Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

Directed by Gary Ross
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson

A few months back, my Dad was telling me about a trilogy of books he was reading called The Hunger Games, and my initial reaction was, “that sounds like a watered down Battle Royale,” the brutally violent Japanese film from 2001.  Having hated Battle Royale, I was not too interested in a new addition in the kids fight to the death genre.  With the film’s wave of hype and my Dad’s continued rave reviews of the books, my interest in The Hunger Games was finally piqued.  Also, it was somewhat ridiculous for me to make any judgments on The Hunger Games based on my reaction to an entirely different piece of work just because they share some similarities.  Leading up to the film, I read the first book of the trilogy in less than five days.  The book was an easy and fun read, and The Hunger Games had officially won me over; I couldn’t wait to head to the theaters to see the film (side note, this is the first Mark It 8, Dude review of a film I saw on the big screen).

The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic dystopia after the nation of Panem has replaced the collapsed United States.  To keep control over the population, the evil Capitol hosts the “Hunger Games” every year, a contest that pits 24 boys and girls in a televised fight to the death, as punishment for a past attempt at rebellion.  These games are the ultimate reality show for the people of the Capitol and the ultimate nightmare for everyone else.  The film opens as Katniss Everdeen and her sister, Prim, prepare for the annual Reaping, when one boy and one girl from each district is selected to enter the Games.   Once Katniss and Peeta Mellark become District 12’s two Tributes, they are whisked away to the Capitol to become instant celebrities in the run-up to the Games, where their very likely demise acts as the entertainment event of the year.

Gary Ross, who hasn’t directed a film since 2003’s Seabiscuit, has adapted another highly acclaimed novel in a successful film, with the help of a budding superstar lead actress, Jennifer Lawrence (who was also amazing in her Oscar-nominated role in Winter’s Bone).  Some of the film’s harshest criticisms that I’ve read come from Ross actually being too faithful to the book.  While I agree that the screen sticks close to the page, I did not have any problems with most of Ross’ choices – though some of the early shaky cam use did feel unnecessary.  While Katniss’ internal monologue is missing, the visuals alone effectively explain her motivations as she volunteers to be a Tribute, experiences the spectacle in the Capitol, and plots her survival during the Games.  I credit Gary Ross for trusting the audience to fill in those blanks rather than rely on a lot of wordy plot summary or narration.  

The way Ross portrayed the Games as a huge reality TV event is especially effective.  Watching Katniss try to outlast the other Tributes would have had enough drama in itself, but balancing her survival with the Gamemakers’ (who are like The Hunger Games’ producers) orchestrations of the “show” and the various reactions the Panem people have with what they are watching adds another fascinating dynamic.  To the pampered population of the Capital, these games are an event of frenzied jubilation and unbridled gambling opportunities while the poor proletariats of the outlying districts watch in sheer horror and restrained, but powerful, anger.  Stanley Tucci gives a great performance as the Hunger Games’ emcee, Caesar Flickerman, building the bridge between the terrified underclass and the merrily sadistic elite by interviewing each Tribute and commentating on the action.  It is clear that Katniss cannot rely on her ability to hunt and kill alone to become the victor; she has to learn how to be a compelling personality.  The Hunger Games spends a lot of time showing how Katniss must be able to win over her audience during the show, with the help of her handlers:  Haymitch, her mentor (Woody Harrelson), Cinna, her stylist (Lenny Kravitz), and Effie, her escort (Elizabeth Banks).

It has taken me awhile to focus on what is The Hunger Games’ greatest asset, the performance given by Jennifer Lawrence.  She brings both physical and emotional strength to the screen.  Lawrence’s Katniss is completely believable as the hunter who is extremely lethal with a bow, the protective and loving big sister, and the quiet rebel who learns how to navigate through the Capitol’s expectations and the Gamemakers’ meddling.  I love that The Hunger Games is becoming such a phenomenon because the literary Katniss is such an admirable heroine and through Lawrence’s star-making performance, the film Katniss is just as smart, righteous, and independent.  These traits remain strong even when the Capitol wants her to become a blood-lusting killer like some of the other Tributes.  Whether Lawrence is in a big budget blockbuster like The Hunger Games or X-Men: First Class or a small independent thriller like Winter’s Bone, you simply cannot take your eyes off of her.  And at only 21 years old, it will be exciting to continue to watch her skills continue to develop.

There is also a compelling, and complex, love story in The Hunger Games.  Katniss is unsure if she’s ever been in love, but thoughts of love begin to enter her mind she struggles to comprehend her fate after the Reaping.  There is her longtime friend back home, Gale, who understands the everyday fight for survival in District 12 and her District 12 counterpart, Peeta, who has a good heart but cannot return home from the Games with her.   I must say that the Gale side of the love triangle is better covered in the book and the Peeta side feels a little simplified for the film, but they are effective nonetheless.  Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, is really good as a guy who doesn’t quite have Katniss’ physical talents to win, but has the personality that the audience falls for.  Peeta knows you need a fully developed strategy to win, so Katniss must struggle decide if the love he proclaims toward her is real or a piece of artifice to help him get support.  Likewise, she must figure out if her feelings toward Peeta are also true or part of the show.  A lot of these complexities are best explained in the book’s internal monologues, but the strong performances by Lawrence and Hutcherson help convey them to those in the audience who haven’t read the book.

In both book and film form, The Hunger Games is filled with great fun and powerful emotion.  The futuristic world of Panem is fully realized and interesting, the characters are memorable and multi-dimensional, and the action will keep you guessing from beginning to end.  This story has won over the masses with good reason and Gary Ross’ adaptation is just as successful.  Since reading the first book, I’ve gone out and purchased the final two books in the trilogy, Catching Fire and Mockingjay.  I cannot wait to continue my reading to see how life in Panem after the Games unfolds.  Anticipation will reach great heights as I patiently wait for more Katniss, and more Jennifer Lawrence, in the sequels.

Mark it 8.

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