MOVIE REVIEW: The Hunger Games

(Image: www.imdb.com)

THE HUNGER GAMES-- 3 STARS

I'm starting to see and learn that I constantly run into a great deal of trouble as the "movie guy" who doesn't read the book or the source the movie is adapted from or based on.  I don't mean occasionally.  That "doesn't" means never.  I haven't read a novel of any length since undergraduate college, and even those were read only because I needed too.  I don't have the time or the patience for that kind of casual reading.  Call me an uneducated and unrefined cretin.  I'm perfectly fine with that character trait and wear it proudly.

But again, it gets me into trouble.  I will go into movies uninformed and leave just the same because of not knowing the big picture.  That was me this weekend with The Hunger Games, the record-breaking box office smash based on the first of Suzanne Collins international best-selling young adult trilogy.  I went into it observing the hype and expecting greatness and left unfulfilled.  Some of that is my fault and some of that is on the movie itself.

At the same time as I speak about my ambivalence to taking in novels, I feel for book readers and understand their constantly surfacing disappointment.  I'm smart enough and savvy enough as a movie guy to know that it is absolutely impossible to properly adapt an entire book into a coherent and condensed two-hour movie.  No movie will ever be as good as the book.  Never.  Not one.  It will never happen.  I'm smart enough to know, without reading the novels, that some aspects just don't translate cinematically, but wholeheartedly get the readers' wishes, hopes, and desires that a movie can match and be just as great as the book they love.  It happened with Harry PotterTwilight, and might occur again with The Hunger Games.  

I offer a compromise rooted in wisdom from always being in trouble for not reading the source material.  Simply put, separate the mediums.  Books are different than movies and vice versa.  Books are literal, descriptive, and paced for rich detail over time.  Movies are condensed snapshots, visual splashes, and homages to imagery translated by one person's lens of what they interpreted from the book.  Everyone relates to a book differently, but only one director and one screenwriter go on to make and interpret the work into a movie.  In the end, do what I do.  Take the book as the book and the movie as the movie.  Keep them separate and judge them separate.  Here, I can only judge the movie.

That waterfall of thought brings us to The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville and Seabiscuit) and adapted by Ross, Billy Ray (State of Play and Flightplan), and author Suzanne Collins herself.   Having the actual author involved in the creative process of turning the novel into a movie should be a Hollywood requirement.  Collins' involvement enables the movie to retain the themes and tone of the novel while still delivering an exciting and interesting drama/thriller that works on the big screen.

For those who don't know the gist, The Hunger Games is set in an alternate post-apocalyptic future land of Panem where the urban society of the Capitol controls the twelve poverty-stricken "districts" beneath them through military dominance, wealth, and resource control.  In an effort to continually punish and humiliate their defeated rebellion, the Capitol holds an annual gladiatorial tournament broadcast to the entire nation via television called the Hunger Games.  In each district, one boy and one girl aged 12-18 is called upon to compete to the death until only one champion remains.  As you can tell, the certain death of 23 teens is not an event that is looked forward to by the commoners, while the wealthy treat it as sport and entertainment.

In District 12, tough big-sister and talented hunter Katniss Everdeen (former Oscar nominee Jennifer Lawrence) unprecedentedly volunteers to take her younger sister's place as tribute in the Hunger Games when her name is chosen.  She is determined to make it back to see her mother, sister, and confidante friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth, Thor Chris's little brother).  Katniss is joined by Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson of Journey 2 andThe Kids Are Alright), the male tribute.  Together, they are taken to the Capitol, wined, dined, trained, and prettied up by the team of promoter Effie Trinket (an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks), former champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and designer Cinna (singer Lenny Kravitiz).

Forced to promote, pander, and garner their own attention among the master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), TV producer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and politically to the President Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), Katniss and Peeta begin to see what they are up against physically and emotionally to survive this event.  They will be challenged and tested in every way, both imaginable and unimaginable.  That business picks up where the shrewd marketing for this movie wisely leaves off.  The scenes of actual violent competition have been under wraps until now.  Once the competition begins, the cinematic tension of The Hunger Games hits its stride after a tediously long beginning.  The fight scenes and duels are done very well.  They deliver on their end of the hype.

