I haven't busted out this old place in a long time, but after a torturously long wait for The Hunger Games movie, it finally arrived last night... and I found myself inspired to commit words to screen once again.
Admittedly, I had my concerns about this translation of a book series that I really enjoyed, and have shared with many people, not the least of which are my son and my wife. I knew that there were going to be some challenging hurdles to get across in translating a first-person-and-very-introspective narrative structure into the magical visual medium of a theatre screen. Would the screenplay capture the story properly? Would the characters be able to bring out the nuances of the internal struggles each of them faced? Would the film evolve from just telling us what's going on in their mind to showing us?
I'm here to tell you that the answer to all of these questions is a definitie and resounding "yes!"
For those of you who somehow haven't heard about this phenomenon, The Hunger Games is the story of the dystopian remnants of post-civil war in the future, where the world has been changed. The seas have risen, and only a small fraction of the population has survived. The survivors have been gathered by the tyrannical Capitol government into 12 Districts. As punishment for the rebellion, the Capitol decreed that each year, each of the Districts were to provide two children between the ages of 12-18, one female, one male, to participate as "Tributes" in a nationally televised reality-show-esque battle to the death. These are the Hunger Games, called that because in this future, the Capitol rations out all the necessities of life - food, clothing, etc. - produced by the Districts, keeping the most and the best for the members of the Capitol while the remaining districts struggle by in extreme poverty. The victor of each year's Games wins a lifetime supply of food for their family.
It is an extremely regimented and strict life for those struggling to survive in the Districts. Even the most minor dissension from the rules set out by the Capitol are dealt with harshly, and that includes leaving the fenced walls of the Districts to forage for food.
The film begins with the television host of the Hunger Games (played by an outrageously ostentatious and costumed Stanley Tucci, one of many inspired choices) interviewing the Gamemaster, setting up the whole premise of the movie as well as establishing the tone of the film almost immediately, where their gushing enthusiasm for the "healing power" of the Games is contrasted by a quick cut to District 12, which is supposed to represent the West Virginian coal mining communities, wracked with abject poverty. We're introduced to the main character, a 16-year old girl named Katniss Everdeen, played by a sublimely magnificent Jennifer Lawrence, and her family. The film establishes early on the weight of the world is felt upon Katniss' shoulders, as she is responsible for providing for her family.
One of the very first things we see Katniss do is to escape beyond the boundaries to hunt for food with her friend, Gale (played by Liam Hemsworth). We discover quickly that she's a skilled hunter and that she hunts not only to provide food for her mother and her sister, but also to provide game that she can trade for other necessities in a central market known as The Hob. Director Gary Ross paints a vivid, if bleak, portrait of life in Katniss' world. He also visually sets up the disjointed feel of this world with the use of a lot of hand-held camera work so that we feel like we're viewing the world from Katniss' perspective - her world is constantly a struggle, and you get drawn in to her personal view of how the world unfolds very quickly, and it never seems to stop moving. Keep moving, and you survive.
Without going over every detail of the movie, the story keeps along at a brisk pace. After Katniss' sister, Primrose, is selected as the female Tribute, Katniss immediately volunteers to go in her place. This is an unusual thing in her District, once again establishing that Katniss is willing to challenge the established rules when it comes to taking care of her family.
At the end of the day, I always judge a movie by how well it does in telling its story, and as I alluded to earlier, The Hunger Games is really a book about challenging - and changing - the rules. Rules of how things are decreed to be. Rules about who you're supposed to be, or behave. And perhaps most importantly, rules about how much other people can determine the course of Katniss' life in the strict, regimented world in which she's grown up. It's particulary gratifying that director Gary Ross chose to follow that storyline, whereas it could have very easily gone down the teenagey-love-triangle-action flick path instead. He judiciously distilled multi-page descriptions found the in pages of the book into succinct scenes that, by and large, all served to move the plot forward in a brisk manner. This is a 2:15 movie that doesn't feel like a 2:15 movie!
Now, the performances. If I was a big fan of Jennifer Lawrence before, from her Academy Award-nominated performance in Winter's Bone or her turn as blue-skinned Mystique in X-Men: First Class, well, let's just say that her wonderfully nuanced and powerful turn as Katniss Everdeen has propelled her to the top of my new favorites list! She does an amazing job of transferring the internal struggles that we're able to read from the character's interal monologue in the book onto the screen. We see her pain, her fear... and simultaneously, her resolve and her unyielding resolve to take care of her family and friends. We see her grow from someone just trying to survive to a young woman who decides to take her life's path back into her own hands, and in doing so, becoming an inspiration for the oppressed in her society. This is only the beginning of Katniss' story, and to watch the evolution on-screen is a wondeful experience to share.
As I mentioed earlier, the casting on this movie was top-notch, from the inspired choice of Lenny Kravitz as Katniss' stylist at the Capitol to Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the leader of the Capitol government and all-around tyrannical dude. He steals every scene that he's in, of course, and knowing what's coming in the next two stories, one can only look forward to what he will bring to the character. President Snow, in a tiny, tiny spoiler, is the solo character in the last scene of the movie's cliffhanger-esque ending, overseeing the end of what transpired during his Hunger Games, an angry, yet worried glint in his eye visible before he turns around, Darth Vader style, and strides out of the room while the screen fades to black. This is fun stuff here, folks!
And I would be remiss if I didn't mention the fantastic performance of Josh Hutcherson as the male Tribute from District 12, Katniss' counterpart. He just seems so at ease in the part that it feels as if was written for just for him. He's able to bring forward all of the emotion and concerns that we find on the page in a perfect translation, especially in his interactions with Jennifer Lawrence and in the way their relationship develops throughout the course of the story. (Honestly, though, one of my favorite scenes is his interview with Stanley Tucci's Caeser Flickerman that occurs just prior to the Games!)
Finally, I want to give a special tip of the hat to composer James Newton Howard, who was called in at the absolute last minute to replace (the, in my opinion, highly overrated) Danny Elfman. Howard had to knock out 90 minutes of music in just four weeks, and yet he still came up with a stirring score that was more understated than many of his other outings, but it felt like a good fit with this movie.
Admittedly, this is one of those movies that I was biased towards liking, but its refreshing to see what was obviously a labor of love by the production crew and performers turn out a film that really captures the essence of what makes The Hunger Games so appealing to so many different types of people. I couldn't stop thinking about it after coming home from the theatre. Oh, and by the way, I want to extend an extra-special thanks to the film's producers for NOT doing this in 3D. Unless your name is James Cameron or Bob Zemeckis is doing an animated Christmas movie, I find that 3D is rarely worth the time, effort or additional expense.
This is a clean, beautiful and moving film. Go see it. Then go see it again.
And may the odds be ever in your favor.