Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a good example of what you can do with a strong plot and cast—and what you can’t.

The film faithfully follows the plot of Suzanne Collins’ mega-bestselling young adult novel of the same name, a grimly detailed fable for our times. Jennifer Lawrence gives 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen every ounce of the gravitas, cool competence, and smarts the role demands. But director and co-screenwriter Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) keeps sanding down the book’s grit and psychological nuance, once again creating unnecessary distance between his audience and an intriguing story by overstylizing the art direction and leaning a little too hard on the message.

But even Ross can’t ruin co-screenwriter Collins’ dystopian vision. In the unspecified future of The Hunger Games, the United States has devolved into 12 impoverished districts colonized by a high-tech capitol city. Simply called The Capitol, the city is populated by a pampered, mostly thoughtlessly entitled elite. Its most obscene exercise of power is The Hunger Games, in which two “tributes” from each district are chosen by lottery and sent to The Capitol to fight to the death, until just one remains. That spectacle is transformed almost instantaneously into a 24-hour reality show, which is required viewing in the districts and popular entertainment in the Capitol.

As the reluctant heroine from District 12, who volunteers for the Games when her little sister’s name is called and then figures out a way to beat the system, Lawrence essentially reprises the role she played with such ferocious focus in Winter’s Bone, playing a protective older sister in Appalachian hill country who appoints herself head of her family after her daddy disappears and her mama retreats into a near-catatonic depression. (“I don’t know what it is about me and maternal wilderness girls. I just love ‘em,” Lawrence told the Los Angeles Times. )

As Katniss narrates the book, we learn a lot from her, not just about how things work but about what she’s thinking and feeling. Ross opted not to use voiceover to convey her point of view, saying he decided instead to make sure we don’t know anything she doesn’t know. But in fact, we often know far less than she does. Ross, Collins, and co-writer Billy Ray never find a way to convey most of Katniss’s thoughts, and not even an actress as gifted as Lawrence can convey them all wordlessly. This guts key subplots like her relationship with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), District 12’s other tribute, which plays out as a pretty standard movie romance when the complex feelings Katniss reveals for him in the book go unspoken.

The world she navigates is also considerably less complicated and dark in the movie. The novel tells us that people routinely die of starvation in District 12, and that Katniss and her family would have been among them if her father hadn’t taught her how to hunt with a bow and arrow. Her near-ceaseless hunger and the scant meals she pieces together from what she can forage or shoot or trade for are vividly described, and when she encounters more food than she can eat in The Capitol, for the first time in her life, she wolfs down all she can to fatten up and prepare for the hunger she knows she will soon face again. Not so the movie’s Katniss, who picks at her food like a diet-conscious deb. Meanwhile, her hunting buddy (and possible love interest) back home is played by Liam Hemsworth, who looks like a sleek high school prom king who’s never missed a meal in his life, not a lean lord of the jungle for whom a squirrel is a feast.

The killing in the Games is too sanitized, too. I didn’t mind the blurry, too-close camerawork and quick cuts that leave us as uncertain as Katniss about what’s happening to the other tributes: The last thing you want to do in a movie about fascistic overlords who use death as entertainment is to make those deaths titillating. But they should feel horrific, not almost perfunctory. With one notable exception, we get no sense of any of the tributes besides Katniss and Peeta as individuals, so it’s hard to feel much when they die—-other than the guilty rush of relief that comes from knowing that Katniss has one fewer foe to fend off.

Distancing devices like that and the cheesy-looking costumes and art direction, which make the Capitol’s soldiers look like Star Wars storm troopers, its citizens look like extras from the Wizard of Oz, and the people of District 12 look like time travelers from a Walker Evans photo shoot in 1930s Kentucky, send us out of the theater abuzz with good feelings, while a better film would have left us devastated by the memory of all that fascistic bloodlust.

Yet we don't fall into the same trap as the audiences in The Capitol, simply rooting for our favorite to win and the others to die. Instead, we root against the system they’re all caught in, thanks to the strength of the original story and the stubborn integrity with which Lawrence’s Katniss and Hutcherson’s Peeta refuse to surrender their humanity.

Written for TimeOff

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