While the visual and science-fiction creativity on-screen and the suspense generated by the plot make for an easily entertaining film, the end result from the rest left me unfulfilled.  I'm going to sound like one of the book readers (thanks to some friend input), but the budding romance is weak, the bigger love triangle is ignored, Katniss's excellent internal monologue is omitted, and the deeper political and evil forces are grossly underplayed.  With all of the brilliant hype and buzz generated by the novel's wild success, I was expected gravitas and pathos, something on the level of Harry Potter or The Lord of the Rings.  What I got was a romance worthy of Water for Elephants and shallower kid version of The Running Man if it was run by the TV people of The Truman Show. 

I didn't even read the book and still felt that we needed deeper emotion and bigger deals and explanations towards a society glorifying youth violence and a wicked government strong-arming class control.  I see the appeal, but wasn't empowered to care.  Katniss was worth the hero worship, but I needed something to root against in return and didn't get that from Wes Bentley or Donald Sutherland.  Is it bad that I got more impact (and even a little more enjoyment) from John Carter than The Hunger Games?

The absolute largest positive that literally saves The Hunger Games as a movie is the dynamic performance of Jennifer Lawrence.  Those of you who have seen her Oscar-nominated turn in the small independent drama Winter's Bone (over her makeup-heavy Mystique from last summer's X-Men: First Class) know how talented she is.  Lawrence exudes a stoic maturity for her years.  Her Katniss carries a strength, fortitude, courage, and honor embodied in the role that actresses like Kristen Stewart and Emma Stone can't hold a candle to.  Expect great things in her future.  The constantly-agape Josh Hutcherson can't match her talent and can't hold up his end of the romance, and we get too little of Liam Hemsworth.  She's perfect casting and the best reason to celebrate the future of this new franchise.  Fans of the book series and friends of mine have promised that the second and third novels bring that sense of the "big picture" and the bigger societal ramifications caused by The Hunger Games.  I trust their expertise and word as much as they trust mine for movies.  Because of that, I look greatly look forward to November 2013 and Catching Fire. I want to see this series get better.

LESSON #1: MAKING AN IMPRESSION TO AN AUDIENCE-- As part of humiliation factor of this tournament, the rich Capitol audience doesn't just want bloodshed.  They want entertainment.  They are suckers for it.  Katniss and Peeta's handlers know that and implore the two to make an impression at every opportunity to impress the fickle puppeteers.  In many cases, much like "Are you not entertained?!" from Russell Crowe in Gladiator, making that impression requires pandering to an audience and giving them what they want.

LESSON #2: THE EXPLOITATION OF TELEVISION VIOLENCE-- Though the movie doesn't do a very good job of examining society's pulse on the brutal gladiatorial Hunger Games competition, its a big component to what makes the movie thought-provoking science fiction.  Our human civilization has a past blood thirst and fascination for to-the-death sport and plenty of movies and novels about dystopian futures feel that we are destined to fall back on that kind of history when society breaks down.  In our technological world, television is the natural delivery device for that sort of "entertainment." Though death isn't involved, it's not wonder that boxing, MMA, and professional wrestling annually lead the revenues of pay-per-view cable sales.  How far are we from the next step in that future?

LESSON #3: SURVIVAL TACTICS-- The Hunger Games does an excellent job of showcasing outdoor and competitive survival skills (without firearms, no less), especially among young adults.  Older audiences can go watch Liam Neeson fight off wolves in The Grey, but the teens and pre-teens can learn a few things from the tributes of this movie.  While no teen should ever have to learn to kill, learning how to handle one's self in a survival situation has become a lost skill to technology and convenience.

LESSON #4: HOPE IS THE ONLY THING STRONGER THAN FEAR-- This is the ominous and thematic quote from President Coriolanus Snow in The Hunger Games and it sums up the future direction of this series.  In this society, the poor are ruled (for the moment) by fear thanks to military presence and the threat of death of their youth from The Hunger Games.  No one is willing to stand up to those threats.  The moment someone does, hope is generated and contagious.  With enough hope, fear can be repressed and pushed back.  Get enough of it and you can defeat fear entirely.