Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Case for Hungry Hungry Mockingjays

I really loved the kidult fantasy book The Hunger Games.  I was not alone in this.  And so, with much anticipation and a huge amount of hype, The Hunger Games movie has been released, and, not one to rock the successfully selling boat, it is a basic retelling of the book though there have been several changes to assist in the small screen telling. 

Oh, and before I get into it, there may be spoilers in here, so you are warned.

For a start, the bizarrely named Katniss Everdeen is played not as a slight early teenager, but by the gorgeous Jennifer Lawrence, with chubby cheeks and womanly curves (cue lots of 16 year old females wondering why they don't look like that).  The "boys" are likewise 20-something alpha males (even the characters that are meant to be betas) in the form of Liam Hemsworth (Gale, not really given a lot to do) and Josh Hutcherson (Peeta).  Amongst the "adults", the delightful Donald Sutherland gets to play quiet menace as Dark Father Christmas-like President Snow, Woody Harrelson has hair as Haymitch, Stanley Tucci is all teeth as a TV host, and the magnificent Elizabeth Banks (I adore her current turn in 30 Rock as an uber Republican TV host) dons ridiculous amounts of make up and material and is almost unrecognisable as Effie Trinket.

There is therefore a top notch, easy on the eyes cast to fill the roles, and the book provides most of the structure to the story, so all that is left is to make the look and feel of what is hinted in the book into something visual.

It's in the "interpretation" department that things start to fall down a little.  To give a sense of hardship and urgency (and probably to mask any violence to keep the rating down), the majority of the film is shot in patented Shakyvision, and the start of the film is almost nausea-inducing.  The post apocalyptic world of District 12 is shown as a hick town with banjos playing, which is not quite how I had imagined it, though the Capitol in the Rocky Mountains looks suitably futuristic, in a decadent way. 

The way the characters are presented is also a little disappointed.  Katniss is meant to be a bit distant, but the first person narrative of the book means it is easier to see her point of view.  The film mainly sticks to the story being "all about Katniss" (except for some expository "what TV is saying" scenes), though Lawrence has to let her wide eyed blank expression convey most of what she feels.  However, given the material, she does a great job of making Katniss a reluctant heroine, a tough customer underneath an unassuming exterior.

As all the other characters revolve around Katniss, they have an easier time of things, though sometimes that ease comes at the expense of actually becoming interesting.  Hutcherson, as Peeta, gets a lot of screentime and does a successful job of being a quiet charmer, his manga-like big brown eyes making him a perfect puppy in Katniss's presence.  Meanwhile, Banks is pretty much wasted after the Reaping, though Tucci and Harrelson have a bit more to do in their roles.  And Sutherland... well, he is awesome.
The film also decides to go big on the game effects.  I had not imagined creatures being magically (or should that be, technologically?) created out of thin air when I read the books, but obviously someone else interpreted things that way, and indeed the whole arena looks spectacular. 

As the book, even with a large font, is about 400 pages long, the film has a lot to get through.  Most things are covered in the 2 hour running time, though there is obviously a lot sacrificed (such as minor character development) even then. 

Overall though, the film is good, but I couldn't help but wonder if my disappointments and also my enjoyments were influenced a lot by my perceptions of the original book.  Perhaps people who have not read the book will be able to enlighten me - how does the movie stand on its own merits?

Verdict: Considering the compelling nature of the source material, it is not surprising that The Hunger Games is a gripping movie.  It staggers a little both in its unsteady camera work and under the burden of trying to convey so much in a movie timeframe, but, for the most part, it is pretty successful, aided by a fairly awesome cast.   7.5 odds ever in my favour out of 10.

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