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Bad times, everywhere, that’s what surrounds the world of young Katniss Everdeen, resident of District 12 of a country called Panem.  District 12 is an impoverished, coal-mining province where its citizens can just as easily die of starvation as accidents in the mines, like the one that took away Katniss’ dad.  Katniss is very much the head of the household, looking after her little sister, Primrose by illegally hunting in the nearby forests with best bud, Gale, and selling the poached goods to the townsfolk.  Protective as she is about her sibling, Katniss can’t ease Prim’s nightmares about her first induction into The Hunger Games, the government’s annual televised slaughter of a handful of its young people.  For seventy years, Panem has memorialised the failed uprising of its poorer classes with a lottery that chooses a boy and girl between the ages of twelve and eighteen from each of its dozen districts to serve as a “Tribute” and fight each other to the death until one is left alive.  Prim’s dreams become a fateful reality when her name is chosen and Katniss immediately volunteers to take the twelve year-old’s place.  Alongside Katniss on the road to The Capitol, the heart of Panem where the Games take place is Peeta, son of the local baker and the pair are dazzled by the opulence and frivolity of the big city all around them.  Coming from one of the poorest districts, neither Katniss nor Peeta is considered likely to win, so they must also learn to woo the public into loving them to improve their chances of sponsorship and thereby increase their likelihood of survival.  They not only have to fight for their lives in the Hunger Games, but must also turn themselves into media darlings.  In their predicament, Katniss isn’t sure how to regard the boy who once saved her life when she was starving, or if anything Peeta says during the Games is true, including his confession of love for the girl he must kill to survive.

Small history lesson: There was once a film made in Japan called Battle Royale.  Based on a 1999 novel by Koushun Takami and produced the following year, the movie, a litany of teenage violence and human degradation was controversial even by Japanese standards.  It never had a proper release in the United States, yet somehow developed a tremendous fan following in the West.  Taking place in the near future, Battle Royale was the story of the Japanese government’s solution to out-of-control juvenile delinquency, which entailed randomly selecting a class of high schoolers, transporting them to an island full of surveillance cameras and booby traps and having them slay each other with various weapons until one was left standing.  No surprise if this sounds similar to the synopsis I typed above; The Hunger Games is a sanitised version of Battle Royale, taking its shocking premise of children killing children in a government-mandated gladiator game televised for entertainment and intimidation.  The honey on the bitter, plot-lifting pill is The Hunger Games’ injection of a healthy dose of Twilight-style, Mary-Sue romance.  It’s also very intentionally PG-13, so as not to frighten off the predominantly female fans of Suzanne Collins’ original novel.  The violence is abstract and softened by crazy camerawork and the scary factor is at a minimum.  Even so, the grown women all around me in the cinema gasped loudly and looked about to faint at the very idea of anyone getting so much as a sidewalk burn.  This is how The Hunger Games has been able to get away without people crying loudly about its Battle Royale – ripoffness, by playing to an audience that will never have heard of the earlier film, though one can throw a little of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s futuristic 1987 gladiator flick, The Running Man, into the Games equation, as well. 

