Saturday, April 21, 2012
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.