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.