Wednesday, March 28, 2012
(Review) Gary Ross' "Hunger Games"
You're probably tired of hearing about "The Hunger Games," and I get that. You probably feel it's just another over-hyped book for teens that's all sugar and no substance, which I'd disagree with completely. Or maybe you're one of those people who feel that since the plot is so similar to the Japanese movie "Battle Royale" that you're turned off by the prospect of this story (a story that's completely different and infinitely more political). While I find that idea ridiculous (show me a story that HASN'T been done before in some way) I get the idea of that too.
But I'm not talking about any of those things here.
Hollywood has a way of ruining the good parts of the things we enjoy. There was no need for a second Tron movie (even though I kinda loved it). At other times, Hollywood has a way of bringing out the best of a story, making the movie version an instant classic. Two examples of this, both originally written by Stephen King: "Stand By Me" (adapted from his short story called "The Body") and "The Shawshank Redemption" (based on another short story called "Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption").
Gary Ross' vision of "The Hunger Games" falls into the former category and felt a little ruined to me, though there were some fantastic aspects to the movie.
The movie is set up almost as if we, the viewers, are actually watching parts of the Hunger Games. Bits of interviews with the Gamemaker and others involved play out like a show being watched in real time. I think if this had been a more pervasive theme throughout the movie, it would've strengthened some of the weak parts that I'll talk about later.
The movie itself doesn't drown in CGI. In fact, so much of it looks real that I had trouble distinguishing the real from the fake most of the time, and this was great. That lack of falseness that CGI emits made the movie feel very much set in the present moment and lent a credibility to the action that was hard to ignore. Where other dystopian/sci-fi movies have a tendency to embrace the shimmery-ness of special effects, "The Hunger Games" seemed to shrug them off for a more realistic approach. This was the right way of thinking, though it may be harder to avoid in the next film (since I know what happens in the second book).
Katniss, the main character, is played almost to perfection by Jennifer Lawrence (see: "Winter's Bone"). She is strong, but not wholly confident in her abilities. The book is set almost completely inside the mind of Katniss, which makes for some interesting adaptations to the screen. Viewers aren't going to want to listen to every one of her thoughts, but it's her thought processes that sweeten the good moments and make the awful moments that much more gut-wrenching.
Throughout the course of the book, Katniss and her fellow tribute Peeta realize that they'll get more outside help from viewers if they play up the idea of a romance between each other. The moral quandary here is that Katniss doesn't feel the same way about Peeta that Peeta feels about her; she's not a liar or a person who uses others as a means to an end, but ultimately she relents and plays up the romance too. Gary Ross glosses over the moments that could have really gotten into this more in-depth, but instead shied away from highlighting them.
This was not only distracting, but it made some of the later scenes (when Katniss is taking care of a wounded Peeta in a cave) fall so emotionally flat. If I had gone into the theater having not read the books, I would've been scratching my head by the end. The romance felt rushed and without much in the way of being anything Katniss truly struggled with. And this is one of the bigger themes of the later books, which makes it incredibly important in getting set up early on.
There is also the issue of Haymitch (played by Woody Harrelson). A notorious drunk and ex-winner of the Hunger Games so long ago, Haymitch stumbles around for most of the book with a hateful attitude and a flask at the ready. This image of him plays out for a bit in the movie, but then quickly turns into Haymitch being some kind of super-likeable guy by the end (which there are *brief* moments of in the book).
Now I realize there's only so much you can do with a two hour movie as compared to a 400 page book, so I'm trying not to be overly-critical. The movie looked fantastic, set wise. The costumes and the design were all great as well. The acting was solid on everyone's parts, but it was (ironically) the writing of the script that seemed to be the most lacking. And this was even with the original author, Suzanne Collins, on hand to help out. I don't know if perhaps having her on set to adjust the script for adaptation was a good thing or a bad thing, but the movie felt like it tried to cram in a lot of really important details (necessary for viewing the next two movies) into a very short amount of time.
Overall, I think the movie is a success. It looks good, it's acted well, and damn near every character looks exactly the way I pictured them while reading the books. The world of Panem is slightly different than I pictured, but I like it, and with Collins at the helm helping, I'm sure it looks the way she wanted it to and that's good enough for me. Now that the main characters are somewhat fleshed out, I'm hoping that the second and third movies delve more into the interpersonal relationships with the characters, as that's the only way a story will ever truly gel together. Character is of the utmost importance. Hollywood can give you all the actors you need, but if there's no onscreen vibe or chemistry between them, all you've got are people acting out dialogue. And that can get very, very boring.