Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross from the bestselling novel by Suzanne Collins, comes with its own pre-setup  set of expectations and possibilities for disappointing the book's fan base. When this many people are familiar with the source material it's harder for the resulting film to get a fair critical hearing. Instead The Hunger Games movie seems to have come into the world in order to generate conversations about its own existence, from whether or not Jennifer Lawrence is too old to play heroine Katniss Everdeen (author Collins endorsed the casting) to the disturbing recent racial slurs regarding the casting of a young African-American actress in a key role.

So what do we have? Katniss's life in "District 12" (what appears to be the Appalachian Mountains) is one of hunting and trading; she's the sole means of support for her widowed mother (Paula Malcomson) and younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields). District 12 is a gray, impoverished area where most residents work in mines like the one in which Katniss's father died. Ross owed his main character a better setup; I would have liked Katniss's considerable wilderness skills (so useful later on) to have been better established. Ross gets in his own way directorially throughout, lurching into closeups and never allowing Katniss's comfort with nature or discomfort at the different ways of the Capital City to sink in. I hadn't thought much about the Roman imagery in the book, but it's played up on screen. Katniss and her male District 12 counterpart Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are unveiled to the Capital's citizens in a parade of chariots, and the names of characters like Katniss's stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) echo those of another era. Novelist Suzanne Collins receives a screenplay credit along with Ross and Billy Ray; the writers sharpen the book's political themes by highlighting the Government-created superstructure under which the games function. Game maker Seneca (Wes Bentley) has a Truman Show-like array of weapons at his disposal to push the combatants into more dramatic situations, which are then described golf announcer style by Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci). The fact that the Games are finally entertainment for the Capital audience (Capital residents are foppishly styled and clothed in bizarre, garish colors.) is explained by former games winner Haymitch Abernathy (a subtle Woody Harrelson), the man charged with crafting the images of the District 12 winners and securing them sponsors who provide in game aids. The message isn't hammered but it is clear and welcome: we're watching a movie about a manufactured entertainment.

The President of "Panem" (fine, nasty Donald Sutherland) is wary of Katniss's popularity, cautioning against allowing too much hope to foster among the outlying districts. The counter to that idea comes from Peeta, who'd rather die as himself in the Games than win as a tool of the government. The Games themselves unfold in fits and starts; after a bloodbath at the start that Ross tries his best to hide in editing we follow Katniss to an eventual reunion with Peeta and climactic flight from a pack of hungry wolves. Jennifer Lawrence is a sharp, smart presence as Katniss, believable as a fighter but able to play the vulnerability of a 16-year old as well. I wanted more of Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the young girl who becomes an ally, but a little of her presence warms the movie. The other combatants aren't differentiated much, and we're to understand that some have trained as "tributes" all their lives. (The last moment of self-awareness granted to one tribute comes much too late.) The Hunger Games to my mind will deliver for fans of the book, but I wanted this movie to have a director unafraid to let his heroine be more a girl of the forest and less an action hero. Lawrence has more range than she gets to show here and so does the character she's playing, but Collins, Ross, and The Hunger Games audience.

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