up with is Woody Harrelson as Haymitch.  Yes, I know he’s been a fan favorite, but he just didn’t quite hit the right notes for me.  Harrelson is a great actor, there’s no doubt about that.  But he didn’t look like Haymitch to me, first of all.  I always pictured Haymitch as having really gone to Hell—out of shape, with a beer gut and gin blossoms, sloppy and dirty.  Haymitch is also far less sympathetic in the first book than the film makes him—in the novels, Haymitch doesn’t really become a sympathetic figure until book 2, though in Hunger Games (the novel) Katniss begins to suspect while she’s in the arena that Haymitch may be a better mentor and better at garnering sponsors than she’d given him credit for.

Another “Bad” that was discussed between Julie, Rya and I after we all saw the flick was the presentation of certain important details that weren’t clarified enough for those who haven’t read the books. The idea of people having their name in the drawing more than once, for example.  Katniss tells Prim, “It’s your first time and your name’s only in once,” and later, she tells her, “It doesn’t matter how much extra food they offer, don’t put your name in more than once.”  Gale says his name is in 40-odd (I forget the exact number) times, but this is never explained for the benefit of those who have not read the books: in short, the winner of the Hunger Games gets showered with riches and comfort, and their district gets favored treatment for the next year, including extra food rations (hence the name “The Hunger Games.”) In addition, every eligible tribute (boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 18) can opt to put their name into the pot more than once, with extra rations being granted for each time they put their name in. Gale’s family is exceptionally poor and he is their only provider, so putting his name in so many times ensures that they won’t starve over the course of the next year, regardless of whether he is chosen. I believe if I remember correctly, Katniss has her name in twelve times in the book. These details aren’t absolutely essential to the story itself, but could be confusing to audiences unfamiliar with the book, so if you’re going to include them, you should explain them more fully.

Next up, I’ll admit I had a problem with the way that the mockingjays sounded. When I read the book, they were described as being able to perfectly mimic a human singing.  So I expected more than an on-pitch chirping; I would’ve liked to hear Katniss singing back to herself.

Under “The Good” I talked about the use of Games Control and the announcers as ways to present story information.  There’s one place in the film where this is done very poorly, and for an instant snapped me out of the world and reminded me I was watching a movie.  That was when they explain the Tracker Jackers.  When the announcer looks at the camera and says, “For those of you who don’t know what Tracker Jackers are…” that snapped me right back to reality.  Very poor line—everybody in the 12 Districts of Panem would know exactly what Tracker Jackers are, given just how deadly they are.  It would’ve been better just to have the announcers discuss the effects of their venom without the “wink and nod” aside. While this may seem a nitpick, it really is jarring in the overall scheme of the film, so it’s worth mentioning.

Finally, a “Bad” that I actually had a hard time deciding where to put it, as I think this was absolutely deliberate and works quite well.  The lead-up to the games, while it’s not slow, seems somewhat long and uncomfortable.  At first I wondered if there was a way this could be done differently, until I realized that I think I was actually just uncomfortable with watching these teenagers being paraded around like celebrities who had chosen to be on a reality TV series, when in fact they were picked by random lottery and are about to be forced to murder each other.  In the end, I think this is a pretty brilliant thing to pull off and it shows that I was pretty caught up in the film, but I put it under “the bad,” only because I suspect there will be those who just feel that it drags on and is uncomfortable in its presentation, without really realizing the reason why it plays the way it does.  It’s supposed to be uncomfortable, but will all audiences realize that? I’m not sure.

The Ugly
Overall the film is gorgeous. It’s dark when it needs to be, uncomfortably glitzy when it needs to be, and takes every opportunity to visually cue us into the mindset of the characters. For the most part, the special effects are outstanding—which is a major accomplishment for a science fiction film containing a number of hot young stars, whose budget was less than $80 million. I have only a few negatives, and most of them come with caveats.

