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The Hunger Games: Katniss Deserves Better

by Ethan Alter March 22, 2012 11:30 am
<i>The Hunger Games</i>: Katniss Deserves Better

If there's a single takeaway from The Hunger Games, the first of four planned movies based on the omnipresent YA book franchise by Suzanne Collins, it's that Jennifer Lawrence is a genuine, true blue, big time movie star. Coming off a deservedly acclaimed breakout performance in the indie drama Winter's Bone and a strong supporting turn in last summer's comic book blockbuster X-Men: First Class, the actress picks up the archer's bow wielded by Katniss Everdeen, the girl revolutionary at the center of the novels. On the page, Katniss functions as a kind of wish-fulfillment character for every teen reader -- girls and boys alike -- that has ever felt alienated and aggrieved by an unjust society. (And that's pretty much every teenager from the dawn of time.) The great accomplishment of Lawrence's performance is that she takes a person that every fan of the book has imagined themselves being and makes her completely her own. From the opening scenes, she's completely locked in to Katniss's headspace and vividly portrays her transformation from amateur hunter to battle-tested fighter. So yes, Lawrence is terrific. The movie itself, unfortunately, is a disappointment.

Faced with the daunting task of translating a passionately beloved book to the screen, director/co-writer Gary Ross and his fellow scribes Billy Ray and Collins herself have made the understandable, but unfortunate, decision to primarily follow the letter rather than the spirit of the novel. Much like the first two Harry Potter films, The Hunger Games tries so hard to find room for every supporting character and minor detail -- lest the fans stage a riot over a single exclusion -- that the movie ends up feeling scattered and slack, lacking the heroine's laserlike focus on the task at hand. The unnecessarily prolonged 140-minute running time alone illustrates the filmmakers' reluctance to streamline the narrative, even when it would benefit their stated goal: to make a movie that honors and packs the same punch as the source material.

So much ink has been spilled about The Hunger Games at this point that even people who have never read the book probably know the plot by heart. So let's not waste too much time with needless exposition; suffice it to say, the story unfolds in a dystopian future where, every year, a group of teenagers are forcibly recruited to compete in the Hunger Games, an annual gladiatorial fight to the death that's broadcast live around the country of Panem. The movie evenly divides its time between the run-up to the Games and the event itself; for the first 70 minutes, we watch Katniss volunteer to compete in her younger sister's place and make the journey to Panem's capital city, which is filled with all the wealth and wonders her dirt-poor district lacks. She also gets an up-close-and-personal-look at the way the contest is put together, from the elaborate costumes to the draining training sessions to the crucial involvement of sponsors, individuals who can donate much-needed items to their favorite candidates in the midst of battle. Then the starting horn sounds at the halfway mark and the remaining 70 minutes are given over almost entirely to the Games themselves. Starting off with little at her disposal besides her wits and a rucksack with a few supplies, Katniss fights to be the last person standing amongst 24 armed-to-the-teeth teenagers, a few of whom are on her side -- most notably young Rue (Amandla Stenberg) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) the fellow competitor from her district who carries a serious torch for her -- while the rest just want to see her dead.

One of the exciting things about any adaptation -- and this goes double for a sci-fi or fantasy novel -- is the chance to see the world you've visited so often in your mind depicted on the big screen. And while, even on the page, Panem was never as richly imagined a land as Middle Earth or John Carter's Mars, Collins cannily described a future Earth that evoked enough of our current reality to allow our readers to form a strong image of it. Chances are good that the Panem of your daydreams is far more memorable than the bland, generic world this film presents us with. The early scenes in Katniss' district feel as though they were filmed at a Disneyland version of an Appalachian mountain town, while the towering Capitol is little more than a series of interchangeable interior sets and the odd exterior filmed against screen-saver like CGI backdrops. (It's hard to tell whether this is primarily due to a failure of the filmmaker's imagination or budgetary restrictions; although the movie's $80 million budget isn't chump change, there's a noticeable chintziness to many of the digital effects as well as the production design.) Ross' jittery, handheld camerawork doesn't help matters, preventing us from ever getting a clear look at the precise details of this futurescape and without those details, Panem remains a sketch rather than a living, breathing universe. Characters also have a tendency to swim in and out of focus; all of the fan favorites are here, including Katniss' wardrobe consultant Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), her drunken trainer Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and the unsinkable Effie (Elizabeth Banks), but only Haymitch makes much of an impression as he's the only supporting player that's called upon to portray more than one emotion.

