Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games: A Review

"Happy Hunger Games! And may the odds be ever in your favor!"

Effie Trinket, in The Hunger Games

Hunger Games is one of the few instances where I had the pleasure of walking into a film adaptation of a massively popular spec fic novel without having the impression of its source material to appraise it by. However, being the massive film geek and pop lit enthusiast that I am, I still had a rather good idea of what it's about. I knew its dystopian Battle Royale premise of teenager-on-teenager violence in a state-sponsored gladiatorial deathmatch (disclaimer: I have not actually seen Battle Royale). I knew that Academy Award-nominated actress, Jennifer Lawrence, would play its protagonist (disclaimer: I have not actually seen Winter's Bone).

Now, having walked out of the theatre, I was left with a smouldering desire to read the book and its sequels - and in my memory, that had only happened twice before. They were The Bridge to Terabithia and The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and both were - in my opinion - inferior to the films they inspired. Perhaps it's a first impression thing. Perhaps if I had read the source material first I would have preferred them to the movie, but we'll never know because I have no possible way of contacting the other time stream where an alternate me had sampled the works in reverse order. Unlike Terabithia and Dragon Tattoo, the Hunger Games movie suggests to me that the world of its fictional universe is far vaster than what I have seen on screen, and I'm dying to find out just how much. One day, I would take a couple of days from work and do just that.

And if you are wondering if this film have my zero-authority stamp of approval; it does. It is the best freaking time I had at the movies this year so far. I have but one significant gripe against it: the shaky-cam at times were almost unbearable, and this is coming from a bloke who praised the handheld found footage format of Chronicle. The flash cuts during the more frantic action sequences rendered some scene nigh incomprehensible, and that suggested to me that they were trying to hide the fact that the actors may not be terribly adept and physical acting. The only time I enjoyed the camerawork was when we assume the POV of a character who was under the influence of a hallucinogen - it was giddy in a good way.

Hunger Games Poster
Jennifer Lawrence is Katniss Everdeen.

The setting of the Hunger Games invokes comparisons to the classical Roman empire (at least in popular depictions). There is a wildly popular morally-reprehensible bloodsport which serves as a diversion for its populace. The more affluent members of societies indulge in hedonistic excesses; in fashion, in cuisine, and in their mannerisms. Several character names like Seneca, Cato and Caesar clearly belonged to famous dead Romans. If the ancient Romans had televisions, you can bet all your last denarii that they would probably broadcast a similar reality show. Half the film was dedicated to the events leading up to the titular Games, showing us the society the characters live in, the pageantry of the juvenile participants, and their training leading up to them killing the fuck out of one another. It was borderline farcical. They even had the kids appear on an interview show hosted by a very poofy Stanley Tucci.

One of the most surprising (and refreshing) things about the film is how deeply it commits to depicting the coldblooded murder of children and teenagers perpetrated by... well, other children and teenagers. While the violent scenes were moderately discreet, I found the reality of it incredibly disturbing. There was a scene of a teen's head being bashed in by another using a brick. There's another of a little girl skewered by a thrown javelin. You get the general idea.

Here's where tread into spoiler territory.

When the Hunger Games finally kicked off and 24 kids were set loose in an explansive Truman Show-esque forest arena, that's when things really got interesting. There is a genuine sense of suspense and paranoia as we follow Katniss' efforts at surviving and evading her competitors. A bunch of the more lethal teens (including Arrogant Sword Jock and Psycho Knife Bitch) had banded together to hunt her down specifically, and Katniss' own companion and male counterpart from her district had seemingly joined forces with them. The thing about Jeniffer Lawrence was that she really sold her character as a real survivor, but exudes just enough feminine panic at times for us to fear for her safety.

However, the film began to lose me after Katniss teamed up with a tiny girl named Rue, a name which simultaneously meant a road and regret. I understand that this is where the story start bleeding into emotions and higher concepts, and I understand that Rue is a blatant proxy of the little sister for whom Katniss volunteered to participate in the Hunger Games. The point is, I don't care about Rue. I was never given enough time to know get to know her like I did Katniss. So when Rue was shishkabobbed, I felt nothing (and the child actress' unconvincing performance didn't help at all).

The romantic subplot between Katniss and that guy named after a bunch of animal rights nutters (the homonym was sooo distracting) was equally unconvincing. Perhaps the subtext here is that Katniss was only exploiting their relationship as a means to garner sympathy from sponsors who have the power to give the Tributes (as the participants are called) aid in the form of food or medicine, and I find that interpretation to be a lot more satisfying narratively. The Highlander in-game rule of there can only be one victor promised some interesting possibilities for the finale - until it was suspended, allowing for joint victors if the pair is from the same district. "They" then tried to flip back to the original one winner condition only to be foiled by Katniss' supposedly brilliant Romeo-and-Juliet Gambit of Double-Suicide. It's too complex to explain here but essentially, the dictatorial government would rather have two victors than none.

Gee, I wonder how difficult it was to just not do anything. I mean, they can't exactly force Katniss and Peeta to kill each other, right? What's stopping them from just making out on the spot after all the other Tributes were killed, blown up or eaten by genetically-engineered pit bulls till the authorities got bored and just let them have their way? Oh wait, never mind. I just answered my own question: "they" will never let them have their way.

The film ended with the lingering shot of the Machiavellian emperor of the dystopian city state walking ominously away from a display screen showing Katniss' triumphant return to District 12. All it lacked was the soundtrack going "DUM DUM DUM!"

P.S. Arcade Fire's Abraham's Daughter played as the credits rolled and it's a monument of a song. The heart of its sepulchral lyrics beats the conviction that compassion is higher than authority, even if that authority speaks for God himself - something that a lot of theists fail to grasp.

Hungry for more,
k0k s3n w4i


nicoletta said...

watched this a couple of days ago and also had no idea what to expect when I first walked into the cinema. I'd read the synopsis beforehand and was wondering if it would really work. and it did. the world of the film was extraordinarily well conceptualised. this was one genuinely creepy show.

c3rs3i said...

Watched battle royale, someone (a liar T.T) told me it was a really good show..
Put me off watching anything similiar, but can't say I'm immune to all the hype surrounding the hunger games.

So probably gonna read the books first.. The prose in kids books tends to be more simplistic so I imagine disappointment in the book if I were to watch movie first, especially if it were that good.

Let's compare notes when we're done.

k0k s3n w4i said...

nicoletta: i thought you wouldn't see this till like july or something, and here you are, having seen it earlier than most people in the world. are you going to read the books?

c3rs3i: well, most do regard battle royale as a really good show. a case of your mileage may vary, i suppose.

Sapphira said...

Both Swedish and English 'The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo' film adaptations trumped the book. The book sucked pretty royally. I couldn't connect to the story on an emotional level because of the way the author distanced the characters from the reader. Perhaps it was just me though.

And I liked The Hunger Games. I can't wait to hunt down (pun quite unintended) the books. :) I didn't like the handheld footage part either; that was taking it too far and simply unnecessary in the beginning part of the film.

As always, I'm coming back to your review now that I've watched the film, haha.

Anonymous said...

battle royale can never ever be judged based on the movie.

the movie is terrible.

pick up japanese and read the novel, or at least the poorly translated version of the novel.