Friday, March 23, 2012

Battle Royale: THE HUNGER GAMES

Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games, the first in a trilogy of popular sci-fi novels technically labeled “young adult” fiction, offers an irresistible genre hook that can be boiled down to easily sellable sensationalistic ad copy. 24 enter. Only 1 survives. But the plot goes deeper than the hook. The titular games are an annual event thrown by the wealthy ruling class of Panem, a post-apocalyptic North America with twelve districts. Each district is required to select at random one male and one female between the ages of 12 and 18 to be sent as tribute into a gladiatorial combat reality show. Winners return to their districts wealthy for life. Losers simply don’t return. It’s ritualistic sacrifice as entertainment, subjugation through mass opiates.

This is strong stuff and Collins makes it into gripping reading. It starts with satiric bite and shifts into a page-turner and a thrill ride without defanging its sharp social criticisms. The film follows the plot of the book closely, starting slowly in the gray, impoverished District 12. A gutsy hunter, teenager Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), volunteers to take the place of her younger sister (Willow Shields) in the upcoming Hunger Games and barely has time to ask her best friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth) to take care of her family before she’s whisked off to the Capital. Along with fellow District 12 tribute, a baker’s son, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss finds herself in a strange new place, a metropolis of conspicuous consumption, rampant materialism, and grotesque amounts of leisure time. Their creepily optimistic Capital representative (Elizabeth Banks) guides them to their drunken, grizzled mentor (Woody Harrelson) and a kind stylist (Lenny Kravitz). These three are there to help these teens prepare for their upcoming fight to the death.

But first, a publicity tour. They’re paraded around the capital, which is some kind of stylistic mash-up of Metropolis, the Emerald City, and THX-1138.  The teens appear in parades for the approval of the quietly menacing President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and his gamemaster (Wes Bentley). Later, they’re interviewed on a talk show hosted by a sleazy ham (a perfectly cast Stanley Tucci). The sights and sounds of the Capital are terrifically imagined caricatures of decadence and careless oppression. It’s a city of people who look like Marie Antoinettes and Lady Gagas, colorful and baroque, while also as aloof as the filthy rich, blissfully ignorant of the true conditions in the outlying Districts of Panem. A telling moment comes during the talk show when a guest comments that the host smells “nicer.” “Well, I’ve been here longer,” the host replies with a wicked grin, underlining the easy-going condescension of the aristocracy. By the time Katniss and the other teens are sent into a technologically controlled wilderness to fight for the amusement of all Panem, it’s certainly clear that the odds are not in their favor.

The question going in to the new film adaptation of the book was if director and co-writer Gary Ross would be able to keep the same powerful mix of brisk, cliffhanger storytelling and wry, allegorical social satire. After all, his last film was 2003’s horseracing period piece Seabiscuit and, before that, 1998’s allegorical fantasy comedy Pleasantville. (Though, come to think of it, Pleasantville had it’s fair share of allegorical social satire). The answer to Ross’s suitability to the material is, thankfully, a qualified yes. This is a movie that’s a successful adaptation (Collins is one of the credited screenwriters) and a solid entertainment. As cinema, it is perhaps ultimately a bit of a disappointment, but I’ll get there.

Odds are that the audience will eat it up, though. This is without a doubt slick, button-pushing Hollywood entertainment that pumps up the emotional notes and hits the expected plot beats with a predictable regularity. Indeed, it’s a particularly faithful adaptation, in many ways a slavish abridgement that leaves the pacing sadly lumpy in spots. It can’t be easy to introduce so many characters and concepts and, consequentially, it feels at once rushed and bloated. But there’s quality control on screen here from a cast and crew that evidently shares a love of the source material. It’s a fine transcription of Collins’s imagination to the screen with some top-notch set designers, costumers, and art directors contributing to a convincing futuristic world. The cast is uniformly solid, though the leads, the usually compelling Lawrence and Hutchinson, are blanker than they should be. Katniss is a great character, a great heroine, but she fades into the spectacle more than she should. Ross doesn’t find a good way to represent the omnipresent interiority of the book that gives us more of an insight into her thoughts and actions. Still, Lawrence sells the big moments with a similar grit she gave to her breakout – and Oscar-nominated – role in Winter’s Bone.

Ross pumps up his filmmaking with shaky cinematography that drains some of the energy. When moments feel flat or preordained, jiggling the camera won’t work to spice them up. Unfortunately, the actual hand-to-hand combat in the Hunger Games themselves is filmed with an often blurry, haphazard, shaky cam as well. Perhaps this is a way to combat the limitations of the desired PG-13 rating, but it’s a lazy solution. The shaking image problem is compounded by the film’s tendency towards close-ups and tight medium shots that pervades the entire production. In many moments, I wondered if it was compensating for the relatively modest budget for this kind of spectacle by limiting what’s actual seen in the frames. The style is a detriment to those who would prefer to understand the in-the-moment action instead of simply waiting around for a still shot to clue us in to which blows landed, who got hurt, who’s alive and who’s dead. But since the 22 other fighters have been so sketchily introduced in choppy montage and rushed exposition, there’s not even much of a sense of who these other kids are. And that dilutes some of the horror. I’m not asking for more gore, only greater clarity.

Ross mostly nails the mood of Katniss’s main crisis, though. He understands that it’s a story about a young woman trapped in a terrible situation, forced into a nearly unwinnable scenario in which she’s struggling to retain autonomy and self-worth in a demoralizing society that wants her dead at worst, as a propagandistic pawn at best. Katniss is easy to root for; we want to see her succeed even if it’s not clear what success could possibly mean. With a central character, and central conflict, like this, The Hunger Games often makes for a compelling film, even if it’s ultimately a bit too cluttered and rushed – when its not languid, that is – for every little moment to land as well as they should.

It doesn’t consistently fall flat, but nor does it ever really take off. Ultimately Ross has made an adaptation that’s just slightly more than a pale imitation. It’s a solid effort all around and a promising start to a new franchise. (For my money, the third book is by far the best, still thrilling and accessible while even darker and more complex, with greater moral and allegorical force). I wish Ross could have taken more chances, made a gutsier film that made more of an impact with a streamlined pace and a visually coherent and comprehensible style. Greatness was within reach. Instead, it’s a film that drafts off whiffs of more exciting action and greater thematic depths.

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