Saturday, April 21, 2012

Bon Appétit!

Tonight, Gary Ross's film of the bestselling book The Hunger Games.

Lately the world feels inundated with teen fiction. First it was tween phenom Harry Potter in endless proliferation, then came the Twilight series. A few years back we got The Hunger Games. I freely admit to being far outside the target demographic for this cultural phenomenon, the natural corollary of my becoming, well, an old man.  Nor do I object to teen culture generally; each of us passes through the same portal.

My objection to Harry Potter and Twilight (to the extent that I payed any attention to them) was their insistence on suspending natural law as a predicate for telling a compelling story. God knows J. K. Rowling did not invent magic, but resorting to it still seems like the cheapest kind of storytelling mechanism. But it's also the thorniest kind of problem, since without some kind of strict logic behind the violations of the laws of nature everything ceases to have meaning. Death has no sting if it's not, well, death. Any plot development is robbed of its tension when it can be undone with a stroke of a magic wand, no matter the warnings and portents.

And Stephanie Meyer certainly did not invent vampires, nor was she the first to connect vampirism with sensuality. Still, I found Twilight even more mystifying than Harry Potter because the most bedrock principle didn't work for me: vampires are not sexy or sensual (and they're scary only because of movie magic) and the different-sides-of-the-tracks stories felt as though the attendant urgency was contrived. A wholesale suspension of natural law in Harry Potter was easier to accept as a prerequisite than buying into Meyer's central character and his challenges and foibles. A Romeo-and-Juliet yearning is all well and good (if not especially inventive), but it feels cheapened and weakened by a bunch of contrived unrealities.

Anyway, lacking the proper target markings I paid little attention to Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games when the books began to make waves. Several people I knew read them, though, and were very taken by them. I decided to wait for the films (as I had done with the two previous series), and my chance came this week.

For the occasional zygote still unfamiliar with the story, The Hunger Games refers to an annual contest waged in a future America involving 24 children--chosen by lottery, two each from 12 districts--who engage in a kind of survivalist fight to the death until a single, lionized victor remains. The epic contest is televised as a national event, a gladiatorial spectacle for the rich elites of the society. The film's central character is a young woman named Katniss Everdeen (played in the film by Jennifer Lawrence) who is chosen for the games. Actually, Katniss's younger sister is the one chosen in the lottery, but Katniss steps in and volunteers in her stead--the first time this has happened in the 74 year history of the games (a preposterous, if small, detail--I would have guessed fully 50% of participants were volunteers). The rest of the story chronicles how the game plays out. Given the existence of three books, it gives nothing away to point out that Katniss survives.

Though the concept is harrowing--the murder of children by other children for the entertainment of a coddled elite--it certainly does not lack as compelling material. And not having read the book (always there is the argument of how badly a movie made from a novel suffers for all the information that must necessarily end up on the cutting room floor) I cannot say whether my criticisms belong to the larger story or are only a product of Gary Ross's film--though I have to note that author Suzanne Collins is given a screenwriting credit. But the film did not hit its marks particularly with me.

Katniss is an intriguing character. Self-possessed and quiet, she has a talent for observing carefully and processing what she has seen rather than doing everything on the fly. She's proactive rather than reactive, though there is plenty of this as well. She's a character who must make much out of little, and Jennifer Lawrence excels in giving her depth and substance despite Katniss not being an especially verbal character. High marks here. She is paired in the story with her co-selectee from her district, Peeta Mellark (played by Josh Hutcherson), and though Katniss seems fairly constant, Peeta swings between maybe-foe and maybe-friend. In this we are left a bit untethered: are there feelings between them or is this simply a survival strategy? This ambivalence is by design, apparently

But whatever the future installments of the story hold, I did not feel much compelled by their interaction, real or contrived. Peeta is just not fleshed out very far. And yet his character development has a substantial leg up on virtually every other character in the film. My sense at film's end was that everything and everyone but Katniss had been drawn in primary colors. There just wasn't much in the way of nuance or sophistication in how the story was told. The inhabitants of the central Capital district--for whose entertainment the Hunger Games are staged--are like cardboard cutouts of effete and coddled citizens who have lost all connection to anything real in the world. The President (played by Donald Sutherland) is vaguely menacing, like a shadow puppet. The other Hunger Games participants are like archetypes, broad character markers from which more nuanced characterizations might have been wrought.

