Sunday, May 20, 2012

The Hunger Games – Defeating its own purpose

Warning: this review is fraught with spoilers.

The Hunger Games left me hungry for more.  Yes, a lame, unimaginative pun, one that has almost certainly been utilized many times before by reviewers other than myself, but not in the way that I use it.   When I left the movie theater, I was not hungry for more of this film; I was hungry for more from it.  The movie faithfully adheres to the plot of the book, but fails to focus on the elements which make the dystopian story so moving and its message so profound, burying them underneath a mess of poorly executed action, odd makeup, and bad romance.

In case you aren’t familiar with The Hunger Games, the movie and its inevitable successors are based on a popular dystopian trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  The premise is that the government, or Capitol, of a post-America nation subjects the country’s 12 districts to offer up two tributes, one teenage boy and girl, every year for a nationally televised arena fight to the death.  The Hunger Games serve two purposes: to keep the districts in check by punishing them for a past rebellion and to provide sadistic entertainment for the citizens of Panem, whether they reside in the Capitol or the states.  Think “Athens and Knossos meets Roman gladiator competitions meets fear and tyranny in 1984” (the first two were actual influences for the novel).  At the center of the trilogy is a resourceful teenage girl from District 12 named Katniss Everdeen, who fights a figurative battle every day trying to feed her younger sister, Prim.  When Prim is chosen to compete in the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss boldly steps up and volunteers to take her sister’s place, knowing well that her motion will practically spell her death.  For the next several weeks, she and her district’s male tribute, Peeta Mellark, train for the Games and develop a complicated camaraderie, a friendship which the Games threaten to sever, for only one tribute can emerge alive.  When they are thrust into the Games, they face a near impossible challenge: to retain their morality in a situation where their animal impulses are encouraged to run unconstrained.

The books have many conservative themes; for example, throughout the series, government is portrayed as the enemy and the oppressor of “we the people”.  The books make it clear that the bad guys are not the bloodthirsty contestants - these are only slaves of the true villains, President Snow and his totalitarian régime in the Capitol.  The books also illustrate how so many humans are willing to sacrifice the few to protect the majority.  The citizens of Panem voluntarily offer up 24 of their own every year as long as they know they can avoid the same, horrible fate.  Whoever tells you that The Hunger Games is a story about the few exploiting the many “doesn’t know what they’re talking about”, to quote America’s great divider, who probably hates the series.*  In addition to these themes, the book challenges the reader to think about the material he or she views on television.  More than ever nowadays, we found ourselves tuning into programs like Survivor and numerous other reality competition shows just to witness people beating up each other, with verbal violence more than physical.  An anti-violence message pervades the story, and the author effectively uses graphic descriptions to highlight the horrific consequences that the Games have not only on the competitors but also on those watching the fight.  Somehow, the more gruesome Collins makes the deaths of her characters, the better we are able to see the very atrocity of the Games and the cruelty of those who would endorse them.

Collins skillfully combines all these themes to compose a series of surprisingly moral and philosophical nature.  Unfortunately, the same praise cannot be extended to the big-screen adaptation.  This is mostly due to the filmmakers’ utter mishandling of the subject matter or narrow understanding of the novel’s messages.  All of the aforementioned points are either disregarded or woefully overshadowed by the other, less provocative elements of the story.  This shortcoming has a variety of causes, the most significant of which is the producers’ craving to reach the broadest audience possible at the expense of the movie’s overall quality; in essence, they decided to trade artistry for box office records, and the decision shows.  The Hunger Games – the book has great appeal across generations and genders, but teenage girls do comprise the majority of the book’s consumers.  I hate to generalize, but if I had to explain this phenomenon, I would hypothesize that most teenage girls flock to the trilogy due to the presence of a strong, independent female heroine and romantic tension between herself and two desirable young men.**  I am by no means suggesting that all teenage girls read the series for such trivial reasons; I’m just pointing out that, in this age of illiteracy and stupidity, the intelligent young women who actually digest and analyze the books are far outnumbered by victims of The Twilight Effect, who care far less about the book’s societal implications and theories than they do about Katniss and whichever boy she chooses.  It is for this group of mindless zombies, who proudly don their “Team fill in the guy” shirts, which The Hunger Games – the movie has been produced, and in the process of pleasing this crowd, the movie disturbingly becomes the very thing it is meant to destroy.

