Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Movie Review: Hunger Games

Last weekend I saw The Hunger Games. I had finished the (first) book the week before and enjoyed it. It's a quick read and I found the main character interesting. I was impressed how the last sentence of each chapter, and often the last word, was some kind of twist or surprise and compelled me to turn the (in my case, virtual) page to the next chapter. I won't bother talking about the plot as there are plenty of places that do that. I liked the film and thought it worked well whether you had read the book or not. I saw it with people who had and hadn't read the books and everyone liked it.

My biggest complaint about the film was that there was way too much shaky-cam. It didn't help that I saw it from the third row, but it really was kind of pointless. Yes the book is a first person narrator and perhaps in some later battle scenes it can be used to convey to the viewer a sense of disorientation (or to make a scene less gory), but even the opening scenes of Katniss wandering through her home town were needlessly disorientating. In particular in the last fight, there are three people involved (on top of the cornucopia) and there's uncharacteristically a long shot from a helicopter that lets you see all three people and where they are in relationship to each other. It only lasted a second (or less) but after two hours I found it to be a breath of fresh air. I've heard a lot of other people have this one complaint with the film and I hope that sequel takes it to heart and tones it down a bit (or a lot). I caught a Battlestar Galactica rerun last week and while there's a lot of camera movement, it's all handheld but not shaky. There's a way to do this right. Gary Ross, the director previously made Pleasantville and Seabiscuit and neither of those had the problem. Tom Stern, the Cinematographer worked on a bunch of Clint Eastwood's movies so this was hopefully just a (failed) experiment in shaky.

The movie was a faithful and good adaptation. The book has first person narrator and the film reasonably left that out. Jennifer Lawrence made a fine Katniss, though without the narration I thought there was a little less to the character. They did do a good job of adding a few scenes during the games, not from Katniss's perspective, to help explain what's going on. For example, instead of a narrator explaining how gifts worked, a quick shot of Haymitch schmoozing with sponsors said all that was needed. A classic show don't tell solution. The film really sticks to the first book though there is one quick scene of a riot in District 11 which readers don't find out about until the second volume. That does nicely, even if only slightly, add to the depth of this film. If you're really interested, io9 provides Everything The Hunger Games Movie Left Out.

A faithful film adaptation raises the question of what is the point, particularly for such a popular book. Certainly a lot of tickets were sold ($253 million grossed in 11 days) so a lot of people wanted to see it, but the film is basically just the plot points and knowing the plot meant there weren't surprises. Without the narration Katniss's self doubts don't come through nearly as clearly. Tasha Robinson And Scott Tobias talk on A.V. Club about What makes a good book-to-film adaptation? I mostly agree with what they say. My example of a bad pointless adaptation is Watchmen. The least interesting thing about the film is the plot. They should have tried to push the boundaries of what film can do as the comic did that with its medium. I'd list The Firm as a good adaptation. It did change the ending, but since everyone had read the page turning book, it brought back the surprise to the experience. It helped that it was a good ending and that the setup was all the same so it fulfilled its faithfulness requirements. I don't think The Hunger Games should have changed the plot (particularly given the fact that there will be sequels). It's more like the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings experience. The books are deeper and the films are more entertainment. There's nothing wrong with that, particularly if it results in conversations of what makes a good book vs what makes a good movie.

Finally, an odd criticism of the film has come up, it seems Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed because three of the main supporting characters are black. "When it came to the casting of Rue, Thresh, and Cinna, many audience members did not understand why there were black actors playing those parts." The book doesn't describe Cinna's skin, but Rue and Thresh are both described as having "dark skin". Hunger Games Tweets is a tumblr documenting racist tweets. E.g, "why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie" indicating the person is not only a racist but has weak reading comprehension.


Irina said...

Intrigued by all the hoopla about the movie and half-ashamed of myself, I bought the book at Amazon. Have not gotten it yet but the trick you describe is the oldest one in the writing business. I liked the actress in the Winter Bone, she already possessed this inhuman resilience.

Howard said...

Yeah I know it's an old trick (it's used in TV too just before commercials) but I think it's done well. As a friend reminded me, not clunky like Dan Brown.

I loved Winter's Bone and thought Lawrence was great it in it. There are some similarities in the character, but it's a different kind of movie. She was better in Winter's Bone, or rather the film and camera work were able to devote more time to her acting skills.

I've now finished the second book and still enjoy it quite a bit. The second definitely adds more depth to the first even though I now tire of Katniss always coming to the wrong conclusion about people.

There are a lot of comparisons made to Twilight (young adult fiction starting a female character). I've not read Twilight (and won't) but I have seen the first three Twilight movies (on cable). They are awful and should not be watched. The first film has some interesting ideas but wastes them and by the second half is pretty empty. The second and third just get stupid. Maybe it's an issue with a film version vs a book, but I found Bella to be vapid and to make one bad, unjustified decision after another. I didn't find that with Katniss (maybe because she's forced into a lot of situations).

The Dad said...

totally agree with your review, and in fact there were a couple of times reading it that I said, "that's what I said!". I saw it with another dad and 5 11-year-old girls. It made for an interesting experience, how they all had read the book, were not even slightly disturbed by the gore factor, and they each branded themselves as characters from the story (Natalie is Foxface, the redhead, of course). But most of all they were to see Peeta. Not seeing it myself, but they all felt he was just so dreamy. Go figure.

As for the black characters, I take it this way:

Lenny Kravitz is personal frends with Lawrence That's how he got the audition, and that's how he got the role. And he was awesome in it.

Rue was just a random choice. She auditioned and got it. Therefore...

Thresh was black simply to make it easier for viewers to tie Rue and Thresh together as being from the same district. In the movie frankly they did not help the viewer keep track of who was who in the games very well, so that added visual cue helped a lot. And realistically, if you think of a district like an urban neighborhood, it's not at all far-fetched to have two people from the same neighboorhood be the same race.

BTW I watched half of Winters Bone yesterday on a flight home. Good so far. She's excellent. And if you haven't yet, make sure to catch Garret Dillahunt, the guy who plays the sherriff, in Raising Hope. He's awesome in that.

Side note, this is the FOURTH attempt to post this comment, because I cannot read the CAPTCHA text. I understand the point of not allowing spambots to read the text, but it would help if humans could.

Megs said...

Next up for your movie list then is "Battle Royale", a Japanese book/movie with the same basic concept (teenagers fight to the death). This book/movie is older, and evidently is way more brutal/gory.

My issue with Hunger Games movie, having read the trilogy, is that while it was a great action movie, a lot of the character depth & development was lost.

Howard said...

Yes I totally missed the "dreamy Peeta" angle.

The film played down Cinna's role so much less than it was in book. I thought Kravitz was just fine.

I agree the film wasn't great at helping you keep track of the other tributes and Thresh and Rue being the same race helped that. I don't know how they were cast, but being they were described in the book as "dark skinned" it seems appropriate.

Sorry about the Captcha's, I can't control them.

And Megs, Battle Royale is on my Netflix queue.

Winter's Bone is great (I think my fav film from that year or maybe second). I liked Garret Dillahunt in it and sat behind him at IFFBoston that year in another film. I had a hard time differentiating him from a Terminator. John Hawkes was also great.