Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Movie Review - The Hunger Games

I discovered the Hunger Games trilogy back in early 2010. The second book (Catching Fire) was already out and the final book (Mockingjay) in the series was due out in the fall. I voraciously tore through the books and really enjoyed them. I neither wholly agree nor wholly disagree with the critics who say the writing isn't great. The writing is certainly not "high art" in terms of literature, but it does a good job of doing what it sets out to do…which is to tell a compelling story with an intriguing message.

Before discussing the merits and content/performances of the film, I want to vent briefly about the transition from book to film and the nature of the content.

When I heard that there was going to be a movie, I wasn't terribly surprised. The scope and nature of the books lends itself fairly easily to the transition into a screenplay. That said, I was a little nervous (as was a lot of the fan community) as to how the studio would handle the movie. After all, this is a book whose primary audience is teenagers (and often younger middle-graders). However, this is also a VERY violent story and one focusing on violence among children/teenagers. The content itself is teetering on an "R" rating just based on the sales pitch. Knowing their audience to be kids, there was some worry that the film would lose something in an attempt for its PG-13 rating (which it did end up with).

I wasn't so concerned as to what they might take out (after all, there are some very artful ways to keep violence off-screen and still maintain the intensity and integrity of the story). I was more worried that they would push right up to the limit of an "R" rating but pull back just barely enough to maintain a PG-13 rating…which is exactly what happened.

There are many people out there who are saying that even though this received a PG-13 rating, it isn't advised for younger teens. I've heard a few people say they don't recommend it to anyone under 16. My 12 year old son read the books and really liked them. So did a bunch of kids in his 6th grade class. Lynette and I went to see the movie, telling him we would discuss afterwards whether or not it would be alright for him to watch.

Ignoring for a moment the fact that it is "PG-13" and he's only 12, we tried to debate whether or not the movie would be appropriate for him. In the end, my wife put it very well when she asked: "what benefit is there to him watching this movie?" Essentially the question was…he's read the book and knows/understands the story. He has his own 12-year old imagined version of the events of the book. What will he gain by going and watching the Hollywood over-the-top version of the story…knowing that the Hollywood version is absolutely WAY more graphically violent and intense than whatever he himself pictured. In the end, we told him that we didn't think it was a movie he was ready to watch yet….he doesn't yet have the maturity level to watch the movie as entertainment without letting the violent images and actions adversely affect him. He was disappointed and we did let him know that we would re-evaluate in a couple of years to try and decide if he was ready. One of his big complaints was that some of his classmates would be watching the movie…to which we thought about the kids in his class and had a hard time identifying any of them who we felt could watch this and receive any positive benefit to outweigh any negative benefit.

Now…after that somewhat lengthy rant, you may think I'm against this movie from the onset. Quite the contrary. While I admit that the violence is intense and I would have preferred more "off-screen" handling of some of the violent scenes, I still really enjoy the world and the story that was created.

When some of the casting decisions were made, I wasn't quite sure what to think. I didn't know hardly anything about the actors playing Katniss, Peeta or Gale so I had no real worries there. I really like Donald Sutherland so even though he wasn't what I pictured, I was hopeful about his role as President Snow. I'm not a big fan of Woody Harrelson and he is definitely NOT what I thought of when I pictured Haymitch, so I was pretty worried about that choice. Most of the other characters were pretty peripheral, especially in the first book, so I didn't pay much attention to the casting.

When the characters did come on screen, I felt like they did an adequate job though they still didn't really live up to my full expectations of the character from the book. President Snow doesn't do a ton in this first part of the story, so I'm still hoping to like Donald Sutherland as that character. I am still not sold on Harrelson as Haymitch…while I thought he did an alright job, he just wasn't as slovenly and rough as I wanted him to be (I know that some people will disagree and say that he was perfectly rough around the edges…maybe it's just that I don't appreciate his acting much).

The one character that I generally approved of was Katniss (and it's a good thing too since this movie is told mainly from her point of view and follows her almost exclusively). I felt like Jennifer Lawrence did a good job portraying her anxiety, her fears and her strength. My main complaint is that we didn't really get inside her head much…which is hard to do in a movie as compared to a book. In the book I felt like we got to know her a lot more by being so close to her and being able to experience her thoughts and emotions more directly without her having to actually speak or act. In a movie it's hard to give that sort of emotional depth of character while at the same time maintaining a character who is as stoic, angry and suspicious as Katniss is. I think it was a good directorial choice to have her angry and frustrated to the point of ostracizing contact with others. However, I felt like this was taken a bit too far and as a result it made Katniss feel distanced even from the audience tot he point where it was hard to fully relate and sympathize with her.

In fact, more than caring and sympathizing for Katniss, I found myself quickly drawn into sympathy and worry for her sister Prim (who we only interact with during the first few minutes of the movie and the last few minutes of the movie). Through a few small simple actions and phrases, I felt myself emotionally drawn in to the degree that I was genuinely worried and caring about Prim as a character. I never felt like I got that with Katniss. She had this tough outer shell that she used to keep everyone away…even the audience.

Speaking of characters, I found it interesting just how LITTLE we got to know the other tributes. While we didn't know a ton about them in the book, we knew a whole lot more than we do here. In the book, Katniss had her own nicknames for some of them.