I’ll first talk of my positive reactions. Most of the actors were fairly impressive.  Elizabeth Banks injects just the right amount of giddiness and vanity into her portrayal of Effie Trinkett, and Stanley Tucci is somewhat amusing as the extravagant television host, Caesar Flickerman.  Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are decent as Peeta and Gale respectively, but every performance in the movie is trounced by Jennifer Lawrence’s representation of Katniss.  This young woman is one of the best actresses of her age; using only her body language she can convincingly convey a wide range of emotions, from terror and astonishment to determination to love.  She never overacts like the Harry Potter stars and she makes it easy for us experience the trauma of her situation.  Her performance is ultimately one of the best reasons to see the film.

A lot of people I know have complained about the numerous subplots of the book that the movie dropped.  In reality, you can’t expect to see the little things like Prim’s stupid goat or the avox girl unless you want to sit in a chair for 4 hours.  Frankly, such complaints are rather silly, because The Hunger Games-the movie rarely deviates from the source material.  Really minor changes are made to suit the flow of the movie, but the movie is, for the most part, very faithful to the book and never adds any scenes or excessively twists existing ones.  This is mostly because the book’s author was responsible for the screenplay.  If the script had provided a little more time for the development of supporting characters and for social commentary, it could have spawned a great movie.  Regrettably, the whole film errs because Collins and the rest of the crew dumb down the story so much that it really loses all meaning it once had and thwarts all empathy we ought to bear for the victims of a tyrannical society.

Before I commence to thoroughly and brutally bash the movie for the prior folly, I shall first criticize it for its other elements.  The second half of The Hunger Games is set in the arena and plays like an action picture.  There are many chases through wooded terrain, where Katniss flees from other teenagers or from the natural elements which the bloodthirsty game-makers loose on her.  Teens fight each other with swords, bows, spears, daggers, and muscles, and the conflicts almost always result in fatalities.  Such violent battles could evoke sorrow for this forced tragedy (as they do in the book), but the cinematography is so bad that we can’t summon the slightest pity for any of the tributes.  Instead of focusing on the Games and its casualties, we’re only thinking about the awful headaches that this movie is bound to inspire. Let’s dispel any pretense right here: The Hunger Games has the worst case of the shaky camera since Harry Potter 7.0.  In all sincerity, the camera work appears as if it was executed by one of the competitors, not only in the action sequences but also in exchanges of dialogue; I suppose this method was partially chosen to create a kind of eyewitness experience, but the primary reason behind it is either the cinematographer’s utter incompetence or the financial necessity to obtain a PG-13 rating.  Maybe both are to blame.  In either case, The Hunger Games ends up being an action movie where you can’t even see the action, due to the relentless jerking of the camera.  Exempli gratia, in the final struggle where Peeta and Katniss confront Cato atop the Cornucopia, the viewer is unable to discern who is winning the fight because the camera can’t sit still for one dang second.  To summarize bluntly, it’s an annoying and uncreative way to tone down the violence, to which I shall return later.

