Friday, March 23, 2012

Sci-Fi Friday Movie Review: THE HUNGER GAMES

The Hunger Games (film) The Hunger Games (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
(The first part of this review contains minor spoilers for The Hunger Games novel. The second speaks about a few departures/additions the movie made. Proceed with caution if you haven't read and seen both!)

In August, 2008 I first started hearing about The Hunger Games. Three and a half years later, that amazing story I heard about and loved passionately has finally made the leap to the big screen.

Naturally, I needed to see this movie ASAP. Not only do I love The Hunger Games, but I love going to midnight movie screenings in general. There's something invigorating about sitting in a theater with a bunch of other super fans, and knowing that there are thousands of people around the country (at least in your time zone), doing the exact same thing. At the exact same time you are, they are also seeing Katniss volunteer as tribute, Effie sniff about manners, Peeta paint himself into a tree, and Rue...

Oh, Rue.



Director Gary Ross does an amazing job showing, and not telling, in this film. That's kind of a weird thing to think about, because aren't movies inherently about "showing" as a visual medium? But what I mean is that he relies on his audience to pick up on the subtext of character actions. Katniss spends a lot of time in her own head in The Hunger Games - she's a taciturn person by nature, the book is narrated in the first person, and she spends chunks of time in the Arena by herself. That doesn't leave a lot of room for natural-sounding dialogue. Ross recognizes that and just allows Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss to perform as this girl, lost and scared and fighting for her life and to make her little sister proud of her. Katniss doesn't say anything when she figures out the trap the careers have laid, or why she creates the memorial for Rue, or say anything about being terrified before entering the tube to be taken to the Arena. That's a moment that sticks out in my mind, for the amazing scared rabbit look Katniss gives, when the countdown begins.

Almost every actor is superbly cast in this film. Jennifer Lawrence truly inhabits Katniss, of course. Josh Hutcherson is sweet and vulnerable as Peeta, and the two play off of each other well. My husband commented at the end at how well the pair played off their love story: nothing needed to be said about whose affections were real and who had been putting on an act. It was all there in their faces.

Stanley Tucci is awesome as Caesar Flickerman, and the script gives him several extra commentary scenes to justify casting such a fantastic actor in what is a rather small role in the books. Donald Sutherland is imposing and conniving as President Snow, who also had a few extra scenes written for him. Woody Harrelson is charismatic as hell as Haymitch, which is quite a departure from the books. As I explained to my husband, Harrelson's Haymitch is a joy to watch, filled with subtlety and depth...and not nearly as much liquor as he should have had. This Haymitch is not exactly the Haymitch of the books, but he's so excellent it hardly matters. He's another actor who can do a great job communicating with just a few facial expressions - watching him watch the people of the Capitol really foreshadowed slightly what may have driven this man to dedicate his life to drinking and rolling his eyes at most of the Tributes placed into his care.

The one weakness for me is Liam Hutcherson as Gale. And part of that is a costuming and makeup issue: that boy is far too clean cut to be a child of the Seam who spends his time out in the woods. Also, dang that dude looks old. I only felt anything for him because Lawrence does such a great job showing how much she cares for this boy. Hopefully once he's given more material to work with in Catching Fire we'll see more personality come from this kid.

(Here begin the movie spoilers...small ones though)

There are several small departures from the books, starting just a few minutes in with Buttercup mysteriously being a black and white cat (that Katniss threatens to cook). Madge, the mayor's daughter, isn't a character at all - the mockingjay pin has a new origin that absolutely works within the context of the story. The film has two hours to tell a mini-epic, which means some streamlining is necessary, and the filmmakers have an advantage over us readers, and even Suzanne Collins as an author: they know exactly how the story ends, who's important and who isn't, etc. If this film had come out before, say, Mockingjay was published, an outcry over the lack of Madge might have been reasonable (just before Mockingjay was published, I predicted we were going to learn that Madge was a rebel. I...was wrong). Since we know she doesn't add much to the overall story now, I was okay with her quiet removal from this iteration and replacing it with a story that strengthens Katniss' character and relationships.

Caesar Flickerman's biggest expansion is as a commentator for the Games, alongside Claudius Templesmith. This is how a lot of the background information is delivered to the audience, through cutaways to what the audience in the movie is seeing as Caesar and Claudius talk about strategies and traps and dangers in the Arena. We get to see what Katniss only imagines is happening in the books - not only as what the Panem audience sees, but also behind-the-scenes cutaways to what's happening with the Game Makers. We get to see the fire attack on Katniss planned with pinpoint accuracy, and the creation of the Mutts. It really hammers home the idea that nothing happens in Panem by chance - it's all carefully orchestrated by those in charge.

Despite having one of the worst audiences in history (dear kids sitting behind me: was it necessary to run down every single difference between the book and the movie in real time? And do it loudly? I know you're Team Gale, but please stop laughing as Peeta is almost dying. It's unbecoming), I enjoyed this film so, so, much. I highly recommend it to fans of the books, and I think it will do an excellent job in bringing in the half-dozen people in the US who have managed to not read the books yet. (Seriously. Who hasn't read this book?!)
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