Given constraints of time and budget, and an ignorance of the source material, I could not presume to suggest how the film might have been improved. And luckily, it is enough Katniss's story, and she is ably enough played by Ms. Lawrence, that the film is a satisfactory entertainment. And I happily award some default points for not having to surrender one's scientific skepticism at the door. But I can't see the frenzy of attention paid to the story coming from this film. It's a worthy effort, but no epic.

Grade: B


CyberKitten said...

Just about the only thing I liked in this rather questionable movie was Jennifer Lawrence - and not just because she's an attractive young woman. She can actually *act* (as ably shown by her role in Winters Bone) so was somewhat wasted in Hunger Games.

Not having read the book(s) I found the movie rather incoherent. The decadent rich society was probably meant as a metaphor but turned out to be a parody - and IRL simply wouldn't have worked and most definitely not for 74+ years! The idea that the games gave the Proles some hope (but not too much) was at best simplistic or, as I found it, ridiculous.

I understand what the movie - with sledgehammer predictability - was getting at: it was a critique of celebrity culture, violence for entertainment, the soporific effects of television and no doubt a few more things that passed me by. Unfortunately on just about every level it really didn't work - at least not for me!

Maybe the books make more sense. Maybe they're more coherent and structured than the movie. I understand that they are two very different media and that movies must, of necessity, butcher the written word to shoehorn it into a few hours of screen time. The movie hasn't really prompted me to find out though. I guess I'll never know....

wunelle said...

Agree entirely. I'm not inspired by the film to check out the books, so I may never know if these defects are addressed there.

I suppose I'd not object to seeing the next film, though, to see if some of my questions get answered. Still, that's not much endorsement.

dbackdad said...

I've read the book and we went and saw the movie this last weekend. It is actually the first book that my wife, my son and I have all read.

While I don't believe the movie is groundbreaking, I do feel it is well above most of the material that is aimed at its particular demographic. At least it is hitting upon subject matter that is topical and actually important. Whereas, Twilight is a thinly veiled abstinence and anti-abortion allegory with a weak, whimpering female lead (played by an otherwise great Kristen Stewart ... good actor, bad material).

The movie hews very close to the book. If anything, it holds back a little on the violence to assure a PG rating.

Where the book is better is in the character development and explanation of the political intrigue. The character Rue, for example, is much less of a helpless victim in the book. We all liked the book more than the movie but we also all agreed that the movie did about as well with the material as you could hope without it being a much longer movie. As it was, it was 2 and half hours.

Anyway, I don't greatly disagree with you guys on anything major. If anything, just give the Hunger Games a small pass for its simplicity because it is, by design, not intended for hyper-critical, policy-wonk, movie-geek brainiacs like us. :-)

If I get off my ass, I might muster up a combined review of the book and movie.

dbackdad said...

Just one more point. If The Hunger Games can serve as a gateway for younger adults to read similar and more profound material (1984, Brave New World, etc.), I feel it will have served a purpose.

wunelle said...

It's significant, I think, that I have yet to hear from anyone who read the books who did not also like the film. So I expect it's valuable to have all the stuff that a book naturally fleshes out. Susan said she didn't think it's my kind of book, but she certainly liked it (all three, actually) and talked a lot about them as she read them.

And your last point is most a propos: I heartily embrace anything that turns kids / teens / tweens on to reading. I fear that reading an old-fashioned, long-form book may become a rarer and rarer activity in our new electronic age.

Vancouver Voyeur said...

The best thing about Harry Potter is that it finally got my son to read for pleasure. I never read Twilight and only saw the first movie. Unfortunately, I saw the Saturday Night Live parody of Twilight before seeing the actual movie. I therefore could not really appreciate the movie because I kept seeing the parody in my mind and laughing. As for Hunger, M and I saw it, M thought it was really dark because of the whole kids killing kids thing. I did't find it dark (must be becuase of my violent childhood) and I found it enjoyable to see a girl as the hero of the story who was smart and determined.

wunelle said...

I did love the girl-as-smart-survivor thing. Not having read the book, I'm a little curious to see where she goes from here (the character and Jennifer Lawrence both!).

CyberKitten said...

wunelle said: I'm a little curious to see where she goes from here (the character and Jennifer Lawrence both!).

Resistance Leader and... far I'm guessing.