However, most of Hunger Games’ audience could care more about the action.  A great portion of the movie’s attendees came for a story of romance and first love.  These people came because of their devotion to one of two boys: the sacrificial, chivalrous Peeta, or the wild, rebellious Gale.  These people came to watch “the cave scene”, to witness Peeta fall hopelessly in love with Katniss, and to see Gale grow hopelessly jealous back home.  Some of these people didn’t even read the books and were just curious to see what vampire, err, boy Katniss chooses.  Romance didn’t draw me into the theater, but if it had, I’d have been sorely disappointed.  While Peeta and Gale are both fairly complex characters in the books, they’re horribly underdeveloped in the film.  Peeta has exactly one scene in which he displays any depth and then he turns into a kind of flawless would-be-boyfriend for the rest of the movie.  He doesn’t say or do anything really significant besides kissing the heroine; to be totally honest, the movie-Peeta is just boring, and I can’t imagine how he would win the love of any girl, much less Katniss.  Movie-Gale, like book-Gale, is barely seen; the film takes a few minutes to show his relationship with Katniss, and these short moments arguably accomplish more for Gale’s characterization than the whole movie does for Peeta’s.  Maybe I’m just biased as a Gale fan… although I consider myself a Team Katniss member. ; )

What really irked me about the film, though, was the total abuse of its titular subject matter.  The Hunger Games-the book is superb because it makes clear that the games are a monstrosity and it’s tragic that anyone should die in them.  The Hunger Games-the movie fails to translate the essence of the novel’s morals, unfortunately stooping to the level of the Capitol and all those who derive entertainment from the games.  The movie doesn’t waste much time before beginning to set up “good guys” and “bad guys”, asking you to cheer for the former and jeer at the latter.  There is no “grey” in the movie – only black and white.  Those in the black, i.e. the careers, are depicted as soulless brutes who are elated at the opportunity to ruthlessly slaughter people for fun.  Their actors make no great attempt to instill any humanity into them, and the antagonists turn out to be nothing more than bad video-game villains.  The movie’s actors are only part of a larger problem, for the movie’s PG-13 rating is also a severe handicap.  First of all, it’s just not sensible to create a PG-13 movie for an R-rated story.  The book and its sequels constitute one of the most graphic series for young-adults, and the rather low violence level of this film simply fails to convey the fundamental horror and injustice of The Games.  Little blood is shed, disturbing hallucinations are removed, and cheesy camera tricks obscure all of the book’s more shocking casualties.  This is basically Hunger Games-lite, heavily abridged in order to minimally offend its target audience.  Let me use an example: one of the series’ more gory deaths comes at the finish of the first book, when Cato confronts and is eventually ripped apart by mutant hounds which resemble deceased tributes.  Katniss narrates in the book how she waits many hours, listening to his screams and moans of agony.  Eventually she fires an arrow into his still living body, which is so mutilated she distinguishes him as a “raw hunk of meat”.  It’s a really disturbing image, one that horrifies readers and forces them to pity the boy they once despised.  The movie completely botches this scene.  In the film, the “muttations” (which look like bad CGI and bear no likeness to the fallen tributes) pile on top of Cato, strategically blocking him from the camera, and dine on him for about 30 seconds before Katniss shoots his remnants, which are never shown.  Try imagining an ending to Star Wars Episode 3 where Anakin doesn’t burn up graphically and howl in pain at his former master.  The Hunger Games-the movie gives such a treatment to nearly all the arena’s victims, depriving the characters of any weight.  All this could have been avoided if the studio had approved an R-rating***, which could closely reproduce the events of the novel.  If teenage girls were really devoted to the franchise, then they’d go see the picture regardless of the violence - after all, isn’t that one of the dominant themes of the books?

The movie’s simplistic characterization of minor figures makes it even more heinous.  We’re given only a few hours to know Rue and we’re somehow supposed to mourn her passing when she’s speared.  Why?  Because she’s small and cute.  Hey, that reminds me of another tribute: Clove, from District 2.  She’s small and cute, but we’re supposed to REJOICE when she’s murdered.  What’s the distinction?  Sure the latter is a stereotypical bad girl, but isn’t she still a human and a victim?  Don’t we lower ourselves to her level when we clap and cheer at her dead, stupefied expression?****  This is the worst vice of Hunger Games-the movie: it disgraces the message of its literary forerunner and makes it appear that Katniss’ teenage rivals, not the Capitol, are the villains of the story.  The movie fails to attach proper reverence to the life of all the tributes and, in the end, is a poor form of the very entertainment Collins sought to condemn.

