Saturday, March 31, 2012

Fighting for Survival: The Hunger Games

Hello blogger friends! I know it’s been some time since I’ve updated last, but I haven’t forgotten about you!! The past month or so I’ve been so caught up with work that I’ve hardly had any time to do anything arts and entertainment related, let alone have time to write about it. But I’m now back and hoping to backtrack to some of the things that have happened in the past month. I’m starting with the most recent in the hopes that it will be the most relevant.

With that, it’s time to talk about The Hunger Games! Yes, those Hunger Games that have dominated all the pop culture channels lately. I read the first book back in my YA lit course for grad school and, like most of my classmates, moved on to the second book as quickly as possible … and then sadly had to wait for the third book to be released! Once it was out, I devoured that book as well. All that being said though, I had some concerns about the books, and I was fairly apprehensive when I heard that a movie version was in the works. A movie seemed to me the worse idea for this concept – it would be too violent and too much like the reality show known as the Hunger Games that the books are criticizing.

But when the movie’s trailer came out, it seemed like it was going to be fairly good adaptation of the book. However, the trailer ended the story right at the part where Katniss is entering the arena, so my fears about all the gore to follow were still not assuaged. Soon the movie was getting all kinds of buzz (mostly good; for instance, this article with the sub-head of “Just go see it.”) and knowing that the author had been on board as a screenwriter also was a plus. So when a friend asked if I wanted to see the movie on opening weekend, I decided to go for it and hope for the best.

[Please be aware that in discussing the film, I will reveal some spoilers. If you haven’t read the books and/or seen the film yet and you want to go in without having anything given away, you’ll want to stop here and come back later.]

Overall, it was a fairly decent adaptation of a book, although our little group of movie-goers felt that if we hadn’t read the book beforehand, we might have missed out on a lot of the underlying story. Since it was such a concern of mine going in, it’s worth noting early on that the movie dealt with the violence well – it was not too gory like I feared but it still got across the idea that this was a bloodbath and not something we’d want to emulate. For instance, the opening scene in the arena was shot in quick sequences that showed there knife fights going on along with some accompanying blood, but mostly it cut from one fight to the next so quickly that you didn’t get too much up close and grisly details. (To be honest, it was better than a lot of episodes of Criminal Minds actually, and I’d like to point out to that show’s producers/writers that this movie is a perfect example of how you can get the creepy point across without being overly explicit. As much as I like that show for its characters and psychology, they can be totally over the top in the amount of blood and gore they feel the need to display. Side rant now done; proceed on to The Hunger Games review continued.)

Likewise, the movie started out with a number of quick shots, trying to tell visually and succinctly that District 12 was a poor, starving town. I think it got that point across, especially in contrast with the later scenes in the Capitol. Still, as I mentioned above, even in a two and an half hour long movie, there was still so much left out and left unsaid. For instance, Madge doesn’t give Katniss the mockingjay pin; instead it’s just some little trinket that Katniss picks up. Even though this seems like a small change, this is huge in my opinion because it changes the symbolism, and as anyone who has read all three of the books already knows, the mockingjay increasingly becomes an important symbol to Katniss and the rest of the districts. Another significant change is that when Gale says he and Katniss should make a run for it and live in the woods, it’s after they’ve seen the hovercraft but, unlike in the book, they do not see the capture of the people that the craft is chasing. For people who haven’t read the book, I would imagine they are thinking at the moment, why don’t Gale and Katniss just head for the hills then? I also didn’t think it was as obvious to non-readers that putting one’s name into the Reaping lottery multiple times meant more food or that winners of the Hunger Games not only live but are set for life then with food and shelter. It’s also unclear that Peeta’s action of throwing bread to Katniss was while she was starving to death and was the turn-around point in her life when she pulled herself together to start providing for her family. Again, this is a huge deal because, as Katniss explicitly says in the book, Peeta being a tribute along with her is probably her worse-case scenario (other than Gale being the male tribute). In fact, there was so much back story that could not be included in the movie that our whole little group felt that one entire movie could have been made of everything leading up to the arena, and the movie could ended there like the trailer did. We concluded that we would have all preferred a miniseries that would have allowed for much more detail.

When we get to the Capitol and the preparation for the games, there were again some really great visuals. There was one particularly haunting scene (an addition to the movie, not to be found in the book) where Haymitch watches a family in the Capitol – a young boy has just received a sword as a present from his parents and is chasing his sister around with it. It’s such a revealing glimpse into the mindset of the people of the Capitol for whom this death match really is just a game where they get to root for their favorites and then go home with no blood on their hands. Other great visuals include the fashion choices of the Capitol citizens, especially the nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, which really makes you think about the absurdities of what we consider beauty. Obviously we don’t consider the Capitol’s “crazy” hairstyles and fashion choices our beauty, but stepping back objectively, the plastic surgeries and every else we do to change our natural states (i.e., plucking eyebrows, shaving legs, straightening or curling hair, applying makeup, wearing heels, etc.) must look crazy and absurd to an outsider. On that note, Katniss while in District 12 looks too clean and put together for a girl on the brink of poverty who spends her days in the woods hunting animals to feed herself and her family. It would make more sense when they prepared Katniss for the games by plucking her eyebrows and washing her skin and waxing her legs if her eyebrows weren’t already perfectly tweezed and her skin already glowing and her legs already bare. Sometimes Hollywood is so obsessed with showing ideal bodies that they can’t even give a less-than-perfect “before” for their make-over roles. Not giving any voice-overs to Katniss during this time (unlike the book where we are privy to all of her thoughts), I think viewer also misses out on how this is a critique of the celebrity image. Of course, I also thought the books could have been more explicit at times with this critique because sometimes it came across more as Katniss suddenly becoming a girly girl who felt like detailing every item in her new-found wardrobe.

