Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hunger Games

I took the afternoon off today and finally went to see The Hunger Games. After finishing the novel (my review), I wasn't quite ready to rush to the theater -- I needed to "sit" on the story for a few days. I'm glad I waited -- this movie was a powerful book-to-screen adaptation, probably one of the best -- in that it is so faithful to the source material -- adaptations that I've ever seen. I suppose that is what you get when the author has a background in screenwriting and helps craft the screenplay (WIN). I'm not interested in rehashing the plot -- if you're unfamiliar with that you can check out my review. But there are points that I want to discuss, so let's go...

First of all, I LOVED the look of District 12. It's described as what once was Appalachia, remote, mountain living -- but Collins's prose is so terse, so matter-of-fact not a lot of time is spent dwelling on Katniss's home (it's just taken as a matter of fact). In the world of the film, District 12 is very Depression-era Appalachia, a bleak, rough existence. Evoking the feel of 1930s-era history is brilliant, a perfect fit for the hardscrabble, coal-mining existence that Katniss hails from. And when we're introduced to the gaudy, colorful world of the Capitol, the differences are so stark as to be horribly jarring. The line of demarcation between the haves of the Capitol and the have nots of District 12 was almost nauseating in a way.

I was incredibly impressed with Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. I've only seen her previously in X-Men: First Class (where she played the young Mystique). At only twenty-one, Lawrence has an assurance and screen presence far beyond her years. In the novel we have the luxury of being completely immersed in Katniss's thoughts and feelings, thanks to the first-person narration. I found Lawrence to be more than up for the challenge of conveying the full scope of Katniss's emotions -- her determination, fear, uncertainty, and anger. And I love the fact that she isn't your typical stick-thin starlet. Physically she was completely believe able for me -- this was a girl at home in the woods, a huntress. Lawrence can be a very expressive actress, and at her age, with the screen presence she has now -- wow, talk about a bright future.

I should probably mention Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Now I've only read the first book, so I don't even understand how there can be such a thing as "Team Gale." So for a character I was already relatively ambiguous about, Hemsworth got the job done. Though I have to say it was rather jarring seeing him without his trademark blonde hair. Oh, one development I did like as far as Gale goes in this film is that we see his troubled reaction to watching the Katniss/Peeta relationship play out during the games, something not possible in the novel.

Now that I've got that Gale person out of the way, I can talk about Peeta. I was a little concerned based on the brief glimpses of Peeta in the previews that Josh Hutcherson would come across as a little too...wooden, I think is the word I'm looking for. I was pleasantly surprised to have my fears proven groundless. Through his performance, Hutcherson grows Peeta from the baker's son, almost shell-shocked at being chosen during the Reaping, to a charismatic, engaging and most importantly, in love, youth on the verge of losing the girl he loves to the Games. I've read several reviews that feel the Katniss/Peeta screen relationship was lacking. Now while I would've always loved to see more of their slow-burning relationship, what we're given on-screen worked extraordinarily well for me. The film allows us to see Katniss's gradually dawning realization that for some reason beyond her comprehension, particularly in the context of the horrible situation they're in, Peeta matters. And Peeta quite frankly adores her, a fact that Hutcherson conveys extraordinarily well.

District 12's Games organizer is the garish Effie Banks, and Elizabeth Banks does a terrific job portraying all of her absurd extremes. And her clothes -- oh they were fantastically realized. I love love loved Lenny Kravitz as the designer Cinna (gold eyeliner and all). He was grounded, as compassionate as can be given the situation -- I was quite happy with the film's delivery of the Cinna/Katniss friendship. And his costumes were extraordinary -- girl on fire, indeed. But even more interesting to me, though, was Woody Harrelson's performance as 12's sole previous victor, the drunken Haymitch. I really liked Harrelson's performance -- in the novel, Katniss is frustrated or hostile to Haymitch much of the time, so I had a hard time getting a good sense of his character, his thoughts and perspective. And Harrelson riddles Haymitch with self-loathing, a quality he gradually puts aside as the realization that he might actually be able to save Katniss and Peeta penetrates his alcohol-clouded brain. At least that's how it hit me.

EDIT: I can't believe I forgot to mention Stanley Tucci's performance as Caesar Flickerman, the interviewer and Games commentator. His mannerisms, his blue hair -- oh he was hilarious, and pretty much pitch-perfect for the role. The periodic commentary he shared with Toby Jones as Claudius Templesmith was yet another way the filmmakers took the narrative outside of Katniss's head and let us see the Games from the outside in, as it were.

