Movies – The Hunger Games

28 Mar

The number one, must-see movie in the country last week was a story of a mismatched pair thrust into an impossible situation and attempting to succeed beyond all odds, and maybe– just maybe — finding romance along the way. I refer, of course, to Salmon Fishing in the Yemen.

Just kidding. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, or hiding away in a woodland shack putting the finishing touches on your lates manifesto, you’ve undoubtedly been exposed to The Hunger Games.

Based on the first book of Suzanne Collins’ best selling trilogy, The Hunger Games is the story of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a teenage girl who offers herself up to prevent her younger sister from having to participate in the 74th annual Hunger Games, a brutal, winner-take-all battle between 24 teenagers (called “tributes”) drawn by lottery from each of the country’s 12 districts. Katniss is teamed with Peeta Melaark (Josh Hutcherson), the son of the district’s baker, and they are transported from their Appalachian coal mining district to the luxury of the Capitol, under the watchful eyes of Capitol representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and the drunken, cynical Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson). There, they are made over by stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) and evaluated by Game Maker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) before being thrown into the arena. Once inside the arena, it’s kill or be killed as the entire country watches the live broadcast.

Hunger Games, as with any movie, needs to be evaluated on a number of different questions:

  1. Is it any good? Absolutely. The performances are first-rate, the adaptation is mostly faithful to the book, and the production design offers distinct differences between Katniss’ home in District 12, the Capitol, and the Arena. There’s even an almost Ozian transition between camera styles between the three that serves to subtly guide the tenor of the piece.
  2. Is it as good as the book? It’s as good as the book, but it’s not as deep as the book. Since the book takes the first-person point of view of Katniss, there’s a lot of internal stuff that doesn’t make it to the screen. And since this is a 2-plus hour movie, a lot of smaller details are left out, and some of the backstory is abbreviated. The origin of the Mockingjay pin is changed from book to movie, eliminating a supporting character. The character of Haymitch is cleaned up quite a bit. But everything that materially affects the story is here, along with some things that are not in the book, such as a few glimpses into the Arena’s control room. If pressed, I would have to say that the movie lives up to the book, but does not surpass it.
  3. Is it too violent/not violent enough? Director Gary Ross walks a fine line between delivering a movie that’s not so sanitized that it glamorizes the violence or fails to fully convey how serious —deadly serious — the situation is, but is palatable to the younger portion of its potential audience. Skillful use of shadow and offscreen deaths limits the number of truly gruesome scenes, but there are a few. If the question is rephrased “Can my child see it?” the answer is “You know your child better than I do.” Or, as co-star Elizabeth Banks said on Slate Magazine’s Culture Gabfest last week, “If you watch f*ckin’ Jersey Shore, you can watch this movie.”
  4. How are the actors? Absolutely fantastic. Jennifer Lawrence, who was already an Oscar-nominated actress, should become a full-fledged movie star after this. And, based on what I’ve seen and read to date, no one is more deserving. (I’m lookin’ at you, mopey Twilight girl.) Liam Hemsworth as Gayle, the maybe-boy-back-home, isn’t given much to do other than stare at a television monitor and look concerned, but he does it handsomely. And Josh Hutcherson, who I thought was too slight to play Peeta, won me over as well, especially in his depiction of Peeta’s intuitive understanding of the value of playing to the audience, and the ease at which he did so.  In this he served as a nice counterpart to Lawrence’s all-business Katniss.  In fact, one of my few complaints about the movie is that while both Lawrence and Hutcherson brought subtlety to their roles, the movie itself didn’t play up the differences in their approaches to playing the game.  In the movie, to borrow a phrase from another classic that saw a recent limited re-release, a kiss is just a kiss.  In the book, it was much, much more.

    Supported by the always-great Banks, Harrelson, and Stanley Tucci (as the Games’ unctuous host/master of ceremonies) and the menacing Bentley and Donald Sutherland (as the evil President, a role I still think should have gone to Malcolm McDowell), there isn’t a casting misstep in the bunch. Even Lenny Kravitz follows up his live-action debut in Precious with a solid, if understated performance here.

  5. Do I need to have read the book first? Do you have to? No. Should you? Maybe. The one member of our group who hadn’t read the books definitely enjoyed the movie less than the rest of us. But there are a number of online primers and a sufficient amount of exposition that you won’t get too lost in the movie, although you may need some gaps filled in later.

In short, I strongly recommend this movie, but as an avid fan of the books, I would certainly recommend those as well.  I can’t wait to see the even-more-cinematic Catching Fire adapted (and am already enjoying the speculative casting going on on the internet), and am immensely curious to see how they’re going to do Mockingjay, a book which positively blows up the scope and tone of the first two.

Oh, and go see Salmon Fishing in the Yemen too.

My score: 8 Cheeseburgers

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