Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Film Review: The Hunger Games pops off the page and onto the screen
"I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!"
And let the 74th Hunger Games begin.
Katniss Everdeen takes her younger sister's place when she is chosen to battle it out in an arena with 23 other tributes. A battle to the death where only one survivor will be crowned victor. The Hunger Games comes to the life on the big screen after great success on the page. I loved the books and I have been waiting patiently for the film version. And as I waited I wondered if the film would do the book justice. As we all know so many adaptations fail to translate. I didn't want to be disappointed with this one. And I wasn't.
(Spoilers ahead so be warned)
District 12 looks dry and rough just as I had imagined. The Capital is loud, colorful and obnoxious just as I had pictured. I don't know the citizens of the Capital, but just by their neon clothes, strange makeup and outlandish footwear I know I hate them. I hate them for their arrogance and narcissism, but most of all I hate them for their ignorance. I will say that I don't hate Caesar Flickerman (the host of The Hunger Games) only because he is played by Stanley Tucci and Tucci delivers a great performace, blue hair and all!
If you haven't heard about The Hunger Games then you are either living under a rock, or you're my 86-year-old grandmother who doesn't speak a word of English. Otherwise, most people have heard something about this dystopian story set in what once was North America where 12 districts are under the dictatorship of the Capital and its leader President Snow. Every year 2 tributes (one boy, one girl between the ages of 12-18) are chosen by random to battle it out in a game to the death. It was enacted 74 years prior as a way to control the people, but it's done in the guise of penance and remembrance so they do not try to revolt again. The ultimate terror tactic. And it works. It works on the reader, and now it works on the viewer.
Even though I know this story and I know what happens to the characters, I was nervous watching everything unfold. I had tension in my stomach. I had goosebumps up and down my arms, and I had great concern for these characters on screen. (I know it's just a movie and just so you know I am okay now. All tension gone!)
I want fans of the book to rest easy because Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss. I think the entire cast lives up to the expectations. I know there are concerns about Peeta, and I was one of those people who were irked by the casting choice. Josh Hutcherson looks nothing like what I thought Peeta should look like, but over the year he kind of grew on me and when I finally saw him on the screen I believed him. Peeta isn't meant to be gorgeous. (I think Gale is meant to be rugged handsome and Liam Hemsworth fits the bill there) Peeta's meant to be a doughy boy who works in his parents' bakery. He blends in. That's who he is. He's an everyman. And for me, his portrayal and his chemistry (whether romantic or platonic) with Katniss works. He's a boy who will go through even more hardships in the next two installments and he has nowhere to go but up. Remember when we first met Luke Skywalker? He was a whiney kid from a desert planet and he ended up becoming a Jedi who kicked some serious butt! And I think Peeta is the kind of character who will develop and grow on us (He won't kick butt, but he'll definitely change). I will say this, could someone else have played Peeta? Yes. Could someone else have played Katniss? No. But it works.
For fans of the book, we all know that the story is told from Katniss's Point of View, so we never get to see what happens outside of that perspective. It works for the page, but that had to be slightly tweaked for the film version. And it works. I am happy that they've done this. It also helps the viewers who haven't read the books to get a better idea of this world and what these Hunger Games are really about. For example, we get scenes of President Snow plotting in his rose garden, and we see just how much power this man wields. And we get a glimpse into how Haymitch (played by the every wonderful, yes I said wonderful!Woody Harrelson) works the Capital citizens in getting them to sponsor Katniss by sending her aid during the games.
The pacing of the film is tight and full of tension and conflict. The buildup to the battle is slow, but in a methodical way. It's meant to be a slower build so when the battle begins we are thrust into it and all the hell that is breaking loose. When Katniss is sent up the tube to be released into the game and she says good-bye to Cinna (her stylist played by the oh, so HOT Lenny Kravitz) I wanted to cry. Without saying a word, Lawrence says it all. With one look we finally see her fear and vulnerability, and although we know she has to win, we can't help but think, she's dead meat. And really, Katniss survives in this battle due to luck and the kindness of others. She makes tactical errors from the get-go, and nearly pays the price with her life from the start. And only through the help of 12-year old Rue does Katniss even stand a chance. And this is where the heart of the story truly takes place.
Amandla Stenberg plays Rue. The tribute from District 11. The district closest to 12 and also one of the poorest ones. Rue reminds Katniss of her sister, Prim. Young and sweet and innocent. Rue had no one who volunteered to take her place so she was thrust into a battle with people twice her size and strength. But Rue has mad hiding skills. She's small so she can disappear fast. Rue comes to Katniss's aid and then nurses her back to health when Katniss becomes injured. They form a bond and help one another survive. In this battle where violence or the threat of violence is at every turn, they are able to find their humanity because ultimately those who lost their humanity are the ones watching this televised blood bath in their fancy apartments in the Capital taking bets ,and who have made carnage a form of entertainment (hence why I hate them so).
Rue and Katniss' bond is devastating to watch because we know something horrible is going to happen (again, this review contains spoilers), and when Rue is killed it's more than just horrible. It's outrageous and puts the entire battle into perspective. It's the turning point, not only for this film, but for the entire series of books. It's the catalyst of change that is going to occur. During this battle, we don't know what happens back home in the districts, we find out later in the subsequent books that Katniss' tenderness towards Rue begins a rebellion. And when the film cuts to District 11 and the music swells, I lost it. I admit it. I cried. The thing is I knew I was going to cry, but what made me really cry was watching the reaction of those characters we don't know, and how one act of kindness that followed such cruelty impacted them. The unfairness and injustice of the world they live in bounces off the screen. It's a very powerful and moving scene. My favourite of the film.
The film, of course, is set up for its sequels and I can't wait! But one question I do have is, does this film work for people who haven't read the book? It's hard for me to judge that because I have read the books and I loved them. I love this story and I love the characters. Is a televised battle to the death that original? No. (Battle Royale and Running Man). But this story not only has that violent factor, it has love. And that's what makes it stronger. At the heart of The Hunger Games is the love a young women has for her little sister. She is her protector, and she will sacrifice her own life in order to keep those she loves safe. Now that is a universal theme that everyone can relate to (book lovers or not)!
The film is directed by Gary Ross and the script is written by Ross, author Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray
EDIT: In the original review I didn't mention the violence. I will say that I thought the movie could have been more violent. The violence is integral to the story, and was very disturbing in the book (as it should be) but I do understand why it was toned down as the core audience are teenagers (specifically teenage girls).
9.5 out of 10