Sunday, March 25, 2012

All They Can Eat: The Hunger Games

Based on a series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic world that looks a lot like this country’s past, present and imagined future. District 12, the backwoods region that the main character calls home, is a blend of the 1950s rural South and the modern Ozarks – the last comparison coming easily to movie fans given that the portrayer of Katniss Everdeen is Jennifer Lawrence, who made her first big big-screen impression in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the faraway capital city is like something out of the commingled imaginations of George Lucas and Tim Burton – a vibrant metropolis made up of tall, gleaming structures that are inhabited by flamboyantly dressed freaks. It’s from this capital that the titular bloodsport is schemed and executed, pitting a young man and woman from each of the dozen districts in a televised fight to the death that recalls The Running Man, the Olympics and Big Brother. The “Hunger Games” are a “tribute” to a time when the country withstood insurrection, which is to say that the games are a stern reminder to the citizens about who is in control, which is to say that what The Hunger Games portrays, a world in which the commoner is powerless, is the opposite of what it actually demonstrates.

While the credits suggest that The Hunger Games was directed by Gary Ross and adapted for the screen by Ross, Collins and Billy Ray, in truth the movie belongs to the novel’s fans, who, like the government depicted in the book and film, have high expectations and don’t want to be fucked with. Ever since Hollywood realized that there was huge money to be made through subservience to the youth fiction-reading masses, it has marched in step to the demands of that populace, dutifully creating “adaptations” that are less standalone works of art than complementary cinematic scrapbooks, add-ons to a previous experience. Blame the success of the Harry Potter and Twilight franchises if you want, or, heck, blame Titanic (coincidentally about to return to theaters in 3D), which provided Hollywood with an ah-ha moment about the financial potential of making movies friendly to teenage girls. Meantime, reserve some blame for the still-booming comic book adaptation genre, which, Christopher Nolan’s Batman series perhaps notwithstanding, generates buzz not by promising to take characters exciting new places but by assuring die-hard fans that they’ll be faithful to original lore. Or, you know, blame the marketplace. After all, Collins’ series itself is a mishmash of homages and ripoffs. If the best way to rake in cash were to assign these kinds of projects to filmmakers with singular vision and stuff to say, Hollywood would happily oblige. Instead, in this genre the marketplace favors screenwriters and directors who know how to work from a checklist.

And so we get Ross’ The Hunger Games, which feels like exactly what it is: the beginning of something (read: not a stand-alone work) that’s slave to the expectations of its audience. I haven’t read Collins’ book, so I can’t tell just how faithful Ross’ adaptation is, but I can say with confidence that it’s faithful to a fault. The telltale signs are there: at 142 minutes, the movie is ridiculously overlong, packed with scenes that feel sketched out on index cards – faithfully capturing the physical action but rarely the emotion or tone. This is the scene in which we see Katniss is a caring big sister. This is the scene in which Katniss demonstrates that she’s an outdoorswoman. This is the scene in which Katniss shows romantic chemistry with a boy. As each scene is filed away, there seems to be more effort put into not leaving things out than into shaping what’s put in. After all, less important than cultivating new fans (not to mention fans of something new) is appeasing the fans who are already out there, cash in hand. Thus, The Hunger Games rushes by at a snail’s pace, rarely fully developing a moment, choosing instead to nod back to something deeper in the book. Case in point? Consider the characters of Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) who are, respectively, hard-drinking, grouchy and mischievous and uptight, self-centered and foolish. How do we know? Because whenever either character slightly hints at any of those traits, fans of Collins’ novel erupt into uproarious knowing laughter, all too eager to fill in the movie’s blanks.

It’s not hard to see what draws people this series. It’s refreshing to come across a movie told through the perspective of a truly kickass chick, whose skills are so apparent that she actually enters the "Hunger Games" as a favorite to win. Katniss is smart, tough, savvy and great with a bow and arrows. She’s also brave and principled, volunteering to enter the games in order to spare her younger sister. Katniss doesn’t have a bloodlust. She’s just determined to survive. And, sure enough, most of the killings are at the hands of some specially trained assassins hailing from District 1. But when Katniss is forced to mix it up, it’s nice that she’s often aided by other young women, and that she spends as much time protecting the male participant from her district, Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta Mellark, as he spends protecting her.

