March 24, 2012

Movie Review: The Hunger Games

I just returned from seeing The Hunger Games with Howdy. I'm always leery of movies based on books that I've read because I tend to judge them so harshly but The Hunger Games more than lived up to my expectations.

The Hunger Games is the first in a series of books by Suzanne Collins and it takes place in a dystopian future in Panem, a country built around the remains of North America. There are currently 12 districts that are all under the tight control of the Capitol and, more precisely, President Snow. At one time there were 13 districts but when the districts rose up and rebelled, there was a war. The Capitol quashed the rebellion and by the time it was over, only 12 districts were left. Now, in an effort to remind its citizens why mindless obedience is a good thing, they force each district to send 2 "tributes" to compete in an annual tournament known as the Hunger Games. It is a fight to the death with the winner receiving fame and wealth and ensuring food for their district for the next year. In the Capitol, the Games are celebrated like it's Christmas, and they're televised across the country. But in the districts, where food is scarce, the people are oppressed, and hope is non-existent, the Games are, for some, their only hope of survival.

When Katniss Everdeen's 12 year old sister is chosen as tribute for District 12 during her first time being eligible, Katniss quickly volunteers to take her place. She is then joined by a boy named Peeta. They are shipped off to the Capitol where they are primped for the cameras and trained in everything from fighting techniques to outdoor survival. The whole thing is played out in front of an audience of millions and the only way to ensure they will get what they need on the battlefield is to get sponsors. So not only do they have to survive a life or death battle with 23 others, but each tribute also has to do it while getting the audience to root for them.

It's no holds barred once the Games have started and it's no plot spoiler to tell you that children are killed from the get go. I am happy to report that they have really watered down the violence in the movie compared to what is in the books. That's not to say you never see any blood; there is blood and there is death. But in trying to ensure that PG-13 rating, they really had to dial it back and for that I am thankful. Even so, there is so much death and violence and yes, it's kids killing kids. Nothing in the book glorifies what they are doing. These kids are fighting not just for their own lives but for those of their families and even for their whole districts. They aren't given any choice in the matter. And so when one particularly vicious tribute is killed and the theater audience around me cheered, I wanted to scream at all of them. No one should cheer about children killing or being killed. It's not a feel good moment.

It's inevitable that in translating a book to the big screen things will be left out. For the most part I thought the script was very well done. However, the one thing I think they dropped the ball on was the whole triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Katniss' best friend, Gale. In the movie, Katniss and Gale come across as almost brother and sister where in the book we see that Gale cares deeply about Katniss to the point of being willing to run away with her. The Games force Katniss and Peeta to play up a "young love" angle and even that wasn't played up near as strongly as it was in the book. We are given glimpses of Gale as he watches Katniss and Peeta on TV and sees them growing closer (not knowing it's for the cameras) but there's really no indication of how hurt he is by seeing the girl he loves with someone else, he just seems...slightly sad. Don't get me wrong, this is NOT a romance movie by any means. But that tension between them and the position it puts Katniss in makes a big play in the books.

For someone who has never read any of the books or has no idea what to expect going in, I think it's an action filled movie that will get you talking. For those who are big fans of the series, I think they will be pleased with the onscreen version. It was done very well and Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Katniss, the girl who is just trying to survive to get back home to her sister. Josh Hutcherson plays Peeta (I've been a fan of his since I saw him in Little Manhatten) as someone who knows the odds are stacked against him but is willing to play the game the best way he knows how. Liam Hemsworth is Gale, and I just hope we'll see more of him in future installments. As Haymitch, District 12's drunk and mostly useless mentor, Woody Harrelson is nothing like I pictured and yet I found him to be a perfect Haymitch. Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz and Wes Bentley also star, as well as Donald Sutherland as President Snow.

I do have one complaint, however, and it's a big one. As I write this I've been home from the movie for an hour and a half and I am still queasy. I can't stomach those hand held camera shots very well and I estimate that 60-75% of the movie is shot like this. And given that the movie clocks in at 2 hours and 22 minutes, that's a lot of nausea. I can pretty much guarantee that I will never be able to watch this movie a second time, not even on the small screen. I spent much of the movie looking down, trying to keep my snacks from coming back up. I was all ready to throw up in my popcorn bag if necessary and that would have been a serious waste of good movie popcorn. That's the only negative thing I can say about the movie but it was almost enough to ruin the whole thing for me. I'm afraid I'll be a little leery about seeing the second in the series. I understand the appeal in the use of those cameras and getting that you're-right-there-in-the-middle-of-it-all feeling but it was a little too much for me. On the way back out to the van, Howdy was sure to point out where every trash can was just in case I decided to lose it.

Howdy liked the movie although he felt like there were a few parts that dragged a bit (I disagree), and he thought it was just wrong that everyone was cheering over the death of the "villain" tribute. I thought it was very well done and very true to the tone of the books. As long as you're okay with shaky camera shots--a lot of shaky camera shots--then I highly recommend this. (*****)

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