Sunday, March 25, 2012

Fast and Fierce, The Hunger Games Adaptation Hits its Mark

     A future where the country is separated into twelve districts after an apocalyptic event. Every year, a boy and a girl are selected from each district to train and then fight in a random arena, slicing and dicing each other to the horror and cheers of thousands of people. The killing is beamed to every television, a kind of sick new version of reality T.V. It's a broadcast that destroys optimism and hope, a broadcast that controls. It's to the death, and there can be only one winner. A huge number of humans know this story, as Suzanne Collins' best-selling series shows, relaxing at the top of the charts week after week, month after month. You see a child or adult often carrying a copy, and their familiar covers litter coffee tables and nightstands throughout the world. A successful text to film transfer is a trickier proposition--look how lame the Twilight movies are. Fortunately for Katniss fans, director Gary Ross knows how to play the film-making game, adapting the first (of a trilogy) Hunger Games film into a frantic, anxiety-giving thrill of a movie.
     The Hunger Games is more science fiction than supernatural. No vampires fly down to suck the blood out of a young female's neck. It's a story than can be identified with as something that isn't too far-fetched. North America has basically been destroyed by an unknown war. Out of the ashes and bloodied bodies, the country of Panem arises. Panem is made up of twelve districts all controlled by a rich and perverted Capital. Each district has its own specification, focusing on resources to keep the district barely alive and the Capital fat and thriving. As a reminder for each district's insubordination, every year The Hunger Games takes place, where 24 kids get chosen through a lottery to fight to the death.
     Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of this trilogy, is the first-person perspective focus of the books and the main focus of the film. She's played by Jennifer Lawrence, who was great in Winter's Bone and fully solidifies the fact that she can carry a film franchise like a backpack. When Primrose, the sister of Katniss, gets chosen in the lottery, Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss is a character whom everyone can relate to, not just teenage girls with younger sisters and Young Adult novel readers. She's thrown into a situation where she must fight to survive, through talk and the Thwak of one of her arrows ripping into flesh and bone. Much of The Hunger Games book series is Katniss's interior thoughts, and Lawrence's impressive vulnerability and her uncanny ability to say a lot without saying a word proves that no other young actress could have been this good.
     About half the movie is the kid-filled battle. The books are violent enough, but Collins knows just enough to let your imagination fill in the wounds and more horrific killings. The movie is similar, using very quick-cut editing and impressive sound work to let you barely see and hear the violent fights. This movie was never going to be rated R, so it focuses more on the aftermath of each death than the death itself, gazing upon the faces of the predators and the prey. During the start of the games, after a tension-filled one-minute countdown, almost a dozen kids die after they fight to get the supplies piled in the middle of the arena. Its dizzying, and it's the one detriment to the fighting in the film. It's tough to see who's fighting who, and the half-second scenes flash by like a strobe light's rays.
     Katniss is from District 12. The boy from District 12 is named Peeta, and throughout the lead up to the games and the games themselves, the two teenagers realize that sticking together might be the best option. The film version of Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, is easily to like and all-too-willing to please and protect his beautiful district mate. It's the closest thing to a love story that this film has, but nothing is what is seems. In the books, Katniss has a hunting buddy back home, a dude named Gale who just seems destined to be with Katniss forever. But the film throws him to the wayside, barely showing him, and that's certainly fine by me. Katniss thinking about her relationship back home with Gale and her growing thoughts about Peeta make up the only parts of The Hunger Games books that could be considered Twilight-esque. The film version essentially ignores it, and it's surely all the better for it.
     Stories like this have been done before; it's nothing original. In the 1987 The Running Man adaptation, a wrongly-convicted man must try to survive a public execution gauntlet staged as a television game show. In particular, the story of The Hunger Games resembles the year 2000 Japanese film, Battle Royale (a film which one would most definitely want to check out if one was a fan of the Collins novels), in which a group of ninth-graders are forced to kill one another in a very similar fashion. But The Hunger Games succeeds in being something a little more, a story of never-ending hopelessness and violence transforming into something resembling a growing hope and discomfort about life's controlling conditions. Like most film adaptations, you get a lot more with reading the book. But with Gary Ross's furious directing and Jennifer Lawrence's powerhouse performance, the film version of The Hunger Games is a perfectly good companion.     (B+)

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