Entertainment Magazine

Review #3455: The Hunger Games (2012)

Posted on the 20 April 2012 by Entil2001 @criticalmyth

Written by Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, and Billy Ray
Directed by Gary Ross

When we think of modern day adaptations of popular YA books, we think style and polish. We think of the spectacle and distinctive visuals of the various “Harry Potter” films, the Disney-enriched tone of the “Narnia” films, and all of the CGI that has been thrown at franchise after franchise. For that matter, one might even point to the all-too-recognizable style of the “Twilight” films. Whatever the case, there’s a certain way that such films are shot, and a great deal of it is a celebration of modern filmmaking techniques.

Review #3455: The Hunger Games (2012)

“The Hunger Games” is a very different film. Visually, this is far from the typical young adult fantasy film. Strip away the slick post-production; where there is CGI, it’s either very low-key, or basic to the point of looking noticeably out of place. Strip away the bombastic score; when music does come into play, it is remarkable for its presence, and often unnerving in its absence.

Between director Gary Ross and Steven Sodenbergh, the film is shot with a deliberate documentary-esque style. It’s not the shaky-cam that has become the rage of the “found footage” sub-genre, but there is an immediacy to just about everything as a result. It’s a smart way to take the novel’s first-person-present tense and communicate that feeling on-screen.

In rough terms, everything before the games feels disjointed, fragmented, as if events are happening a little too fast, the impact a bit too raw. This is most clearly communicated in the Reaping scene. Those judging this scene by the sliver of footage in the trailers might think its overdone, overplayed, with dramatic music blasting over Katniss’ decision to volunteer for the Games. Instead, the scene unfolds almost completely without music, stark silence meeting Effie’s every word, the only music coming from the macabre promotional video that all residents of each District are forced to watch, to remember why the Games were created.

The deafening silence forces the audience to endure every pause, every flinch, every terrified look. The documentary style during those scenes made it very easy to imagine that it was something out of actual history, some monstrous ritual kept from civilized eyes and ears, until brought into the light of day. Despite knowing exactly what was going to happen, I found myself drawn in and genuinely unnerved.

As the Games themselves approach, the style gives way to something closer to the style that one might expect from “Inside the NFL”. Just as the producers of such shows can take events from just days before and make them appear to be something out of the annals of history, everything feels like it was captured in the moment, then pulled together for the sake of the audience.

This conceit is not just a smart way to keep the audience from getting too comfortable, or letting teen-on-teen lethal violence play out in all its chaotic and visceral glory. It also allows for certain elements of the story to be glossed over in a reasonable manner. It’s only the handful of times when something can only be seen or experienced from Katniss’ point of view, breaking the illusion of the hidden camera crew, that it becomes obvious how the deliberately the style was chosen.

Because it’s more of a mixed style of presentation, the film can seem a bit unfocused at times, as if there wasn’t a firm vision for the film. Without just the right casting, the film could have easily been a total mess. However, the decision to cast Jennifer Lawrence in the role of Katniss Everdeen was not only a stroke of genius, but a choice that easily made up for any minor weaknesses in other areas of the film.

To put it simply, Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen. Not once did I think about the actress instead of the character. Not once did I find myself questioning an acting choice on her part. Lawrence carries this film from beginning to end, and you believe that she is Katniss. That mixture of strength, resilience, stubbornness, and vulnerability is perfectly communicated. If she hadn’t already been in high profile roles, I’d say that this was her arrival. It might be anyway.

Almost by default, everyone else is second billing. But I must give kudos to Josh Hutcherson. Peeta is a thankless role. He can’t be a true viewpoint character, and since Katniss doesn’t share his feelings, the usual romantic tropes just wouldn’t work. Instead, he is the earnest young man in love who must deal with the fact that he’s playing a part in a bid for survival. Nevertheless, there’s no doubt of his character arc; for me, even setting aside my memory of the novel, I found his through-line to be entirely clear.

The rest of the cast worked very well for me. I usually can’t stand Woody Harrelson, but he slipped so well into the character of Haymitch that I never really thought about my concerns. While I always saw Effie as far more effusive and flamboyant, there is a subtle undertone to her character that communicates the fear that lies beneath the “security” of the Capitol. Cinna is very understated, but his role had to be revised to account for elements that were, necessarily, excised for the adaptation.

Stanley Tucci brings the perfect blend of media savvy to the role of Caesar Flinkerman, and Wes Bentley does a capable job as Seneca, the designer of the Arena. Donald Sutherland makes a requisitely sinister and unnerving President Snow. All of the Tributes fit their roles well, even if they don’t get quite enough screen time to make themselves distinct. (The exception is Rue, whose death leads to one of the more chilling moments of the film.) Only Liam Hemsworth, as Gale, feels underused, but that’s because he’s really far more important down the road. The audience gets enough time with him to know that there is, amongst everything else, a sort of love triangle. (And like the book, it is not at all the point of the story.)

In the end, this is not a perfect film. There are plenty of little things that could have been improved, and it’s not hard to think that a slightly longer movie might have allowed for some additional character beats. But as a whole, this is a far better adaptation than I expected, and one that left me wondering how “Catching Fire” could be adapted easily well, given the change in directors and a very aggressive scripting and shooting schedule. If nothing else, “The Hunger Games” has earned all involved the benefit of the doubt.

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