Saturday, March 24, 2012
Movie Review: The Hunger Games
As is necessary when reviewing a book-to-movie-adaptation, I feel I should start by explaining that A) Yes, I have read the books and B) I didn't love them.
I thought they were good, not great. I thought that Suzanne Collins did a particularly swell job at creating a world and populating it but that once she had built Panem, she didn't really know what to do with it. The plot all but sprints to its inevitable end, using blatant exposition to speed things along and taking no time to really delve into the motivations or nuances of character. You have to be careful not to blink, because you might be at the end of the book and not even realize it.
With those considerations in mind, I can say that director Gary Ross did an exceptional job at adapting the book to screen: the bad and the good.
Ross' Panem looks and feels like Panem should. We land in District 12, which puts the "out" in "outskirt" as the starving, chronically poverty-ridden mining community where our heroine Katniss Everdeen resides with her mother and sister. It is the day of the reaping, when a boy and girl from each district are chosen to dance like puppets for the entertainment pleasure of the nauseatingly affluent Capitol residents in a gladiator-esque battle to the death. The best thing about the actual Games, in both movie and book, is the way it feels like a perverse extension of our American Idol society to the point where you can imagine a blue-haired Ryan Seacrist saying "The results of who will die this week....right after this commercial break."
For the first half of the movie, the Games are kept as this exquisite elephant in the room, adding pressure and sub-text to every sideways glance and trembling expression. Jennifer Lawrence, the blonde beauty that darn near makes you forget that there was another Mystique thrives as the vulnerable yet stoic Katniss despite the fact that she is clearly too sexy to live on the verge of starvation. Who cares, this is Hollywood.
It's the supporting players, however, that are the real joy. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks trade barbs as Katniss's mentor and idiotic babysitter and Stanley Tucci is pure, unbottled genius as the Games dandy of a master of ceremonies. Once you get over the fact that Donald Sutherland looks like Santa Clause he manages to slip into the skin of the evil dicatatorial ruler President Coriolanus Snow.
There are moments of pure brilliance, like the nerve-rackingly well-edited Cornucopia Bloodbath that opens the Games. Once that moment passes however, the sense of you-can-die-at-any-moment vanishes and the players merely scurry through the necessary motions to get to the sequel, like Tom Hanks in Da Vinci Code. After all the buildup and with the idea that the Games are this terrible, awful thing that spurns rebellion amongst the downtrodden districtians, the movie displays the events in a silent vacuum that never feels all that dangerous.
That silence permeates the film. Despite rounding up some amazing talent for the soundtrack (The Civil Wars, Arcade Fire, The Decemberists) Ross saves the music for the credits and chooses instead to let the sound of nothingness hang heavy over the fray. This works during the reaping, when you can feel a nation beaten into submission, silently accepting their fate. It falls flat, however, in the sparkier moments of the film where a well-blended mix of image and sound might make us feel Katniss and Peeta falling in love in a cave, or the pain that Gale feels while he watches or the impending doom of a fireball to the face.
Other defining moments miss the mark. Katniss' debut as "The Girl On Fire" comes across more as a drag queen in a pair of bad angel wings than a woman enveloped in flame. And, while I support the decision to use Tucci's commentary as an exposition replacement to Katniss' first-person narration, it became a little too convenient for the Tu-choo train to pop in and explain crucial plot points for "the viewers at home."
In short, The Hunger Games is a successful, albeit uninspired, demonstration of taking a story from the page to the big screen. It leaves you satisfied but not stunned, entertained but not particularly engaged, curious to see what comes next but not desperate to continue. B