Once the action moves to the battle arena, the movie picks up, if only because Lawrence moves firmly front and center as the narrative telescopes to focus only on Katniss' transformation into a John Rambo-style one-woman army. Even in this section, though, Ross fails to capture the full impact of the brutal competition Collins described on the page. While it would have been unnecessary and likely unfeasible to film teenagers killing each other in gory, gruesome close-ups (yes, Battle Royale -- the movie that The Hunger Games is frequently compared to -- did it, but that film had a darkly satiric bent that this one avoids and it took ten years for it to be legally released in this country), the very premise of the Games demands an atmosphere of grim tension and mounting dread that's just barely present in the movie. The fundamental difference between the portrayal of the Hunger Games onscreen and on the page is perhaps best illustrated by a scene that comes towards the end of the whole bloody affair when Katniss and Peeta are set upon by a pack of monstrous dogs. In the book, these creatures have the features of their fallen competitors, which makes them all the more horrifying. In the movie, they're just digital blobs that vaguely resemble dogs. The latter are a minor inconvenience to our heroes; the former burrow into their brains and become something that they (and we) can't forget.

In the interest of fairness, I should point out that there is one area in which the Hunger Games movie actually improves on the book (although again I can't be certain if this was purposeful or accidental on Ross' part) and that's in the way it essentially ignores my least favorite element of Collins' story: the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth), the strapping guy she hunts with back in her district. In Gale's case, the main reason he barely registers as a love interest is because he's barely in the movie. (That might be a blessing though; Hemsworth proves so wooden during his brief amount of screentime that Katniss could use him for kindling in the Games arena.) Peeta is a more curious case; in the book, the duo are supposed to be uncertain about their true feelings for each other as their "romance" is played up for the cameras as a way to grab sponsors. And yet, there's a spark of attraction that obviously makes them more than comrades-in-arms. Maybe it's just because Lawrence possesses a more ferocious screen presence than Hutcherson, but it's hard to glimpse any genuine affection for this guy in her eyes. At best, he's a warm body willing to die so she can live. At worst, he's dead weight. The absence of any Team Jacob/Team Edward nonsense is refreshing; frankly, this version of Katniss is obviously better off without either of these lunkheads. It would be nice if Ross continued to minimize the romance going forward, but knowing what's in store for Katniss in the next two books, that's unlikely.

Look, The Hunger Games isn't a disaster. The advantage of sticking this closely to the book is that the strength of the original story and the anticipation of seeing key scenes enacted onscreen keeps viewers locked into the film. (I also suspect that it might play better with those moviegoers who haven't devoured the book over and over again and encourage them to pick up the novels themselves to read up on all the details omitted from the film.) But its lack of imagination is unfortunate and speaks to a larger problem that plagues book-to-screen translations right now. Instead of reinterpreting the book to better complement the language of cinema, the makers of The Hunger Games have limited their cinematic vision to more efficiently replicate what was on the page, to the point where the experience of watching the movie comes to feel like you're ticking off a mental checklist of what material did and didn't make it onscreen. It's entirely possible for movie adaptations to remain faithful without being so overtly literal. Look at the film versions of The Wizard of Oz, The Godfather, Fight Club, The Lord of the Rings and even the third Harry Potter adventure, The Prisoner of Azkaban. Each of those movies is recognizably its source material and yet functions as a separate entity, with its own set of narrative and aesthetic choices. To read Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club and then watch David Fincher's Fight Club is to see two different interpretations of the same story, both distinct from each other yet equally effective. To read and then watch The Hunger Games is to experience the exact same story just transposed to a different medium. And that's why, no matter how much money it rakes in at the box office this weekend, The Hunger Games movie is destined to remain a mere footnote to the book.

Click here to find out how to fill The Hunger Games Void
Click here to read how we'd cast the Hunger Games sequels
Click here to read about the YA franchises that failed
Click here to read how The Hunger Games would have been made 10 years ago

Check out interviews with Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

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