The Hunger Games, a Good Read and OK Action Movie.

I saw the Hunger Games at the theatre a few days ago with my husband and daughters. Considering the movie has been in the theatres for a week, and there were 3 auditoriums running it simultaneously at the Cineplex, it was surprisingly busy.

Three of us had read the novels that the movie was based on. I had heard the series praised about 18 months ago on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast and when I saw the box set at Costco, I picked it up. First I asked my husband to read it and let me know if it was something that my eldest would enjoy. She is a voracious reader and had finished the Harry Potter trilogy before her 9th birthday. I was hoping to find something for her that was equally engrossing. With thumbs up from her dad, I gave her the trilogy 2 Christmases ago and it was a hit. For the past few months, the anticipatory movie hype has been unavoidable. There have been numerous cover stories and feature articles in Entertainment Weekly magazine. EW is the only magazine that everyone in our household seems to enjoy glancing at. So a few weeks ago, I decided to jump on the band wagon and I read all 3 books in no time at all. They were enjoyable, quick, action packed, first person narratives, told predominantly in the present with a few scattered flashbacks. There was only a bit of character development but the narrative cemented the key relationships of the main characters. It created food for thought and had some touching relationships. It even brought tears to my eyes more than once. I was curious to see how the first book would be translated to film.

For those unfamiliar with the story, it is told by Katniss Everdeen, a 16 yr old girl who lives in a dystopian society which has 12 districts and an overseeing capital. Every year there is a celebratory televised arena spectacle called the “Hunger Games” as punishment/ reminder of a civil war/ rebellion against the capital, that decimated many of the districts.  Each district draws the names of a male and female ” tribute” /contestant (aged 12-18 years) to participate in an arena with a fight to the death. This is a televised event that monopolizes the airwaves. The winner becomes a national hero and is set for life. Katniss and her acquaintance Peta are sent to represent district 12 for the 74th annual Hunger Games. Their mentor is an alcoholic middle-aged man named Haymitch who is district 12’s only other victor. I do not want to get too spoilery, suffice it to say I enjoyed the movie well enough but this is not a rave review.

The strength of the film lies in the casting and performances. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss does an excellent job portraying a resourceful girl who is catapulted far beyond her comfort zone. Josh Hutcherson portrays Peta as a thoughtful sensitive soul who finds himself contemplating the unthinkable and trying to figure out his role within chaos. Woody Harrelson was a good choice for Haymitch, and pulled it off within the confines of the script. I will confess that the muting of his character onscreen was a disappointment.  But that cannot be blamed on Harrelson. Unless of course the producers realized that a true to the novel Haymitch, portrayed by Harrelson would have blown everyone off the screen. Then I guess it might be, in part, Harrelson’s fault.

Much has been hyped about the supposed romantic triangle between Katniss, her long-time friend and hunting buddy, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and her borne out of necessity relationship with Peta. This was barely addressed in the film. In fact, much of the film’s weakness revolves around how little time is devoted to establishing some of the key relationships between Katniss and Gale, Peta, Rue (a young contestant from district 11, with whom she establishes an alliance), even Haymitch, who is more than meets the eye and has a depth that would have been worth exploring. The only relationship that was developed was that between Katniss and her little sister, which was superfluous because; they are blood relatives and Katniss volunteered as tribute in her sister’s stead. I think we can figure out that they are pretty tight. This makes it harder to identify with Katniss.

As one would expect, fights to the death result in some pretty graphic violence in the novel. If portrayed on screen as written, this would result in a rating that would exclude the target audience. I am aware that there are many people who think that the violence in the novels is inappropriate for a pre-teen and indeed the movie is rated PG-13. That is a fair assessment if you believe in such things. I believe that the arbitrary rating system is an archaic formality that should be abandoned in the information age. Parents should be aware of what their child can handle and do their homework with websites such as rottentomatoes.com or metacritic.com, before deciding on a movie. And by the time your child is old enough to go to the movies on their own, ratings become meaningless. They are also old enough to go to friends homes and watch whatever they want to online or via Netflix. The horse is out of the barn and an R rating is a temporary hurdle. But I digress. My almost 9 year old enjoyed the film and was not particularly traumatized by it. The artistic choice to use extreme closeups away from the point of attack, fast editing and shaky cam during the brutality, circumvented the ratings game. We caught quick glimpses of steel blades, some blood, a few dead bodies on the ground, and a long shot of a larger boy breaking a smaller boy’s neck with a quick jerk. I understand the logistics of chosing these editing and filming techniques. Unfortunately, away from the violence, there were too many other instances when the close-ups and worse, the shaky cam was used. I imagine it was an artistic choice intending to help the viewer “enter” the chaotic arena. For some poor movie-goers’ it was a point of exit, literally, due to nausea.

I enjoyed the story because it is novel to see a strong young female who is not waiting around to be rescued or married. The books are worthy of the hype; the movie, not so much. The books are told from Katniss view point and the reader spends a lot of time in her head as she analyses her choices, deliberates before acting and fails miserably at times, between detailed action sequences. That which gives strength to the novels, weakens the movie. I should be thankful that the producers did not decide to go with an insufferable internal dialogue. But there are cinematic ways to get inside her head and it is in this way that the movie kept me at a distance. The run time is 2h22 min, which is plenty of time to  develop characters and relationships; however, this was not done well enough to elevate this movie above, OK. The movie doesn’t help us understand what Gale means to Katniss, what Peta means to Katniss, what Haymitch means; you get my drift. Without strong relationship building, I cannot get that emotionally invested with the characters on screen. Was this a deliberate short cut? Because much of the audience will be familiar with the novel, the depths of the relationships are assumed to be apparent? Or is it just weak story-telling? Maybe it is both. I can’t help but compare this with the movie Hanna (2011) which I believe did a better job at a female character driven action movie.

The Hunger Games is an ok action movie. I read the trilogy before watching the movie, and I wish I hadn’t. I probably would not have expected more if I hadn’t read the books first. It is all about expectations and hype, I suppose. I am curious to see where they go with the next installments because I am afraid that this movie does not prepare us for what lies ahead. Of course, I will probably go to the theatre with the family to see this story play out. I will temper my expectations and try not to get sucked into the hype.

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3 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. maroon5gurl88
    Apr 03, 2012 @ 01:02:25

    I have to see this but the mixed messages are making me wary. I have friends who are OBSESSED with this and friends who refuse to “believe the hype.” I read the first book, it was okay, so I’m thinking this will just be a fun ride and nothing else.

    Reply

  2. annhall
    Apr 03, 2012 @ 07:52:22

    I think managing expectations is the way to go with this one. I wouldn’t wait in a line for this movie and I am glad I didn’t have to. The first book by far was the best of the trilogy. So if you thought it was OK, you may want to quit while you are ahead, LOL. By the end of the last book I was growing a bit impatient and just wanted to know how it ended.

    Reply

  3. Trackback: Catching Fire: a review. | What is Ann Watching?

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