Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Hunger Games

Genre: Science Fiction & Fantasy, Drama
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, Billy Ray
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci
Rated: PG-13
Running Time: 2 hr 22 min
Release Date: March 23, 2012 (Wide)

Synopsis: The Hunger Games, based on Suzanne Collins’ popular trilogy and directed by Gary Ross (Pleasantville), is set in a dystopian future in the remains of what was formerly North America. In this nation of Panem, made up of the Capitol and its twelve surrounding districts, a past uprising has led to a meager and monitored existence for district citizens who are forced to live in squalor and provide goods and services to the rich and ruling Capitol. As further retribution for their “past sins”, citizens are also forced to participate in an annual, nationally televised competition where children fight to the death. Two children (one male and one female, between the ages of twelve and eighteen) are chosen from each district in a lottery called the Reaping and are then forced to compete until only one survivor remains. Our heroine, sixteen year old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), makes a powerful impression on Panem’s citizens and game officials when she volunteers as District 12’s “tribute” in place of her younger sister, whose name had actually been chosen. Katniss, the District 12’s male contestant, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), and twenty two other tributes are then brought to the Capitol, where they are polished and paraded in front of oblivious audiences who cheer gleefully for participants as if being chosen for the Games was an exciting honor, rather than a gruesome and likely death sentence. Unlike some of the other tributes, Katniss and Peeta have had no previous training and must mainly rely on their own skills and knowledge to keep them alive, as well as the guidance of the mentor that they are assigned. Enter past victor and present drunk, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), whose first words of advice to the pair are, “Embrace the prospect of your imminent death”. Fortunately, they are later granted more useful counsel, as well as a talented stylist and confidant named, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who helps the duo to impress potential game “sponsors”. As the twenty four tributes enter the arena, a televised blood bath begins, and Katniss must weigh her desire to preserve her humanity against her need to survive.

Performances: As is the case when all idealized literary characters are brought to life on the big screen, the question of who would fill such well defined roles caused much anxiety within Hunger’s loyal fan base. Coming off an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Winter’s Bone, there was no doubt that Lawrence possessed more than the acting chops required for such a role, but the question still remained: Could this young actress successfully embody the already iconic Katniss Everdeen? As for this fan, I don’t believe that filmmakers could have made a wiser choice. Lawrence is appealing without being overly feminine, successful at blending the confidence of a warrior with the vulnerability of a child, and seems to possess an internal strength that never borders on arrogance or brutality, making her effortless portrayal of Katniss Everdeen spot on perfect.

Hutcherson did well playing the boy-next-door type, and he and Lawrence never exhibited a chemistry beyond that of two people awkwardly displaying their affection for the camerawhich is exactly the way that they were supposed to play it. Haymitch Abernathy is shown in a much more appealing light in the movie than he ever was in the novel, but Harrelson still retained the character’s wise and weary soul. Though not the most convincing actor, Lenny Kravitz exhibited the warmth and sincerity that we hoped to see from Cinna. Finally, two small but memorable parts were that of Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. Banks did a great job of concerning herself immensely with trivial issues, and Tucci’s depiction of the Games' host was perfectly exaggerated, (and even more brilliant upon second viewing).

Other Considerations: Those who have read The Hunger Games should be happy with the way in which the material was handled, as the film faithfully follows the main points of the book and accurately reflects the novel's ambiance. The setting and costume designs of the Capitol were reminiscent of movies such as Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, but culminated in a style distinctly its own and perfectly illustrated the phony, over the top fa├žade of the Capitol.

While it is disturbing to watch, the extreme use of violence was a necessary component of the story and filmmakers did not shy away from its importance. Although the violence was not overly graphic, (which may have hurt or helped the film, depending on how you look at it), the idea behind it (children savagely murdering other children) should be enough for parents to heed the PG-13 rating.

The Hunger Games not only deals with important moral and ethical issues, (government control vs. societal breakdown, self-sacrifice vs. survival, entertainment vs. exploitation, poverty vs. excess), but also delivers up one of the strongest female leads that a film like this has ever seen. Katniss Everdeen is an empowering character for female audiences, possessing a physical and emotional strength that surpasses that of any of her male counterparts. However, audiences of both sexes can appreciate the film, since, as there is no male/female divide in this world, there is also no chauvinism on either side.

The only thing that the film did not successfully capture was the soul of Katniss and her relationship with other important characters. Though filmmakers quickly filled us in on Katniss’ past and personality, there was not enough time to fully explore the character’s psychology, nor set up anything substantial regarding her deeper connections. Because of this, important events did not emotionally weigh on audiences as heavily they should have. For example, while the death of Rue was sad, we really didn’t know her well enough to care about her death on its own terms only in relation to what it might have meant to Katniss, (who likely associated Rue with her own little sister). The moment should have been heartbreaking (as determined by Lawrence’s reaction to it), but to audiences, it simply felt like another bump in the road.

The Final Wrap: With the close of the Harry Potter films back in 2011 and the last of the Twilight movies being released this coming November, this next young adult fantasy franchise was sure to be a box office smash, no matter how well or how poorly the films were constructed. Fortunately, this first installment was not only a well done YA movie it was a well done movie, period. Fans of the books will be thrilled to see their story finally come to life, but newcomers should find the movie just as exhilarating (and addictive) as Hunger’s seasoned followers. For those of you who have not yet seen this film for fear that it is just another Twilight, know that it is not. Unlike the other teen novel-turned-blockbuster sensation, this movie dealt with more profound questions and went much further than simply bringing popular literary characters to life in a substandard film. Filmmakers do have a bit of improving to do, as they are not yet taking the risks that deliver the emotional punches audiences are expecting. However, if their first attempt is any indication of what these filmmakers are capable of, the movies will only get better, putting the odds of the franchise’s continued success ever in their favor.