As a tale about the survival of a selfless, courageous young woman thrust into a dangerous arena, The Hunger Games is entertaining, but ultimately the best thing about it is the eerily beautiful songs by Taylor Swift and The Civil Wars in the credits.  Everything before is mediocre and dangerous to those who don’t understand the story.

Grade: C+

October update: It seems I was a little harsh on this movie the first time I reviewed it.  I criticized it relentlessly for its faults without properly acknowledging its good features.  The stars of the movie, excluding those who play the "bad kids", convey the essence of their characters impeccably, and the visual depiction of the coliseum is close to the mental image I formed while reading the book.  The score, composed by James Newton Howard, also deserves commendation.  My main objection to the film was the lack of effort by those involved to humanize all the tributes and show just how heinous and disgusting the Hunger Games are.

BONUS: Trailer Reviews
G.I. Joe 2 – If they think Dwayne Johnson and Bruce Willis will influence me to take a second dose of this, they’re mistaken.
Madagascar 3 – Dreamworks: “We want to keep the money train rolling, but we’re all out of original ideas.  Let’s just make another unnecessary sequel.”
Dark Shadows - "Are you stoned or something?"  "They tried stoning me, my dear... it didn't work."  It looks clever and funny from the trailer, but the story probably resembles the same fish-out-of-water we've seen a dozen times.
Prometheus – This looks like it could be pretty good.  The rumors tell that it’s an Alien prequel.  Ridley Scott is steering the ship, so it can’t get too lost.
Battleship – Transformers-at-sea without Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Megatron, or Megan Fox.  Go if you want to see CGI destruction, or just stay home and play the game for free.
What To Expect When You’re Expecting – There’s a general rule that the trailer always contains the best jokes.  If that’s true, you should probably avoid this one.
Snow White and the Huntsman – Evil queen who bathes in white paint faces off against Katniss - eh, Kristen - Stewart with lots of CGI… skip.
Breaking Dawn Part 2 – Bella has red eyes!  That poor deer’s so screwed!
Other Stephanie Meyer movie, the name of which escapes me – The trailer told me everything while telling me nothing so I can’t make a real judgment on it yet.

* I’ll be writing more about the political themes of the books in a later post.
** I’m confounded by the number of critics who ignorantly compare The Hunger Games to Twilight.  Few series could be more dissimilar.  The Hunger Games is a dystopian series about killing and television entertainment and a corrupt, power-hungry government.  Twilight is a POC about friendly vampires and shirtless werewolves.  Gah.
*** I actually think the R-rating is broken.  By the time they become teenagers, nearly all children are versed in R-rated vocabulary.  Cloaking violent content from the eyes of anybody over 14 accomplishes nothing.  Kids are making kids even though sex comedies are restricted.  Ideally, movies would be judged by their themes and moral content rather than by the amount of fake blood that is spilt on camera or by the number of F-bombs dropped.
**** It’s unfortunate just how indicative this movie is of our times.  At my showing, the audience clapped and whooped when the knife girl was killed.  It was disturbing.  Such a reaction is just the opposite of the one they were supposed to have, but they apparently didn’t care.  They came to watch teens kill each other and to boo at those whom they dislike.  But it’s only entertainment, isn’t it?
***** Some other little things that don't fit into the rest of the review: the makeup in this movie is really strange.  The folks in the Capitol look like characters from Japanese video games.  The tributes, including Katniss, never get really dirty in the arena and they always appear to be made-up.  Also, I noticed a couple narrative flaws with the cinematography.  The gamemakers are enabled to examine the arena through cameras which are built into trees.  This is their best way to monitor the tributes.  At the point in the movie where Katniss runs from a fire, these supposedly stationary cameras chase her through the woods, shaking as they go.  It's funny when you think about it.  Also, Haymitch is rather underdeveloped and under-drunk, if there is such a phrase.  The movie seems short and should have been a 3-hour epic.

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