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The Hunger Games

This is probably my least favorite kind of film to review. The kind of movie that’s become such a huge cultural event that every self-respecting film buff is expected to have an opinion of it. Yet paradoxically, our opinions mean absolutely nothing, because the die was cast a long time ago. Those who were going to see it bought their tickets months before release, those who weren’t will continue avoiding it, and the word of a lowly blogger — or even a nationally syndicated columnist — won’t be enough to change anyone’s mind. In a phrase, the movie is “critic-proof.”

Now, seeing a critic-proof movie and publishing my analysis is no problem when it’s a movie that I’ve been anticipating for months. If the film lives up to my expectations, then I have the pleasure of singing its praises. When the film is a disappointment, I have the catharsis of ripping it apart. But when the movie is one that I have absolutely no interest or investment in, seeing it just becomes a chore.

To be clear, I did read the first “Hunger Games” novel by Suzanne Collins. And I didn’t hate it. The book was certainly good enough that I was willing to finish it, but not nearly good enough that I was motivated to continue the series. If you’re enough of a fan to enjoy all three books, then good for you. But if you think it’s a work of fine literature that will be remembered as such a hundred years from now, then I humbly suggest that you read more often.

When you get right down to it, there isn’t much of anything in “Hunger Games” that wasn’t already done and done better by other authors. As an example, Stephen King told very similar stories by way of “The Running Man” and “The Long Walk” (Though to be fair, there isn’t much that Stephen King hasn’t already done. The man writes a lot.). Basically, my impression of “The Hunger Games” is that it was merely adequate. It was a decent story made of transparently rehashed parts.

That’s also my impression of The Hunger Games in a nutshell, really.

I won’t bother typing up a plot synopsis. Thanks to the good people at Lionsgate and Scholastic, you know the premise already.

To start with, the actors in this movie are amazing from top to bottom. Jennifer Lawrence is outstanding, but I could’ve told you that without seeing the movie. After all, I’ve already seen her play a strong, protective, self-sacrificing mother figure/older sister twice before: One of them was worthy of an Oscar nomination, and the other actually got an Oscar nomination. She could play the role in her sleep at this point and it would still be one of the better lead actress performances of the year.

Lawrence acts against Josh Hutcherson, who nails the heartbreaking role of Peeta to a wall. Woody Harrelson is also on hand, playing Haymitch with a great degree of intelligence hidden behind an alcohol haze. Stanley Tucci plays Caesar Flickerman with just the perfect amount of charm and slime. Lenny Kravitz is a great source of comfort and warmth as Cinna. Alexander Ludwig and Isabelle Fuhrman both deliver sinister performances as the two most villainous tributes. Every single actor in this movie was perfectly cast, right down to Paula Malcomsen as Katniss’ mother for all of two minutes’ screen time at most.

Alas, there are several characters that just didn’t work. Effie Trinket — played by Elizabeth Banks — is probably the best example, as the film provides absolutely no explanation for who she is or how she’s supposed to help our heroes in the Games. The film gives her a huge amount of screen time in the first half without any explanation as to why. Toby Jones is given a similar problem. Even after reading the book, I still couldn’t tell you who Jones was supposed to be playing or what his character did to advance the narrative. Sometimes he’d appear next to Flickerman to help convey narrative, sometimes not. I have no idea why.

All of that being said, I must emphasize that Banks and Jones both did the best they could with what they had. To repeat, every single person in front of the camera did a fine job. Which is fortunate, given the startling lack of talent behind the scenes.

There are so many reasons why the visuals in this movie are godawful. The makeup and costume design are both good cases in point, specifically with regard to the citizens of Panem. The ridiculous facial hair on Wes Bentley is a solid example, but Tucci, Jones, and Banks both look even more ludicrous from head to toe with every frame they have onscreen. Their hairstyles, eyeliner, and outfits are all made of colors that have never seen daylight. Colors loud enough and ugly enough to be seen from outer space. The police force of Panem is dressed entirely in white, I’ll grant you, but the costume design makes them look laughably non-threatening. Remember how all of the Emperor’s finest Stormtroopers were brought down by a few Ewoks? These guys look like a crew of Jawas could kick their asses.

