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Review: The Hunger Games - indy42

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The Hunger Games

As a fan of the books (well, the first one, at least), the prospect of a film adaptation, however inevitable, seemed like a thankless endeavor. To the adults who might enjoy a violent, allegorical dystopian tale, the story on the screen might read too derivative. In order to appeal to the teenagers who read the book, it might become toothless and hamstrung by the mandate to catch as many Twilight fans as possible. The filmmakers, led by Seabiscuit director Gary Ross, had to walk a fine line: They had to at once make a film that was faithful to the source material, while at the same time make a film that was appropriate (read: PG13) to the fanbase of said source material. While the film does suffer from its inability to really showcase the horror of the The Hunger Games themselves, the film is able to mitigate it, and is actually, at the moment, one of the best films of the year.

I have a bias in this review, I'll freely admit that: I'm much more inclined to like young adult book adaptations that seek to have some sort of distinctive visual style beyond just perfunctory direction. I really liked, for example, The Seeker: The Dark is Rising, which, for all intents and purposes, seems to be regarded as a terrible movie. What it had, for all its faults, was a director who seemed to be actively trying to make the movie his own. "The Hunger Games" also has that, and in spades. In the first five minutes, after the somewhat annoying prologue text (What was with that font?), Ross throws shaky cam, murky shots of chicken bones, and rough edits at the audience, a somewhat brave maneuver that gets the audience squirming. It may have been a little heavy-handed (I'm pretty sure he threw in a Dorothea Lange recreation in there) but it created a sharp disconnect between the world of The Hunger Games and the relatively more polished and clean worlds of Harry Potter or Twilight.

I've heard a lot of grumbling about the shaky cam that Ross uses - indeed, it is prevalent in this film - but at the same time, it's valid. I often feel that the criticisms of shaky cam, for example the video essay "Chaos Cinema" often forget that it is just a technique, and can be used well if the story demands it. The Bourne films, often criticized for using it, had a story-based reason to: it made the audience feel that they, too, were constantly chasing Bourne. In The Hunger Games, the shaky cam is there both to highlight the difference between the harsh worlds of either District 12 or the Arena where the games are fought, or to translate the narration of Katniss Everdeen in the book to the screen. In this case (though not in all) the shaky cam comes organically from the story, and is not just there to disguise shoddy special effects or to keep a movie PG13 (although it's certainly used to throughout).

The script, by Suzanne Collins, Gary Ross, and Billy Ray, does an admirable job of streamlining the story while keeping exposition at a minimum. While relatively important shorelines from the novel omitted, they don't impact the story as a whole (yet) and keep the running time at a barely manageable 2 hours and 22 minutes. The acting is very good all around, especially by Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Woody Harrelson as Haymitch. With the exception of a fairly middling Peeta, no one else really gets a chance to shine as a character - though to give credit where credit is due, Alexander Ludwig as the "career" tribute Cato became one of the most interesting characters with about three lines in the climax of the film.

While the direction, writing, and acting all do their very best to sell the story and the world of the film, there is something that feels slightly off about the whole film. Despite the best efforts of the director to apply a "less is more" approach to the brutality of the games, it feels slightly wrong, or perhaps, slightly opportunistic on the part of the studio, that the violence is toned down from the R-Rating a completely faithful adaptation of the book would have received. While the PG13 certainly initiated this change, it's not completely to blame. Rather, the issue is that by making the violence into 'action', where the audience can easily recognize certain faces as evil and perhaps even cheer when they die - it goes against the spirit of the book. Unless Gary Ross was attempting to make a meta-criticism of our own culture by having the audience scoff at the Capitol's lifestyle while enjoying the same entertainment they are - which I don't think he was, given his valiant attempt to make the violence as unenjoyable as possible - then the movie, simply by existing and simply by toning down its violence to a level of popcorn action movies, undermines, ever so slightly, the point the book was making. Just the fact that certain critics can refer to the movie having 'action scenes' is a bad mark on the film.

However, I have to give the film a good deal of credit: it manages to create a very good film out of a very good book, and not fall back into the trappings of Twilight-esque love triangles (the second and third books do a good enough job of that) or just creating a cheap cash-in to the book's popularity.

Bring on Catching Fire. Let's hope Gary Ross and co are competent enough to figure out to make that work as a film better than it did as a book.


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