Wednesday, March 28, 2012

FILM REVIEW: "The Hunger Games"

If I'm going to be perfectly honest, there is little that raises the newly released film adaptation of "The Hunger Games" above the ranks of "John Carter". The chief difference is that one book had huge fans a century ago, and the other had huge fans right now. In trying to get understand why some of my friends, who I consider to be fairly intelligent, liked the film, they told me that it was "an adequate portrayal of the events in the book", and that the hours just flew by. Don't catch me wrong, because both of those statements are correct and I agree with them, but I focus on the "adequate" part of their description. Was the film okay? Perhaps, though I will give reasons for I why I believe otherwise. Is it the best depiction we could have gotten of this clearly beloved story? Absolutely not.

For those of you who may be unfamiliar with the book, "The Hunger Games" focuses on some sort of fantasy world called Panem, though calling it fantasy would be an ill description. What the film fails to mention is that Panem is the dystopian remnants of North America. There are many things the film offers little explanation towards any conclusion, instead expecting us to figure out on our own that there are 12 districts that are punished for a previous rebellion by offering up a young girl and boy from each district to fight to the death in a cruelly televised event called the Hunger Games. All the while we're being pummeled with "information" that we're expected to instantly believe is important.

Apparently District 12 is in poverty, though we scarcely see a hint of it, and it's only vaguely hinted that District 13 has been completely destroyed. We meet Gale for a second, and apparently that cheeky second of dumb grinning is supposed to inform a lifetime of friendship with Katniss Everdeen. But Gary Ross isn't really interested in that. As a matter of fact, I'm not so certain he's really that interested in anything. We move on to the reaping of the tributes in a second, with no buildup to the announcements, and since we already know what happens, there's no tension in there. It just moves past, and puts the characters right on the train to Capitol. And so we're told that District 12, as a whole, doesn't really matter.

Once we get to Capitol, I immediately got the impression that this section was written with intent on biting satire, but not in the screenplay. What I could tell was in the book without having read it was barely present in the film, and absolutely not utilized. I kept asking myself, what are the movie's priorities? And then I realized that Gary Ross really has none. We'd all like to think fondly of him from "Pleasantville", but the fact of the matter is that he more recently directed "Seabiscuit", and even that was nine years ago. His talent has certainly not improved over the years, and in fact there's no directorial insight that he offers into this particular endeavor.

But I felt that maybe once we got into the arena, when the action portion kicked off, maybe it would at least be entertaining. The essential problem with either receiving entertainment or compelling emotion from the film is that it is principally PG-13. I expect, as no doubt everyone will, this was done to get to the teen crowd who primarily has read the book. Ignoring the obvious lapses in parental judgment involved in allowing this fare towards their children, the premise cinematically requires the use of extreme violence, which is only hinted at in the film. The whole purpose of having children go up against and kill each other is the tragedy and grotesqueness of it.

Truth is, none of the tributes in the games are given their fair due as far as development go. They are the basic stereotypes, scarcely remembered at all. Apparently Rue's death was really significant, and I could hear people crying in the theater, but I couldn't help letting out a little laugh at the moment. It got to the point of stupidity, in which nothing made sense and the film didn't even try to explain it. Things happened, and you let them happen, but I didn't care. I didn't know the slightest thing about Katniss, Peeta, or really anybody in the film.

I'd be ready to ship this film off to the cleaners to have its flesh ripped off it if it weren't for select members of the adult cast. I am speaking mainly of three, first being Stanley Tucci. The guy is so amazingly fabulous in reality, and that is mindfully transposed onto the screen, but perhaps too mindfully. He's given too much attention later on, and it really distracts from the games. He goes from being a parody of a talking head to being simply a talking head. Then there's Lenny Kravitz, who seems like an odd match for Cinna, but he absolutely works and appeals better than any other character in the film, Katniss included. I got to the point of wishing she would die so we could get a spinoff on Cinna. That would be fantastic!

And then there was Wes Bentley, who I just love for being Wes Bentley and having that awesomely designed beard. The guy was spot on. People who were honestly miscast were Donald Sutherland as President Snow, who really gives off the wrong sort of vibe. President Snow is meant to be this thin and charismatically menacing presence. If given to Christopher Plummer, or better yet Gary Oldman, this character would be, excuse the odd choice of wordplay, fly. Woody Harrelson is usually quite a lift, but the film doesn't really give him as much attention as needed, and he's wasted potential. As a matter of fact all of the characters are wasted potential.

The thing that looked so promising as a cinematic concept about this film was the consequences of it. What does it do to you when you are put in a situation in which you are forced to kill people who aren't evil or horrible? How does that weigh on you? This is a question the film absolutely refuses to address, in the present or future or the story. Events happen, but they have no real consequences, or at least none that we feel. James Newton Howard's score comes in at all the wrong moments and with all the wrong reasons. Tom Stern's cinematography is not only boring, but distracting. The shaky camera work isn't cunning, but plain distracting. I really wish I had liked this film a lot more than I did, and you can't tell me I didn't try. I'm not going to lie to myself and give it something that it doesn't deserve. This was a failure, and I so rarely use that word in discussing films, even the ones I hate.


  1. Agree with every single word, I wish more people would read this .. Like all the millions that keep praising the film..
    nothing against the books..

  2. Take away the hullabaloo surrounding the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ best-selling young adult book and what you have is an absorbing film with a dire premise that stands pretty much on its own. Lawrence is also the stand-out here as Katniss and makes her seem like a real person rather than just another book character brought to life on film. Good review Duncan.