The point being that every time a citizen of Panem is on the screen, it looks laughable. But when the screen is flooded with extras, all of whom are dressed in garish clothes and brightly-colored makeup, the result is a migraine-inducing eyesore. That said, I won’t deny that the filmmakers obviously put a lot of work into making that many extras so fantastically ugly. The costume and makeup suck, but there was certainly a lot of effort put into making them suck.

Far worse is the cinematography. To put this as simply as I can, this movie looks as if director Gary Ross and DOP Tom Stern both decided that the answer to every problem was to shake the camera. Need to make a scene look gritty? Shake the camera. Need to create suspense? Shake the camera. Need to create romantic chemistry? Wiggle the camera. Need to make a fight scene or a chase scene compelling? Break the camera.

Huge stretches of this movie — including a prominent chunk of the Hunger Games themselves — look as if they were filmed during an earthquake. Not only does this make the scenes totally unwatchable and incomprehensible, but it also calls attention to the film’s laziness. Sorry, Gary Ross, but shaking the camera until the lens comes loose isn’t going to erase the fact that District 12 doesn’t look quite as gritty or run-down as it should.

Oh, and don’t get me started on the close-ups. The filmmakers absolutely loooooove their close-ups of the actors’ faces. Not only is the overuse annoying, but the constant back-and-forth between shot and reverse shot gets very boring very quickly. This approach does absolutely nothing to make the characters’ interactions — particularly the central romance — any more interesting.

Still, I will grant the filmmakers this much: The sound design is very good. The sound mixing had a lot of clever twists, particularly during the Games. Also, I must tip my hat to James Newton Howard for his amazing score, and bringing T-Bone Burnett on to help with the songs was an inspired move.

With all of that out of the way, let’s get back to the central question: How is the movie as an adaptation of the book? Well, as would be expected, a lot got left on the cutting room floor. Cinna and Effie, for example, both strangely disappear for good as soon as the Games start. But in my opinion, by far the most notable omission was the Avox girls. As with Effie and whoever Toby Jones played, there is absolutely no explanation given for why there are strange women in the background of Katniss’ apartment, never mind who they are. So that part about former rebels who were sentenced to a life of indentured servitude after getting their tongues cut out? Yeah, that’s not in the film.

Instead, the movie goes where the book didn’t and shows us what’s going on outside the arena. Not only was this a great way to convey exposition, but it also did a lot to add to the story’s scale. There’s a brief glimpse of a riot in District 11, so that we can see first-hand what effect Katniss is having on Panem as a part of the Games. We actually see Haymitch wooing sponsors, so that we can see for ourselves just how seriously he takes his job. Speaking of which, there’s a very intriguing little scene in which Haymitch sees a couple of Panem kids play-fighting with a toy sword.

Unfortunately, none of these scenes quite go far enough. Though we see the riot in District 11, no mention is made of its outcome or its consequences. Though we see Gale’s reaction to the unfolding Katniss/Peeta romance, nothing ever comes of it. As for the play-fighting scene, that would have had absolutely nothing if Harrelson hadn’t put so much emotion into it.

Basically, the book’s comments about corruption, our thirst for violence, and our escalating need for entertainment are all there, though not nearly as prominent or as biting as they should have been. The film says nothing new about the subject, nor does it go further than the book in any substantial way. I could say the same about the central romance. The movie hits all the essential story beats, yet the Katniss/Peeta relationship still felt underdone. I suspect that this may be due to the source material, as the book was designed as the first part of a trilogy and the movie was clearly designed likewise.

The Hunger Games features a phenomenal cast, anchored by yet another great performance from Jennifer Lawrence. On the other hand, the camerawork and costume design are both intolerable. What’s more, the film fails to develop its central romance or its socio-political commentary into anything interesting, despite the liberal two-and-a-half hour running time. Though to be fair, many of this movie’s failings can be traced back to the original book.

Much like its source material, the movie’s pros and cons all weigh out to an end result that’s merely adequate. It’s not a bad film, but it’s hardly a masterpiece either. Moviegoers with low standards will be pleased, but more discerning consumers will know there’s nothing here that hasn’t been done better elsewhere.

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