Monday, March 26, 2012
Movie Review: The Hunger Games (2012)
Directed By: Gary Ross
Starring: Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson
Let me preface this review by telling you where I come from in the way of my feelings on 'books made into movies'. RARELY does it happen that the movie lives up to the book. Let's face it: the chances of any movie director completely realizing your vision, as you saw it while reading the book...pretty much nil. So I always try to view film adaptations of novels as 'concept', not 'law'. I never expect too much and I always anticipate changes being made to the characters and the realization of the story. Sometimes it's just necessary. Gone With the Wind is a great film adaptation. It takes the spirit of the book, and ties it up with a nice 4 hr ribbon that any fan of the book can be happy about. Giant, by Edna Ferber, pales in comparison to the sweeping epic of a film that George Stevens helmed in 1956. The Yearling, brought gorgeously to life in 1946, ALMOST made me cry as hard as the book. The best film adaptation in my opinion is 1962's To Kill a Mockingbird, which is not only my favorite movie of all time but was so exquisitely crafted, it made me love the book more.
The Hunger Games is a book that I didn't discover until rather recently. It appealed to me, the idea of the dystopian society forced to live in 'districts' so as to keep order. And the obvious return to Roman times, when gladiators were forced to fight to the death for the entertainment of the upper class, was taken a step further- Parents ordered to sacrifice their children as a reminder of the futility of rebellion, and convinced that this was something grand and heroic. The public forced to watch. It's an interesting and quite compelling plot. My 12 year old son has been reading Mary Shelley, Jules Verne, and C.S. Lewis since he was 8 years old so I had no issue with his reading these books. And to form a mutual hobby, I decided to read the first book before taking him to see the movie. It was gripping; I read it in three days, mostly huddled in a heap on my bathroom rug at ungodly hours.
Since the book was so fresh in my mind, it was impossible not to be very excited about the upcoming film (released last week) but I kept my realistic viewpoint based on past film interpretations and their 'hit or miss' history.
The movie itself is a very good one. Gary Ross is not an action film director, per say, so I was very happy that he did not attempt to become Michael Bay in creating this adaptation. He is responsible for quietly moving pictures like Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. I like him. And I am happy to report that his personable style of direction was not lost on this tale of survival and woe. Though the camerawork at the beginning is disconcertingly shaky to start, it is also a great way to set the pace for the frantic moments of the film and the anxious lifestyle of the people of District 12. The movie is remarkably quiet for the thematic element and I like that too. There are large moments of silence, even during climactic times in the story. The casting is well done, with deep thought apparent in the selection of key characters. Big names with bold filmographies like Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, and acclaimed child actor Josh Hutcherson (who made a more recent name for himself in the multiple Oscar Nominated "The Kids are Alright") are wisely interspersed with relative unknowns- a tactic used with varied success by other trilogy directors like George Lucas. The look of the cosmetically obsessed Capitol is serviceable and the futuristic society is adequately depicted, creating a hodge podge of atmosphere that calls to mind both Clash of the Titans and Logan's Run. The highlights of the movie take place in the arena, as they should, and are carefully adherent to the source material while making concessions where movie-goers who haven't read the book need more manipulating. For a movie that has been touted as a 'violent' one based on a gritty 'violent' book, the actually mayhem of the games plays out very mildly-as it should. I did not feel this story was about the fighting as much as it was about avoiding confrontation and staying alive. So I was happy to see that the director felt a subtle allusion to the killing was more to his purpose.
Acting is solid all the way around though there are some performances that shine more than others; I particularly liked Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Wes Bentley as Seneca Crane, a role that the film makers wisely chose to insert into this story in spite of the fact that his character's name isn't mentioned until the 2nd book. Elizabeth Banks is delightfully unrecognizable as Effie Trinket and Donald Sutherland makes a formidable President Snow.
The few negatives to the film are purely born of my own movie tastes, of course. I prefer a rousing and sweeping score during scenes of epic proportion. The tributes' entrance during the 'Opening Ceremonies' should have, in my opinion, been something legendary- with a John Williams style score to match. The aesthetic of the Capitol dwellers was also slightly too 'real' for me. I anticipated something between the 'cloner' colony in Star Wars and Disney's Fantasia...something fanciful and soothing ,with a watercolor palette and tons of warm lighting. It seemed stark and cold by contrast. Jennifer Lawrence was fine...but I feel that there should have been some narration to complement her dialogue since much of the film takes place in silence and her vague expressions were slightly underwhelming. I needed more nuances of emotion, as it stood, and found her performance somewhat lacking in this area.
POSSIBLE SPOILERS IN THE FOLLOWING PARAGRAPH:
And now the real test: How does it measure up to the book? Other than the missteps I mentioned previously- the lack of score, the concept of the Capitol, and the performance of our heroine-I felt it was a remarkably accurate adaptation. It stayed very true to the book while still retaining the marks of good film-making. This is NOT easy to do and can't be overstated. I did not feel the Opening Ceremonies were grand enough or the Capitol pretty enough, sure. I also thought the interview scene could have used some improving, especially in the costuming department. But there were moments that greatly exceeded my expectations, such as the attack of the Tracker Jackers-which I don't feel could have been improved upon- and the entrance to the Games, The Cornucopia, which I felt was the best scene in the film. The relationship between Katniss and (precious little) Rue was paraphrased painfully, which made the subsequent scenes less powerful. The death of a key character was handled a bit differently as well, but was made up for in the scenes outside the games that were layered over the solemn moments to lend even more drama to the mix. This was genius, I thought, and made me even more excited about reading the next book (smart smart smart). The conclusion was enigmatically effective and deftly set up the continuance of the story. So as an avid reader AND a movie buff, I was happy.
To conclude this long winded review, I'll just say that the best thing about this movie and the stories on which it was based, is the fact that it appeals to parents and young people. Shared hobbies and experiences are priceless things and it's an added bonus if the subject of those hobbies are thought provoking and contribute to great family conversation. For that reason alone, I could feel justified in giving this movie a solid score of:
but it's a good movie, all by itself too. ;-)
You know I'm a fashion buff. I definitely feel there were some missed opportunities here, especially considering the success of the fashion in Ross's 'Pleasantville'. The makeup seemed slapped on, in a few cases, as well and could have been a little more distinctive and less 'Youtube'. :) That said, it was effective...but I' expecting some stepping up for the second installment