Firstly, I don’t think this film needed the iMAX treatment. Indeed, even in the bright scenes in the Capitol and the forest, the images were a bit grainy and didn’t appear as high-definition as one would expect of an iMAX movie.  It’s really not a reflection on the film as much as it is the need to release everything these days in iMAX, 3D, or both. Thank goodness they didn’t go the 3D route.  With this film’s budget, 3D would’ve been awful. Now, I have not seen the film on a non-iMAX screen, so it’s possible that the iMAX did contribute to the all-important immersion in the story and world. I just would’ve liked crisper imagery out of an iMAX production.

Secondly, while most of the special effects were outstanding, the mutts really fell flat.  They looked cgi.  However, I cannot really fault Lionsgate or the filmmakers for this.  After all, the film’s budget was only $78 million and we got a lot of bang for that buck overall. The scenes of Katniss and Peeta “on fire” during the parade, the presentation of the Capitol, the look of Game Control, all were pretty breathtaking effects.  This is really a case of making the best of what you’ve got and what you can afford, and Lionsgate doesn’t have the funds at this point (though they may soon) to hire WETA Workshop to do their CGI.

Finally, to one of my favorite topics—editing of action sequences.  I had a disagreement with my companions over this one.  The fight scenes in this film are, in my opinion, poorly edited.  They are chaotic with dozens of dizzying quick-cuts, and it’s nigh impossible to follow what’s going on. It was presented to me that perhaps the scenes were done this way deliberately to make you feel like you were in the midst of that chaos, which would be dizzying and hard to follow.  That’s a valid point.  Still, I think there’s better ways to handle battle scenes that still portray the chaos of battle while allowing the audience to better follow the action.  Another idea that was presented—and I think this may be spot-on—was that if they’d shown the details of the battles the way they are presented in the novel, the film may well have garnered an R-rating. I think there’s little doubt that this is the case; The Hunger Games is an exceptionally brutal story, and omitting the gore of all the battles was probably a smart way to go on the part of the filmmakers.  So I don’t think that in this case the chaotic editing was the result of a lack of confidence in the editor or actors; rather I think it was a choice to keep a PG-13 rating, and I can respect that, given that an R rating for this movie, while technically more accurate to the book, would absolutely have hurt the film’s gross box office take. I just think there had to be a better way to pull it off.

Conclusion and Summary
There is no such thing as a perfect film.  Every film is a combination of good things and bad things, and it’s the balance that makes it a great or a poor film.  In the case of The Hunger Games, the good far outweighs the bad. Between excellent casting, fantastic performances, a very faithful text-to-screen adaptation, great special effects considering the relatively low budget, and a great amount of respect evident for both the source and the audience, this film is not only a home run, but a grand slam.  I could be mistaken, but I don’t think Lionsgate has ever had a legitimate blockbuster, and certainly never on this level, so kudos to them for pulling this one off in a big way.  I can’t wait to see Catching Fire and Mockingjay.

Rating: 5 out of 5 popcorns.

3 comments:

  1. Excellent review, Jason.

    We thought they should have spent more time showing life in District 12 to help build up some back story, but then realized this would have probably meant a three hour film. Still, I would have loved to see a bit more of the woods, the Seam, her relationship with Gale, etc.

    We also thought the scene where District 11 sent the bread was one of the most powerful and touching parts of the book, but it was left out of the film.

    I'm willing to bet there's going to be an extended version DVD with a good 15 extra minutes of back story.

    One really niggling thing that got to me was that the cannon didn't fire after every death like it did in the books, which threw me off because I kept waiting to hear it.

    Still, overall excellent job, we plan on going to see it again when the crowds die down a bit.

    - Mikey

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  2. The cannon did fire--I heard it quite clearly. And I'd completely forgotten about the bread! It actually answers one of the lingering plot holes I was dealing with--how the guy from District 11 knew what Katniss had done for Rue--he may have been told in a parachute.

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  3. I reread the scene in question. When Katniss is fighting with the career chick, Clove, she says that she's going to kill Katniss like they did her ally (Rue). Thresh, District 11 guy, overheard this. After Clove is dispatched, Thresh and Katniss have a brief conversation where she discribes what happens. Then he says the line in the film.
    The movie failed to explain his line at all. As you know.
    Great review!

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