We also learned a lot more about the "Career" tributes (trained from birth to volunteer for the games) and more about some of the individual skills and talents of the others. Later in the film when Katniss is talking with Peeta and provides names/descriptions of the other tributes, there is no connection for the audience to make since this is the first time she called them by name/nickname (unless I missed it, but I'm pretty sure the only time she referenced "Foxface" was when she's in the arena and says "Foxface" is over there...disconnect).

I thought the effects of the movie were interesting and generally pretty believable. I liked that they mostly glazed over the futurific/sci-fi elements and just let them sit in the background as part of the world. This was more effective than having the characters explain the various things around them…which often gets real annoying and condescending.

I'm NOT a fan of the "close" action shots with the "jiggly" camera. For whatever reason, filmmakers in recent years seem to have fallen in love with this technique as a method to try and make the audience feel closer to the action or maybe feel as if the viewer is actually partaking in the action. All it does for me is make me feel disoriented and a little woozy. It doesn't make me feel like part of the action…because I have no peripheral vision, no all around sense of sound, no sense of space…just a lot of jiggly images. While I didn't like these scenes, I accepted them in the movie as they gave a heightened sense of anxiety and disorientation that helps me identify what Katniss (and the others) must have been feeling. In 99% of the time, I would much prefer a stabilized camera than the nauseating mess. Maybe that's just me.

On other effects, I was torn on the presentation of the "Game Room" scenes. These were probably the biggest departure from the books in that (as far as I can recall), we were never given a glimpse into the Game Room. Instead, as Katniss is running through the games, we get her suspicions as to what might be going on or we get descriptions of how future games were created and orchestrated.

By taking the audience into the Game Room, it allowed us to more quickly and visually grasp some of the historical and technical details without requiring a long expositional narrative by Katniss or Haymitch explaining how the games were managed from a technical standpoint. Where I'm torn though is that the addition of the Game Room brings in a new emotional layer in that Katniss's suspicions about the Game Makers are confirmed. Rather than being faceless and emotionless off-screen entities, we get to see the actual people pulling the strings and manipulating these kids through the deadly arena. Any sympathy I may have had for Seneca Crane after reading the books quickly disappeared after seeing him in the Game Room.

The movie stayed very true to the tone and nature of the book as well as to the story itself. There were a few small elements and characters that were noticeably absent, but only if you'd read the book and even then, they were small enough that you might not even notice them missing. Probably the biggest thing that I found missing was a description of the "Muttations" from the end of the Games…while they were frightening enough on-screen, the book description of what they actually were made them horrific on a higher level. I wasn't sure if they'd be able to pull off the Muttations without looking cheesy, so perhaps it's better that the movie left their actual nature more undefined.

I also enjoyed the music from the movie...the score was engaging and helped push the action along. I picked up the "music inspired by" CD and had fun with the songs that showed up in the closing credits as well as some others with an overly depressive tone (which for some reason I enjoy *grin*).

Overall, I really enjoyed the movie about as much as the book. While I felt like the book did a better job of emotionally tying me to Katniss, I felt like the movie did a good job at portraying the tension of this awful world in which the "ruling" portion of the population from the Capitol not only condones but celebrates the subversion and slaughter of the lesser class citizens from the Districts. I really enjoyed the subtle way the film didn't portray anyone specifically as Hero or Villain. They were just there going through their natural motions and it was up to you to decide if they were redeemable or despicable…or somewhere in the gray area.

As I mentioned in my venting above, in spite of the PG-13 rating, the violence of this movie makes it hard for me to recommend it to younger viewers, even those over 13 years old. I'm sure the violence may be too much for even some adults. That said, I feel like this particular story is compelling in both an intriguing and a fun way. It's not celebrating the violence. At this point in the trilogy, there aren't many overbearing comments condemning the nature of this society…but rest assured, those viewpoints will come in the next two films (or is it three?). If you're worried about the on-screen violence, I'd suggest reading the books. While the violence is still in there, it is more distilled for a more sensitive audience. In fact, I would recommend you read the books anyway…there's a lot of backstory and details that are very interesting.

In the end, should "YOU" see this movie? I can't whole-heartedly say that you should. I think at the very least you ought to read the books and if you're not offended or too sensitive to violence in movies, I would suggest that this is a film you will enjoy…not because you enjoy the concept of a couple dozen kids fighting to the death, but because the story and message are compelling and thought provoking and are presented in a way that makes them fun and interesting.

Let me know your thoughts.

4 out of 5 stars

Today's Quote from Quoting Quotes:


Brian Miller said...

solid review man....and good on you for the decision you made for your son....i was hoping for an honest review on that point from someone...thanks

logankstewart said...

Great review, Okie. I personally thought Haymitch was perfectly cast. However, I did not like Sutherland as Snow at all. Ironically, the word I used for him was slovenly. I just didn't picture that when reading.

That said, the violence was tough and I definitely agree with the PG-13 rating. Like you, the camera work made me a bit woozy, too.

Mr. Nauton said...

Great review, and I think your way of handling and explaining with your son was right on. I have a 10 yr old who claims he's the only one in his class not to have seen it, but oh well!