Trouble is, despite all those admirable attributes, Katniss still isn’t all that interesting. It’s her predicament that’s compelling. And, amazingly, the thing that Ross struggles most to convey is the intensity of the “Hunger Games.” Don’t misunderstand, the movie doesn’t need to be more violent; in fact, Ross demonstrates a knack for conveying the grotesqueries of the games while preserving the PG-13 rating necessary for its target audience (it helps that his film is dominated by close-ups that also keep far less offensive imagery out of view – stuff like elbows). But the movie did need to allow time for suspense to build and for the implications of the violence to linger, and that’s made almost impossible due to Ross’ checklist pacing and the story’s over-reliance on deus ex machinas, the most problematic of which are the miniature parachutes that drop magical healing gels into the battlefield (two deus ex machinas in one, if you think about it), making the consequences of the games less severe. In a story about a fight to the death, incredibly Katniss’ survival is never really in doubt. It’s as if the movie wants us to be assured: in this saga there are still several hundred pages left.


Sam Juliano said...

At the end of the day this is certainly a brilliantly insightful and superbly written takedown of THE HUNGER GAMES, and one that is not easy to counter if you are a fan like I am. True, I am hardly the focus of the film's demographics and I hated the TWILIGHT films, and most of the time was indifferent to Harry Potter. And to boot I have not read Suzanne Collins' novels. I went in here pretty much WANTING to dislike this film, but in the end was taken by the appealing hybrid of THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME, ZARDOZ, APOCALYPTO and ROMEO AND JULIET with a bit of the savagry of LORD OF THE FLIES. I did also see some of THE RUNNING MAN that you mention here. And one can also see some of THE TRUMAN SHOW. And who can disagree with your broaching of George Lucas and Tim Burton?

The point of all this is that it certainly is derivative, and it brings together some tried and true themes and genre conventions.

So why did I fall for it? Well, your cinematic scrapbook proposition is a persuasive one, but I do feel it can be applied to a number of multiplex franchises, and it's really the new orde rof business in Hollywood production circles. Gary Ross did direct a dud with SEABISCUIT, but he also helmed PLEASANTVILLE, which has rightly taken the label of minor classic and he approaches the material here with wise adherence, minimalism that allows for specific attention to story and performance, and a smart limit to special effects complicity. He is aided by an imaginative set design, a good score by the always unpredictable James Newton Howard, and some exceptional performances. I am told he altered the ending, which allowed for a surprising emotional coda that brought unlikely resonance to the material, culled as it was from an action foundation.

I did not want to like this movie but there it was. For me a 4.5 of 5 and another triumph for Gary Ross.

Again, regardless of what I think I congratulate you on another sensational essay here at THE COOLER.

The Film Doctor said...

You nicely capture the mechanical quality of the film, which is its biggest problem (audiences, happy to see the book faithfully adapted, don't seem able to tell the difference), but I was curious as to what you thought of Katniss' attempt to media-market herself to the viewing audience, which seemed to me as big a concern as her learning how to fight.

Is it really deus ex machina if humans are behind the small healing gel drop-offs? Also, humans are behind why the characters are getting burned to start with. So, one would like to view the Games' chain of events as having some fateful significance, but the game is rigged in advance. Katniss only succeeds due to the powers that be bowing to her popular appeal? There's something disconcerting about how the movie makes all of these questions moot.

Richard Bellamy said...

To echo another popular movie about survival in the arena, "Are you not entertained?" I know you were not, but I was.

I agree with many things you say here. Indeed, it is often "a cinematic scrapbook," as you aptly put it, not a standalone piece, and I favor standalone cinema over all the sequels and franchises, no matter who the fuck directs them or performs in them.

But you credit some of the atmosphere and the musical score and some of the acting, and I enjoyed that and more. I thought there were some genuinely touching and/or memorably dramatic moments, and I thought Lawrence was great.

I'm with you on the parachutes. As I said in my post, the book is very gimmicky. Fortunately, the movie leaves out a lot of the gimmicks. I hate story situations that resemble a video game, and the parachutes are like those power balls you run your character over in order to beef up your energy points. Dumb.

I'm sure, from a teen's point of view, Collins is really good at constructing a Bella-torn-between-Edward-and-Jacob scenario, but she definitely lacks imagination. You are right, the whole contest would be more visceral if it were more raw, unaided survival of the fittest. The parachutes with their little chimes announcing their descent are just dumb.

Alas, it's like a video game. Even Katniss knows that and tries to run to the edge of the virtual reality grid. Ever done that playing a video game? In a WWII fighter plane game, I once flew my Mustang to the edge of the grid. It took a while, but it was trippy.

The games sequences sometimes fall flat. Tension is revived when we see the uprising in response to Rue's death. Nothing like a revolution to pump up the action. A lot more of that takes place in Book Two, but I guess that's not going to induce you to see Catching Fire

Jason Bellamy said...

