Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games: A heroine for the ages

The Hunger Games (2012) • View trailer
3.5 stars. Rating: PG-13, for violence and dramatic intensity, all involving teens
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.25.12

First, the crucial issue: Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen. Every physical characteristic, every delicately shaded emotional nuance.

It’s as if Lawrence stepped off the pages of Suzanne Collins’ novel.

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, right) watches footage from previous Hunger Games
bouts, hoping to learn from the successes — and failures — of her predecessors,
while her disillusioned mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and the effete
Effie (Elizabeth Banks) carefully guard their own thoughts.
This comes as no surprise, to those who were mesmerized by Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated performance in 2010’s Winter’s Bone. That unflinching, Ozark mountains girl possessed the same blend of stubborn, often foolish courage and troubled vulnerability, the latter emerging only when she thought nobody was looking.

Even then, when the film adaptation of Collins’ The Hunger Games was just an anticipatory gleam in Hollywood’s eye, savvy observers knew that the big-screen Katniss had been found.

Lawrence embraces this role — one of the early 21st century’s most iconic young female characters, alongside Lisbeth Salandar and Bella Swan — and makes it her own. She is, even during her quiet moments, so much more interesting than Kristen Stewart’s pouty, bland and detached handling of Bella, in the increasingly disappointing Twilight film series. Even though Bella is — should be — the focus of those stories, Stewart inevitably is the least interesting figure on camera.

Not so with Lawrence, who owns this adaptation of The Hunger Games.

Gary Ross — a sharp writer (Big, Dave) who graduated to writer/director, with Pleasantville and Seabiscuit — has made an honorable adaptation of Collins’ enormously popular novel. This screen interpretation is faithful in much the manner of the early Harry Potter films: All the essential plot elements make it to the screen; all the characters are deftly cast, and play their roles persuasively.

Production designer Philip Messina has done a smashing job with the various settings, from the hard-scrabble mining community that Katniss calls home, to the opulent, cruelly ornamental capital of this alternate reality, where decadent, self-absorbed aristocrats gambol without giving a thought to the deprived, desperate 99 percent.

(Make no mistake: Ross — sharing scripting credit with Collins and Billy Ray — doesn’t miss this obvious opportunity for a pointed jab at our rapidly widening, real-world class divide.)

Costume designer Judianna Makovsky does an equally fine job, particularly with the horridly colorful outfits worn by the mindless, oblivious Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). And literally dozens of make-up artists and hair stylists work similar miracles, re-creating the hilariously outrageous fashions sported by the patrician jet-set.

You probably sense, gentle reader, that I’m building up to a “but” ... and, indeed, I am. We’ll get to that in a bit.

The story, set in an undefined future, takes place in a nation dubbed Panem: probably the remnants of United States, or perhaps all of North America. A great civil war took place many years earlier: apparently a populist, “American Spring” uprising against an increasingly repressive government.

The government prevailed, becoming even more brutal in the process. The beaten working class, belonging now to 12 districts defined by the work performed in each — mining, farming, etc. — endures a vicious, unceasing punishment. By way of reminding citizens of the folly of revolt, each district must send one boy and one girl, between the ages of 12 and 18, to participate in the annual Hunger Games: a gladiatorial duel to the death, with but one survivor among the 24 participants.

The grisly bout is televised each year: the ultimate reality show, moderated by on-air personality Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), simultaneously amusing and sinister, in the manner of Joel Grey’s emcee in Cabaret. Tucci, by the way, gives Lawrence a run for her money, in terms of savvy casting; he’s the only other actor able to blow her off the screen.

Panem’s President Snow (Donald Sutherland, also well cast) has turned this cruel ritual into a supposedly “celebratory” national holiday. The Games’ various emissaries conclude every public announcement with the same salutation — “Happy Hunger Games ... and may the odds be ever in your favor” — as if they were wishing citizens a Merry Christmas.

Cruelly ironic, because of course the odds never are in any lesser district’s favor.

Katniss becomes District 12’s female “tribute” in these, the 74th annual Games. She’s joined by a baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, vastly better here than in the recent Journey 2: The Mysterious Island). They’re whisked to the capital, trained for the bout, then set loose in an artificial “forest” setting that can be terraformed and transformed, at whim, by behind-the-scenes technicians — assembled, NASA-style, in a cleverly detailed, Mission Control set — who take their orders from master gamesman Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, love the hairstyle).