The time in the arena itself seems to go pretty fast. While this makes sense in many respects (time constraints particularly, but also trying to downplay some of the gore so that the movie could still attract its core YA audience with a PG-13 rating), I think it undermines the point that is like a war for the teens who go into the games. It is not a blitz that comes and ends quickly; it is a long and trying, not to mention, traumatizing event that even the winners cannot come out of unscathed, physically or emotionally. As one person in our group put it, “There was no hunger in the Hunger Games.” This was true; unlike in the book, where Katniss isn’t just battling her fellow contestants but also starvation and dehydration, the movie version has Katniss finding food and water pretty easily. If I recall correctly, in the book weeks go by within the arena whereas in the movie it seemed only like four or five days.

The ending of the movie was a bit odd to me also. It puts less of a point on the danger that Katniss and Peeta are now in and that they have to keep up the “show” if they intend to keep alive. President Snow’s comments to Katniss are by no means as threatening as they could be and, unlike in the book, Peeta and Katniss seem blissfully unaware of any trouble on the horizon and are smiling happy together instead of an angry Peeta realizing that he was being used by Katniss in the arena. While movie series are always trying to leave a hook to pull the reader into the next movie, I was surprised that this movie did not take the bait that was left there by the book of uprisings in the districts and etc. to pull viewers back for the next one. A somewhat recent Slate article wonders how the third book will play out on the big screen; I’m more concerned about how the second one will as that was the weakest link in my opinion. And this first movie surprisingly left no clues as to how that one will play out.

All and all though, I was pleased with the movie, given the limitations of transferring a story from the medium of a book to the medium of film. So much of the book is in Katniss’s head that it’s hard to really get that to film, especially when the filmmakers decide to not have any voiceovers. Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss is very good at expressing things without it being said, but still there’s much that left missing, and sometimes this leads to far too many close-ups of her face, especially in the beginning of the movie. Showing some other points of view helps to elucidate at times, especially when the gamemakers or Cesar step up to explain something. Some of the scenes between President Snow and Seneca Crane, however, just felt like too much. Considering all the parts that had to be sacrificed due to time limitations, I would have rather not had these scenes in their place. While I can no longer find where I read this, I also heard one critic rail that the movie made President Snow out to be “the” villain instead one of many complicit in this society, and I could see how these scenes would add fuel to that fire.

There were also some very emotional and touching scenes in the movie, like when Prim is called but Katniss volunteers or when Rue dies, both of which brought tears to my eyes. The young actors playing these characters were both great in their roles, as was nearly all of the rest of the actors in the movie. Woody Harrelson as Haymitch was the only exception. He was too much the caricature of the drunk in his first scene but then somehow after that he seems to have it all together. He’s really not the bitter and broken man that he is in the books – someone who has been ravaged by his time in the arena. I’ve mentioned it before but I think there can’t be too fine a point on that idea: Even when someone wins The Hunger Games, they are damaged by it. Like a solider, they suffer from PTSD and are never the same again. Again, I can’t remember where, but I recall reading that the Haymitch character was cleaned up somewhat for the movie to be more fitting for a YA audience, but I think it’s a disservice to the character and the themes of the story.

In terms of casting, I had a little concern about the diversity. No, I’m not saying that having an-all Caucasian cast was what I had in mind and having any black characters somehow ruined the movie, like a bunch of ignorant people have said. Quite the opposite – there were no Latino actors as far as I could see and there was only one character was possibly Asian. There was definitely some attempt to make sure some black actors were in the movie, but the choices seemed odd. For instance, when cutting to the scene of the uprising in District 11 after Rue’s death (one of those great moments in the movie when you get to know more than Katniss; she doesn’t find out about that uprising until the second book), we see that most of the people in the crowd there are black. It just seemed a poor choice (and fulfilling too many tired stereotypes that black people are more violent than other racial groups) to show a riot being largely conducted by black people against the dressed-all-in-white peacekeepers. Likewise, in the Capitol, it seems like the audience is largely white while the more servant-like roles (i.e., both Katniss’s and Peeta’s designers) are black, another old stereotypical movie role of the “mammy” character. It seems that the dystopian future is still stuck in a lot of old racial stereotypes. It’s not like any of us want to go live in Panem, with its yearly gruesome festival of sacrificing teenagers, but it’s not encouraging to find that even when looking forward to the future, we can’t imagine a world with a different view toward innate skin colors.
All that being said, I mostly agree with my friend who came away from the movie still feeling like she'd still recommend The Hunger Games books to many but was less sure about recommending the movie. I think I'd recommend the movie only to readers of the book, mostly for comparison purposes, but I'd tell non-readers that they absolutely had to read the book before even considering taking a trip to their local movie theater.

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