Thursday, March 22, 2012

Odds favor big-screen 'Hunger Games'

It's not as good as the book, but The Hunger Games has lots to recommend it.
Movie, good. Book, better.

We’re talking The Hunger Games, one of the more anticipated movies of a year that has yet to produce an entertainment with blockbuster potential. Adapted from the first in a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins,The Hunger Games surely will be scrutinized in the way all novels with devoted followings are; i.e., there will be intense interest in whether director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit and Pleasantville) has honored both the letter and the spirit of Collins’s novel.

Burdened by too much exposition and less emotionally resonant than the novel, the big-screen version of The Hunger Games nonetheless is marked by sufficient fear and fervor to push it onto the plus side of the ledger. Just as important, the filmmakers have found an actress (Jennifer Lawrence) who's capable of displaying the mixture of toughness and vulnerability the story demands.

For those unfamiliar with Collins’s work, a brief introduction:

The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence), a 16-year-old living in yet another dystopian future. After an unexplained apocalypse, the country of Panem replaced what we know as North America. The Capitol -- the most advanced part of Panem -- exploits and rules each of Panem’s 12 districts. Katniss hails from District 12, formerly Appalachia and one of the poorest sections of Panem.

Economic exploitation being insufficient torment for the residents of the districts, the Capitol each year stages The Hunger Games, a lethal contest that resembles the TV show Survivor. The name of every district child from the ages of 12 to 18 is put into a national lottery. One boy and one girl from each district are then selected to compete. The 24 competitors -- known as Tributes -- battle to the death. The last remaining Tribute wins. And it’s all on TV, of course.

Katniss, whose father died in a mining accident, has had plenty of time to hone her survival skills. She engages in illegal poaching to feed her emotionally crippled mother and her younger sister, exploring the forbidden forests around District 12 with her pal (and potential boyfriend) Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

The story begins in earnest when Katniss’s sister Prim (Willow Shields) is selected to represent District 12 in The Hunger Games. Katniss immediately volunteers to replace her sister, a substitution allowed by the rules of what otherwise seems an arbitrary game, which is manipulated by high-tech gamesmakers who control the game’s physical environments.

I won’t bother you with additional details except to say that Collins’s book, which consists of Katniss’s first-person account of the games, does a better job when it comes to exposition, probably because everything transpires from Katniss’ highly focused point-of-view.

In order to handle expository chores on screen, Ross is forced outside the arena, where we see the control room where technicians oversee the games. The bearded Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) runs the control room. Look, it's never a good sign when a movie has to stop to explain itself.

In the book, Collins’s propulsive narrative gathers momentum from Katniss’s observations, doubts, craftiness and occasional deliriums. On screen, Katniss’s inner life becomes the responsibility of Lawrence, the young actress who was nominated for an Oscar for her work in Winter’s Bone. Lawrence must suggest with looks and presence what Katniss was able to convey with words in the novel. She gets awfully close, although I have to say that Lawrence wasn't quite as battered, desperate and crafty as the Katniss of my imagination, the one put there by Collins's prose.

Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta Melark, the other competitor from District 12. A baker’s son, Peeta falls for Katniss, a development that gives the movie a bit of romantic spin -- or does it? Can competitors in this deadly game allow themselves to have feelings for one another? Are Peeta’s feelings real or are they part of a strategy related to winning the game?

The movie tries to include most of the events that kept the novel percolating, but shortchanges the more resonant emotions of Collins’s book, particularly those involving Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg). A 12-year-old competitor from an agricultural district, Rue develops a touching relationship with Katniss during the games.

The movie’s adults are mostly well cast. Woody Harrelson plays a watered-down version of the dissolute Haymitch Abernathy, a District 12 competitor who won the 50th Hunger Games and a reluctant mentor to Peeta and Katniss, who have been thrust into the 74th edition of the games. Elizabeth Banks portrays Effie Trinket, the ridiculously pretentious woman appointed to escort Katniss and Peeta to the Capitol. Stanley Tucci shows up as Caesar Flickerman, the host of the Hunger Game TV interviews and a master of faux sincerity. Lenny Kravitz has a nice turn as Cinna, the Capitol resident who’s responsible for helping to shape Katniss’ public image. And Donald Sutherland plays the head of Panem, a cunning and cruel leader who seems to have been inserted mostly in preparation for the next installment.

Ross and cinematographer Tom Stern do a good job creating District 12, a grim, coal-mining area that has been given a look that evokes the Great Depression. But The Hunger Games isn’t exactly coy when it comes to dealing with themes such as the degradations of poverty, as well as exploitative TV, voyeurism, and political oppression. In a way, the movie is another hybrid, a picture that has been crossbred from Survivor, The Truman Show and maybe Lord of the Flies.

Collins’s book seems better paced than the movie, which -- in its quieter moments --falls a little flat, and I’m not sure how much the big-screen version will astonish and captivate those who haven’t read the book.

But Hunger Games is smarter than most fiction aimed at young adults, and it isn’t afraid to explore the dark, bloody terrain of a society that’s willing to amuse itself by brutalizing its children. To the Tributes, the games are a matter of life and death. For everyone else, they’re a TV show.

So a recommendation with only mild reservations. Taking a cue from Katniss’s weapon of choice -- the bow -- I’d say that The Hunger Games definitely hits the target, although it's no bull's eye. And now that the world of Collins’s novels has been established, it should be easier to give us an ever better second helping.

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