It’s not bad enough that these teenagers must kill each other; if one attempts to play a waiting game — as Katniss does, utilizing the woodland scouting skills she has honed since childhood, while hunting game for her often starving mother and younger sister — then Crane and his designers forcibly move that participant back into the fray, with, say, a few well-placed fireballs.

Anything to appease aristocratic bloodlust.

This film’s one serious flaw — the clumsy passage of time — becomes glaring during Katniss’ training, particularly with respect to her growing relationships with Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), her frequently drunk “mentor,” and himself a survivor of a previous Games; and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the “handler” who molds her into a sympathetic figure. This is essential, since tributes must curry favor with wealthy sponsors who might be inclined to send desperately needed “gifts” during dire moments as the Games proceed.

Collins’ book does an excellent job of both establishing this grim setting, and what led to this fateful moment involving Katniss, and of methodically supplying the back-story essential to each character. Ross often doesn’t bother. It’s not even clear in this film, for example, that Haymitch is a former District 12 champion: a rather important detail.

Collins lets us get to know many of Katniss’ opponents during her week of training; this lends gravitas once everybody winds up in the arena. But Ross rushes her through this segment, as if anxious for the fighting to begin. Ironically, once all 24 teens wind up dueling to the death, this accelerated pacing becomes even worse. Aside from Katniss, Peeta and a stealthy young girl named Rue (Amandla Stenberg), the other challengers are as faceless and nameless as the nondescript teens who get offed in horror film franchises.

Everything happens too quickly, and therefore too superficially. Essential supplementary relationships are merely suggested, if employed at all. Banks’ Effie is no more than a pathetic clown, when in fact her character should be fascinating, for the emotional turmoil that builds as she gets to know — and respect — Katniss.

Half the 24 challengers perish within the first few hours, and we experience little dismay at their deaths, in part because Ross so carefully skirts teen-on-teen violence, in order to preserve this film’s all-essential PG-13 rating. But this is a mistake: By “sanitizing” these murders in such a manner, Ross makes them less shocking, when — for reasons relating to Collins’ overall narrative, and also from the standpoint of our reaction, as viewers — every single one should be appalling.

We have absolutely no time to register revulsion or anything approaching sorrow, as the “contest” narrows down to a handful of survivors ... and that’s simply wrong.

Should this film, by the story’s very nature, have been rated R? An intriguing question, and one I’ll answer with a cinematic observation. Japan’s Battle Royale, released in 2000, involved a similar premise, with a gaggle of ninth-graders forced by government edict to kill each other, until only one survived. This film is unflinchingly, notoriously, appropriately gory, with many of the young participants opting for suicide (a quite reasonable alternative never considered by anybody in The Hunger Games).

Despite being one of Japan’s top-grossing films that year, Battle Royale aroused international controversy and was either banned or denied distribution in many countries; aside from a few spotty film festival appearances, it never played in the United States. It remains unrated, and probably would earn an NC-17 today.

The Hunger Games comes along, and earns a family-friendly PG-13. Is this some sort of progress?

Another, smaller, complaint: For some peculiar reason — perhaps to emulate a documentary-style approach — Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern handle the entire first act with a jiggly, hand-held “shaky-cam” style that is flat-out obnoxious. Dizzying, even: hard to endure, and for no good reason.

Ross just as inexplicably — but thankfully — abandons this technique about half an hour in, and the rest of the camerawork and editing are conventional, and deftly employed to maximize the building suspense.

These issues aside, for the most part Ross has delivered a reliable, impeccably mounted adaptation that will resonate with Collins’ many fans. But as was the case with the film versions of Harry Potter’s adventures, I miss the rich nuances present in the books. Ross’ handling of The Hunger Games suffers from too much shrinkage; it’s a series of Reader’s Digest-style highlights, in need of the greater depth afforded by a miniseries treatment.

Not the way Hollywood operates, I know ... but a fellow can dream, right?

Meanwhile, it’s easy — very, very easy — to fall under this film’s spell, thanks to Lawrence’s sterling work. She is, without question, worth the price of admission; we can hope she’ll be along for the ride, when this series’ second and third books inevitably make their way to the big screen.

No comments:

Post a Comment