Tuesday, March 27, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

I am not an avid science fiction reader. Not to say that I don’t like science fiction books, but I just don’t read it a lot and I don’t love a lot of it. One exception though is the 2008 novel, The Hunger Games. This best-selling Suzanne Collins novel turned out to be very popular with young adults. So much so was that it was on the New York Times list for over 100 consecutive weeks and even spawned two sequels and who could blame them? The novel was bloody, gripping, tense, and complex. It is definitely in my Top 10 favorite books. So, when Hollywood announced a movie was being made based on this book, fans waited eagerly in anticipation and then, on March 23, those loyal fans rushed to see what is probably the most highly anticipated film of 2012. Does it live up to the hype?

Let me start with the plot of the book. It takes place in a post-apocalyptic world in which North America once existed, but has now been separated into the country of Panem that is separated by twelve districts. During the early times of Panem, there was a rebellion against the Capitol, which holds total power over the nation, and a 13th district was destroyed. Now, Panem is more peaceful, but due to this past rebellion, one boy and one girl from each district between 12 and 18 years old are chosen to participate in the Hunger Games, where they will fight each other until one remains.

The story revolves around a 16 year old named Katniss Everdeen, who resides in District 12 with her sister, Primrose, and her mother, while her father has been killed in a mining accident. During the Reaping, which is the ceremony where the Hunger Games participants are chosen, Katniss’ sister is chosen, but Katniss volunteers to replace her and fight in the Hunger Games along with the male tribute, Peeta Mellark, where complexity and violence ensues. The reason why I told you the overall synopsis of the novel (and I hope I got it right, because if I didn’t, there will be thousands of fans and a few of my friends at my doorstep, greeting me with torches and pitchforks) is because that’s the same plot of the film, as well.

When I saw the trailers for this film, I thought it was going to be good and satisfying to people who love the book, but not anything special. Surprisingly, it is much better than that. The plot, while a tad bit predictable, is engaging and complex like the book. I perceive this story as a comment on our society and how sadistic we can be. We watch violence on television and movies all the time for our own entertainment. This movie takes that ideal to the extreme when the production crew behind these games throws in things that horrify the contestants, but magnetize the audience.

The action sequences and scenes in the Arena, where the Games take place, are exhilarating and director Gary Ross, whose previous films Pleasantville and Seabiscuit have a completely different mood, doesn’t shy away from showing you grisly images. While it doesn’t get too extreme, since the film is rated PG-13, it still gets pretty bloody and graphic. However, unlike other films, the action is plot-driven and the violence is not just people getting killed. It is about survival, fear, and persistence.

The overall look of the film is great. Special effects have been used to great effect here, especially an authentic and amazing-looking Capitol. The set design is massive and phenomenal, especially the room where Caesar Flickerman interviews the tributes that has electronic screens that look that they came right out of Times Square. Some are the sets are props are overly exaggerated, but unlike Happily N’Ever After, they are creative and eye pleasing. They’re like those surreal statues you see at an art museum. Even the costumes are well done. Those training suits look awesome and, for some reason, remind me of something you would see in Tron: Legacy or something. Sometimes, the costumes are just so bizarre and flamboyant that you can’t help to be absorbed by them. The cinematography is very good, as well. Cinematographer Tom Stern finds a way to create various tones that range from bright and lively to dark and bleak.

The cast is uniformly great. Jennifer Lawrence is, of course, the standout of the film. She came off her Oscar nomination for Winter’s Bone and is proving herself as an up-and-coming actress to look out for. When I first heard the idea for a Hunger Games film, I thought they should’ve gotten Saoirse Ronan from City of Ember and Atonement to play Katniss, but am I glad Jennifer Lawrence was picked. She is strong, powerful, and convincing in her role. Josh Hutcherson, proving he is not a child actor anymore, also is convincing as Peeta. He is good as portraying a character that is just as strong, sly, and smart as Katniss, but doesn’t quite believe it himself and the two of them share a romance that is convincing and complex. How much of it does she feel? How much of it does he feel? Is it all an act or real? Also, Liam Hemsworth is, surprisingly, strong in his role as Gale. While I didn’t feel like they gave him enough development, he is still convincing in his role.

However, the supporting cast is, also, great. Professionals like Woody Harrelson, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland, and even Lenny Kravitz play their parts very well, especially Woody Harrelson and Donald Sutherland. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the mentor for Katniss and Peeta, does a great job, not just finding a great balance of being generous and being a jerk, but also at portraying an alcoholic who is funny and yet seems like he has a deep menace that he desperately wants to reveal. Also, Donald Sutherland as President Snow is a lot more laid-back in the movie that I would’ve pictured him. I think that was the right choice, so that his character could maybe go further and become more of a menace in the following movies.

Also, newcomers Willow Shields as Prim and Amandla Stenberg, as Rue, a tribute who forms an alliance with Katniss, are very strong and, once again, convincing and I hope they receive more work. Furthermore, the tributes are all portrayed well, especially Alexander Ludwig as Cato, a bloodthirsty tribute who becomes even deeply disturbed toward the end, and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh, a tribute in the same district as Rue who really gets to show off his acting abilities in one particular scene.

Finally, since I mentioned that I read the book, I’m sure all of you are asking the same question: how was the movie compared to the book? It’s a close call, but I have to say that the book is better. However, I will say that the movie is about 88% faithful to the book. There are some small changes and some larger ones, some of which kind of rubbed me the wrong way. 

For example, there are dogs that come in near the end of the book and movie and the movie didn’t explain them as well as the book did. Also, an Avox girl who had her tongue snipped off who was present in the book has no scenes in the movie. While I guess it was cut for time, it is rather important to show what happens when people tried to flee the government. 

I’d tell you more changes, but I don’t want to spoil anything. In fact, the only major gripe I have with the film is the shaky cam. There are several sequences where the camera is shaking way too much, to the point where I could barely see what was going on. I understand when action happens, the camera shakes a little, but it shakes so much I am surprised a drunken Michael J. Fox wasn’t shooting those scenes. Regardless, however, this is a satisfying film for any fan of the book and much more, as well. I was engaged for all 2 hours and 22 minutes of The Hunger Games and can’t wait for Catching Fire.

RATING: A high three-and-a-half stars out of four!

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