Witnessing Haymitch's behind-the-scenes efforts on behalf of his tributes was one of the "added" scenes in the film, things Katniss could never know because she was locked in the arena. Frankly I thought peeking "behind the curtain" into the making and running of the Games was really pretty fascinating, and for me it succeeded in making the awful horror of the event more impactful, because of the clinical, calculated manner in which the Games are staged. Since I have yet to read Catching Fire, without giving away too many spoilers is the Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley -- WHAT A BEARD) introduced? I can't remember him being mentioned by name at all. Anyways -- I thought Crane's added scenes with President Snow (Donald Sutherland) were really well-done, particularly his realization at the end of the film that he isn't above being a pawn in the Capitol's plans any more than tributes. I also assume that Snow becomes a much bigger player in the second and third novels -- thanks to Sutherland's performance I already hate him. Sutherland was chilling.

I've touched on the development of the Peeta/Katniss relationship in the arena. The second most important event, to my mind anyway, is Katniss's friendship with the District 11 girl tribute Rue (Amandla Stenberg). Stenberg was SO GOOD, the ideal actress to bring Rue's vulnerability to life. Stenberg and Lawrence's scenes broke my heart, particularly her death and Katniss's reaction -- Lawrence's grief was wholly believable and gut-wrenching. Question, to those who've read the books -- is it revealed that Katniss's care for Rue after her death sparks a riot in District 11? Irregardless I thought that was a powerful scene to include in the film, in how it suggests that Katniss (and later Peeta) fan the flames of discontent in the districts.

At the moment I really can't think of another film that was guaranteed blockbuster status that was filmed without much of the gloss and glamour you expect from Hollywood. Director Gary Ross and his team have imbued every aspect of this film with a sense of gritty realism and authenticity, helped by a lot of handheld camera work that adds urgency and energy to sequences, visually mimicking Collins's high-energy prose. Even the film's score (provided by James Newton Howard) eschews the tendency of blockbusters-in-the-making to go for loud and bombastic. The cues evoking the mountainous, folk music traditions of Katniss's home are gorgeous, a stark contrast to the dangers facing her and Peeta in the arena. Like the novel, watching The Hunger Games is an unsettling experience -- I think the film hit me even a tick harder than the  book did, which I thought was an interesting and honestly somewhat unexpected reaction. It isn't the level of violence -- that's certainly there, but honestly there could have been more, all things considered. I think being outside of Katniss's head, seeing her in this unfathomable situation, seeing the people gleefully betting on a tribute's odds in the Capitol, seeing the Gamemaker's employees clinically raining horror down on the heads of survivors in the arena -- seeing all of this drove home the novel's ripping condemnation of our voyeuristic, desensitized society in a fresh, powerful manner.

The Hunger Games is really an extraordinarily well-done adaptation, a prime example, I think, of thoughtful filmmaking. This is a team that cares about the source material, and I dearly hope they carry this passion through to the sequels. I feel like this post only touches on what I could say about this film, what worked, what was changed -- but that would require more thought (and most likely additional viewings). However, if there's anything I haven't touched on (I try so hard to be thorough, ha!) that you'd like to try and discuss please feel free to mention that in the comments.


Charity said...

I'm afraid that I'm one of those who feels there was no spark between Peeta and Katniss on screen, but in purely cinematic terms I was also impressed how faithful it was to the source material. I really liked Jennifer in the lead -- like you, I also loved her in the X-Men prequel, so I knew she could pull it off here as well.

The costuming and set up for the Capital was terrific, and I loved all the obvious throw-backs to Ancient Rome, in the staging of the central square and the entrance of the chariots. I think the “on fire” costumes were stunning, and that may be my favorite sequence out of the film. Stanley Tucci was also terrific; I laughed every time he grinned at the audience, and I think it improved on the book in the sense that we got to see what was happening at the Capital during the games.

BUT... the extreme close-ups and the shaky cam took away from the visual experience, and there were times I wanted to scream “back the damn camera up two feet, so I can see what is actually going on!” =P

Kristin said...

Lovely review!

I also loved the look of District 12. Very 30s/40s looking in a poverty way- the Reaping had a very Holocaust feel to me.

I can't remember if it's specifically the Katniss/Rue's death thing that sparks rebellion in District 11...I read all three books in the course of a week back in September, so things sort of run together in my mind. :)

I agree that the movie was unsettling, and so I have a hard time saying that I "enjoyed" it, though I guess I did. Despite the dark feel. I think it was the most faithful book-to-film adaptation I've ever seen, and that made me so happy. :)

Anyway, I wrote a rambling review for my blog today and it's scheduled to go up tomorrow. :)


Unknown said...

@Charity - There was more on Peeta's side than Katniss's, I think, but to me that sorta fit with Lawrence's overall portrayal. Plus I am a sucker, an absolute SUCKER for unabashed adoration, and I got that from Peeta at any rate. ;)

The entrance of the chariots was SUCH a throwback to Ancient Rome, making this very much a futuristic "update" of the Coliseum. Oh and I can't believe I forgot to write about Tucci -- he was amazing!