On its own merits, one thing I can say for The Hunger Games is that it will probably be one of the most successful action films for girls there’s yet been.  So popular was the 2008 book, that ladies who might never have gone to a movie like this otherwise, will see it multiple times regardless of the body count.  Besides muffling the brutality with seizure-inducing shakycam and prohibitive angles, a few of the deaths described in the book are not shown onscreen.  There’s a lot of information to be crammed into The Hunger Games and there are definite shortcuts despite the nearly two-and-a-half hour running time.  What’s missing is a lot of character development; the enormity of Peeta’s giving bread to a starving Katniss is diminished and so is the complexity of her feelings toward him.  We only get glimpses of Gale, Katniss’ longtime hunting buddy and possible love interest, who only gets about eight minutes total screen time.  The script also fails to capture some of the humour of the book, particularly the sparring matches between prissy Hunger Games escort, Effie Trinket, and perpetually-inebriated previous Games survivor, Haymitch Abernathy, played respectively by an unrecognisable Elizabeth Banks made up like Vivienne Westwood at a Kabuki play, and Woody Harrelson under a scraggly blonde wig.  There is the unintentionally funny casting of Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, the stylist who molds Katniss into the sweetheart of the Games.  True, he sports some subtle gold eyeshadow (which I’m sure is old hat to the stylish pop star) that I’m sure is meant to denote some type of actual character, but in action, look and delivery, he is never not “Lenny Kravitz.”  There’s a flatness to the film that doesn’t curse it to oblivion, but makes one wonder why they didn’t give it more oomph; go bigger?  The production values were surprisingly cheap and unimpressive.  Everything that wasn’t shot in the outdoors looked terribly fake.  We’re supposed to be awed by the majesty of The Capitol, but the sections that didn’t look like a matte background painting or a computer-created one, seemed like a shabby studio set.  It’s impossible to get lost in the world.  Even the outdoor woodland scenes put one in the mind of rejected Twilight film locations.  The Hunger Games Tributes must also battle creatures inserted into the playing field by the show’s director, including doglike beasts called “Muttations.”  These critters couldn’t have looked less realistic if this movie had been made in 1982 instead of 2012.  Also, if they were CGI programmes put into play by the producers, how can they cause any actual harm?  In the book, they were scary flesh and blood animals that could tear someone to pieces, here, they’re just barking pixels.  Other things like the outfits Katniss and Peeta wore on the night of their big public introduction were written in the book as spectacular, flaming creations that started the sponsorship ball rolling and created jealousy amongst the other Tributes; onscreen, not so much.  In the crunch for time we also lost a lot of my favourite character from the book, a Tribute called Rue.  She was the youngest player in the Games; a tiny girl possessed of unexpected athletic ability and a wonderful background story, both of which we are deprived of in the film.  Amandla Stenberg is so adorable and charming in the role that you feel for her immediately despite the lack of storyline, but her cuteness only makes one sorry there wasn’t more.

Jennifer Lawrence is our lead as Katniss Everdeen, who, with rare exceptions, never seems laboured with an surfeit of facial expressions, but then again, the Katniss of the novel wasn’t exactly a torrent of emotion.  Lawrence looks healthier and fresher-faced than a girl from an impoverished coal-mining district might, but I guess we can put that down to her excellent hunting skills.  It is also more realistic when she has to perform feats of derring-do, like running across a flaming forest at top speed, shooting birds out of the air with her bow and arrows and climbing trees like a squirrel.  Lawrence puts over the action very convincingly and gives it her all, which is what makes those sequences fun to watch in spite of some of the production’s drawbacks.  Her presence doesn’t exactly set the screen on fire, but Lawrence makes Katniss believable and imminently more likeable than her literary avatar, who is personality-deprived and annoying (Yet has the love of the two most eligible young men in District 12. Is her surname Everdeen or Swan?).  We are happily spared the silly, Twilight-ish romantic turmoil of Katniss’ oscillating emotions for Gale, with whom she’s spent so many years alone in the woods and has never made a move, and Peeta, who announces his feelings for Katniss in front of the whole television-watching planet.  This Katniss is more practical than to wangst about her love life when she’s working on trying not to die, and for that I am very thankful.  The film and Lawrence’s interpretation makes her a smarter, more sensible heroine, which is certainly deserving of praise.  Peeta is played by Josh Hutcherson, who also doesn’t quite set the screen alight, but is adorably boy-next-door enough to sell the puppy-dog crush angle.  The veterans like Harrelson, Banks and Stanley Tucci in a runny-looking blue wig as the film’s host/exposition database, American Beauty’s long-lost Wes Bentley in a ridiculous beard as the beleaguered Games director and Donald Sutherland as the President, who keeps a beady eye on the political ramifications of the Games, do all the heavy lifting.

There are some really touching scenes that conjured loud sobs from the audience throughout the film; starting right off with Primrose being dragged away screaming from Katniss after big sis volunteers to take Prim’s place as a Tribute.  Other moments of loss and horror are rendered well in the midst of the Games’ chaos, including the initial bloodbath where Tributes off each other in a frenzy as they race for supplies.  The noticeable lack of background music brings a lot of gravity to these moments and makes them more effective and harrowing.  The Hunger Games maintains enough of the novel’s emotion and romance to satisfy faithful fans while supplying plenty of action to keep the whole audience entertained.  Neither a perfect, nor even a great film, I’ll take The Hunger Games over the Twilight series any day, but it’s still no Battle Royale.

 

~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 22nd, 2012

 

 

 

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Photos

(Courtesy of Lionsgate)

 

 

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