Sam: Although I found the plodding pace to be pretty damning given the subject matter, I didn't totally hate this film. There's enough potential here to imagine it working later on. But it was unfortunate to see Ross unable to cultivate the kind of powerful emotional climax that the film's early scenes seem to promise. Lord knows, George Lucas' prequels have oodles of problems, some of them far more offensive than the ones we find here, but give George credit for this: even though we knew we were just at the beginning of the story, he managed to create big climactic moments in each of the prequels, allowing them to stand up by themselves much better than this film does. (The same can be said for the Harry Potter franchise, actually, although that series had the problem of celebrating victory at the end of each episode while reminding of of the presence of Voldemort, which made the mini victories seem rather empty and pointless.) Anyway, I'll be curious to figure out how the movie's ending differs from the book.

Jason Bellamy said...

Film Doc: Let me begin by noting that I started to read your piece late last night, but I was too tired to give it my full attention, so I'll be going back to it later today. On that note ...

* I was curious as to what you thought of Katniss' attempt to media-market herself to the viewing audience, which seemed to me as big a concern as her learning how to fight.

The one thing I'm sorry to leave out of my review is the film's comments on media culture and reality TV, several of which are interesting to ponder (even if, as you imply, they wind up feeling like moot points).

I agree with you to a degree: The film definitely stresses that it's important for Katniss to win the approval of the masses in order to survive. Alas, I felt the movie said that more than it demonstrated it. The parachutes seem to come directly from Haymitch, for example, and while there's a scene that implies that he got someone to sponsor that balloon, I didn't have any concept of the "rules" of this stuff -- why is she the only one getting help? how difficult is it to get these problem-solving parachutes? It didn't make much sense to me.

And is Katinss' popularity really all that helpful? I find it odd that the character who is supposedly a ratings generator is the one who needs to constantly dodge fireballs and gets chased by all those barking dog beasty things. Several times over, the "game" itself nearly kills Katniss, which seems like bad television programming to me. (The worst example is the end: if those dog beasties get the kids from District 12, then the kid from District 1 wins without a fight; no television producer in his right mind would want to see that.)

So if surviving the game is really about winning the hearts and minds of the people in the audience -- much like "success" for this film is defined by appeasing the hearts and minds of book fans -- then the movie needed to do a much better job of articulating exactly how that process works, right?

Jason Bellamy said...

Hokahey: I'll give the second movie a chance. As I said to Sam, I think there's some potential here. But regardless of one's feelings about how well the movie does what it does, I thought it was worth pointing how little of an artistic vision or voice there seems to be in the film itself. You can bet that come Christmas, there will be copies of the Hunger Games DVD right next to Hunger Games board games and Hunger Games photo books and Hunger Games calendars. The movie, which gives physical representation to these characters, is simply the gateway product for those other products. And it shows about that much imagination.

That said, as someone who has read the book, can you fill me in on any major differences between the book and film that might demonstrate Ross & Co using more free will than I'm giving them credit for?

Richard Bellamy said...

Well, you are right, a lot gets sacrificed when the event book gets made into a movie - especially for the demanding teen-fan audience. But does that have to happen? I say no!

When fans of Lord of the Rings still express disappointment that parts were left out of a movie trilogy that lasts nearly 10 hours, it's time to tell the fans to jump into Mordor's volcano. As for Ross and Co. - some minor decisions were made to diverge from the book.


First of all, the games part is much abbreviated. Fewer parachutes! (Thankfully.) A change I am glad they made - even taking into account the best CGI - is that the mutant dogs (the muttations) are created from the dead bodies of the tributes - so that their faces look like Glimmer and Clove, etc. Not doing that saved the movie from unwanted laughter.

My students complained today that there is a lot more kissing between Katniss and Peeta in the cave! But we got the point.

The Cornucopia in the middle of the lawn is not as described. (First of all, it's the second most ridiculous device in the story, behind the parachutes.) Here Ross thought he would make it look like some strange futuristic thing, but to me it looked like the kind of neglected modern art sculpture that children climb all over in a park.

But, I guess you're right. No major changes although fans consider any changes to be major.

Jason Bellamy said...

"No major changes although fans consider any changes to be major."

Especially when those fans are part of a huge teen base.

Interesting about the "muttations" (really?). You're right, if those things had human faces it would have been sillly.

As for the "Cornucopia," yes, it looks exactly like "the kind of neglected modern art sculpture that children climb all over in a park." But it did strike me as something out of modern reality TV, so while I wasn't impressed by it, I guess I didn't think I was supposed to be. But the book might have made it sound more fantastic.

Thanks for outlining some of the differences between the book and movie!

Richard Bellamy said...

I am two thirds of the way through Catching Fire, and even though it has a lot of very serious elements that could make it better than the first movie, it has a lot of very silly and just plain odd elements that could make the sequel much worse. And we do know a sequel cometh.