Both Tucci and Toby Jones's commentary was extremely helpful during the arena scenes -- I thought that was an excellent way of "fleshing" out the book and giving us a glimpse from the outside looking in, as it were.

I was really worried I wouldn't adapt to the camera angles when the film began. Definitely NOT my favorite type of camera work...

@Kristin - Thank you! I thought the exact same thing during the Reaping -- it seemed very reminscent of Holocaust history.

I'm hoping to start book #2 here before too long, so that should help with my lingering questions.

Since you are a fan of the books I'm glad to know this movie worked for you as well. I look forward to reading your own review!

Jess said...

Great review--now I really, really can't wait to see it!! But I'm making myself wait until I've read the book, I'm big on that :)

Unknown said...

@Jess - Thank you! Hope you get to read the book soon -- it's a quick read. :)

Rissi said...

Glad you enjoyed this one, Ruth - I'll definitely see it on DVD. =)

Unknown said...

@Rissi - I look forward to your review! :)

Michelle said...

I've not watched the movie yet, but I've read all the books. And now it's not revealed that Katniss' care of Rue caused a riot in District 11 during the games. I'm looking forward to seeing the movie, hopefully in a couple of weeks.

Since you asked about Seneca Crane too, he's mentioned in Catching Fire. But I won't say more, because it would be a spoiler.

Ella said...

I have been waiting for your review, Ruth!! You and I have much of the same thoughts on it. I loved Peeta's adoration of Katniss, although like you, I am just a sucker for it =D

Stanley Tucci reminded me of Ryan Seacrest is was uncanny (and then on American Idol this week, Ryan had to say "And may the odds be ever in your favor." I started cracking up)

I do have agree with Charity on one thing--the jerky filming (at the beginning especially) drove me NUTS!!!!

And I think you will love reading "Catching Fire." It's quite good =D

Unknown said...

@Michelle - Oh now that is interesting...thanks for sharing that bit of book info, Michelle! Please let me know what you think of the movie when you do get to see it!

@Ella - Aww, glad I'm not the only one who liked Peeta/Katniss. :) And you are SO RIGHT, I think Stanley Tucci was channelling a bit of Seacrest in his performance. ;)

Jennifer said...

I've really enjoyed reading people's thoughts in the blogging world about the movie. I like that you like Peeta and Katniss in the movie, as I've mostly read of people not liking their relationship in the movie. I'm undecided. I think when I see it again (when it comes out on DVD because I'm way too cheap to see it in theaters a second time) I'll like it more. Maybe a second time will give me a chance to just watch and not critique. Because with every book to movie adaptation the first screening for me seems to be one of comparison. The second time I can just watch and enjoy for what it is. I did really enjoy it in theaters, though.

Unknown said...

@Jennifer - Me too, especially 'cause I'm so new to this world. I think I can see where people are coming from, feeling that the film realization of the Katniss/Peeta relationship is lacking -- it is a bit subdued. But I rather liked the slow burn of it all. :) Glad that overall you really enjoyed this film too!

Holly (2 Kids and Tired) said...

Awesome, awesome review! I loved the film. I thought it was one of the better adaptations I've ever seen. And, as you read the rest of the series, you'll see that Gale's role is much bigger in the remaining two books. Liam really did a great job nailing the character.

I adored Josh's portrayal of Peeta, especially given what he had to work with, because everything we see of Peeta in the book is from Katniss' perspective. I agree when people say their relationship in the film is a bit subdued, but I thought Josh did a fantastic job of capturing the absolute essence of Peeta's character and how he feels about Katniss. I can't wait to see them together in Catching Fire, as it was my favorite of the three books.

And, I can't say enough about Lenny Kravitz as Cinna and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch. Perfect casting. Absolutely. Loved them.

I've already seen it twice and the second time it was nice to watch it and not feel like I was going to miss something. I could just enjoy it and I certainly did.

Heidenkind said...

Team Pita Bread all the way! ;)

Unknown said...

@Holly - Thank you! I'm glad to get your perspective on Liam's portrayal of Gale -- since I've only read book #1, that certainly doesn't give a person all that much to go on.

I'm also thrilled you liked Peeta in the film as much as I did. :) I can't wait to see this movie again!

@Tasha - Always and forever, Pita Bread Boy for the win!!! :)

Tales of Whimsy said...

Loved it!
Peeta grew on me.
ADORED Stanley Tucci. He's marvelous!

Unknown said...

@Juju - Yay, glad you liked it too! We really do get to see Peeta's transformation over the course of this film, don't we? LOVE IT.