Things We Learned from the Opening Weekend of The Hunger Games

03/26/2012 11:36 AM |

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You may have heard about a movie that grossed more in its first three days than most releases can hope to gross in their release, on its way to becoming one of the two or three biggest hits of the year (unless this turns into a wildly successful year), driven by an audience of dedicated fanatics. Yes, I’m talking about that creepy pro-life movie that I had never heard of until I was looking up box-office info on The Hunger Games. No, just kidding, I’m talking about The Hunger Games, but if you want to see the ante being upped on the creepy-faith market, there is indeed a movie in this weekend’s box office top ten about the coming-of-age of a girl who learns she was adopted after her birth mother tried and failed to abort her.

So, you know, if The Hunger Games really annoys you for some reason, just think about that movie. In the meantime, I’m going to talk about Lionsgate’s biggest hit ever. Yes, even bigger than Saw III. Even bigger than Saw II!

I bypassed a press screening order to see The Hunger Games opening night at the Ziegfeld, with a thousand or so cheering fans. Those circumstances plus my having read the book series (which puts it over the Twilights) recently (which puts it over the Harry Potters) make it difficult to approach this with the usual critical eye (which I have used in the past to write ringing endorsements of The Sitter and Transporter 3). Rather than a traditional review, then, I simply offer these Notes on The Hunger Games:

-First, a basic synopsis for those of you who haven’t read the books or seen trailers for the movie or read other reviews, but have stumbled upon this piece while looking for The L’s review of that anti-abortion movie: the series is set in a post-collapse North America where a totalitarian regime has divided everyone into districts. Each year, one boy and one girl from each district, ages 12-18, are selected as “tributes” to compete in the Hunger Games, a nationally televised fight to the death conducted to keep the districts in line. The winner becomes rich and famous. The losers, uh, get brutally murdered on the way. The book follows the first-person experience of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in the movie), the tribute from coal-mining District 12, the poorest and losingest district.

-This movie is very faithful to the book, because in a post-Potter world, “very faithful to the book” is the new “totally ruined the book.” This technique, whereupon gripping but far from perfect YA literature is treated more or less as holy text, brings up the average quality on movies like this yet also functions as a limitation of sorts: little is radically altered, yet little is surprising or spontaneous, either (and actually, that 1974 version of The Great Gatsby is an object lesson in how you can show just about everything important that happens in the book on screen and change very little, and yet still wind up with something utterly terrible). The movie is, essentially, a well-crafted souvenir for pre-made fans—albeit one that is relatively easy for a newcomer to understand, at least according to the two people in my party who had not yet devoured the books.

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-In terms of director and co-screenwriter Gary Ross interpreting the material as his own, then, The Hunger Games is something of a dead end. This is disappointing (I enjoyed that David Fincher Dragon Tattoo movie, not having bothered with those books, but it seems like this story offers a lot more for an A-list adapter like Fincher to do) yet not fatally wounding. While the book of The Hunger Games is a terrific read—fast-paced, engaging, addressing ideas about economic disparity and reality television—and could have been further enhanced on screen when freed of Suzanne Collins’s functional but sometimes utilitarian prose, making a movie that more or less does the book right is not a horrible waste. That said, there are times, especially during the games themselves, where you can feel Ross and company expending more effort on gathering all of the important stuff from the book and fitting it together (into a less than fleet 140 minutes) rather than, say, making an exciting and thought-provoking movie. The movie doesn’t ratchet up its suspense with the same breathless acceleration as its literary counterpart, probably because Collins was free to keep story, rather than fidelity to another story, at the front of her mind.

-The advertising campaign for this movie has, in a feat of boldness, included almost no footage from the second half of the movie, when the characters are thrust into the games themselves—with no detriment to its massive take. This is great and more movies should give that a shot. That said, I almost preferred the pre-games material on screen; the way Ross reduces Katniss’s relationship with her unreliable mother to a few terse, telling exchanges has great economy that trumps even Collins’ plainspoken words, and it’s neat to see the visual interpretations of the moneyed Capitol citizens, including an initially unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks, very funny as PR handler Effie Trinket. When the movie goes into survivalist mode, there are some great images (I particularly liked the way marauding artificial fireballs reflect in Lawrence’s eyes), but tension leaks out in its final stretch, as if the filmmakers had already turned their to attention to faithful next-installment table-setting (I realize most movies are not shot in sequence, but they can still suffer from excessive set-up, no matter when it comes in the schedule).

-And yet even with this overall fidelity verging on overcautiousness, I have reader’s nitpicks: Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), for example, the alcoholic former champion charged with training and boosting the District 12 tributes, has been softened from his on-page incarnation as a literal fall-down drunk of a broken man to a mildly cantankerous fellow with a taste for booze who takes all of one scene to warm to his tributes. Harrelson is well-cast, and good in his scenes; the movie needn’t have sanded off his edges. It’s especially odd to see Haymitch reaching for food during his contentious meetings with the kids. In the books, to my recollection, he’s slightly more likely to drink rubbing alcohol than to have a nosh.

-Further regarding the treatment of food in general: the contrast between the near-starvation of the poorest districts and the ridiculous opulence of Capitol eating habits is oddly downplayed for a movie called The Hunger Games. Granted, it makes sense that Ross and his co-writers decided to jettison the more fantastical decadence of, say, the system by which tributes, during their stay in the Capitol, can order any food they want and have it more or less materialize in seconds (I was never clear on how that worked even in a science-fiction capacity; unexplained, seems like straight-up magic to me). But even ignoring that detail, the book still emphasizes the lavish feasts prepared for the tributes that they scarf down despite their resentment of the haves that plump them up before sending them into a cruel death-fight. In the movie, even in the most lingering dinner-table shots, it’s more of a nice spread that the kids nibble on, and there are only implications of the widespread hunger in the districts. Maybe this is because Movie Katniss never looks as emaciated as she’s made to sound on the page. Then again, I can’t bring myself to complain that a Hollywood starlet doesn’t look emaciated enough, so let’s just assume Movie Katniss is an even better hunter than Book Katniss (and that Movie Groosling adds more va-va-voom than Book Groosling).

-The movie, unlike the book, breaks from the Katniss POV to give us a little bit of that ol’ Minority Report/Truman Show behind-the-scenes magic, cutting to the gamemakers as they manipulate the tributes’ surroundings. This stuff is interesting in theory but not particularly clever in practice, and while the cutaways do explain what a narration-free Katniss no longer can, they’re not exactly an elegant solution to that problem. A better tack, I think, would have been to explore the actual personalities of Capitol citizens like gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, rocking some wonderfully bizarre facial hair), in all of their grotesque yet cunning glory. Or, you know, just plain explain less and show more.

-All of these bullet points and not yet a single word about Peeta or Gale! They’re designed, as the book series goes on, as two points in an awkward (and mostly uninteresting) love triangle with Katniss. Peeta is the character who actually matters in terms of story, especially in the first installment, and while Josh Hutcherson is more immediately likable than Hemsworth the Lesser (that nickname © my wife), who plays Gale, Peeta’s gentleness and idealism don’t really register, maybe because Jennifer Lawrence kinda owns the screen, especially when she’s skulking through the woods Winter’s Bone style.

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-I like Jennifer Lawrence (mutant and proud!), but I wonder if her impending superstardom will mark the end of movie critics mysteriously declaring her (and sometimes even her characters!) the unquestionable highlight of any movie she’s in, no matter how little she actually does in them. Yes, I am using one of these bullet points to call out people who seemed weirdly smitten with her barely-there character in Like Crazy.

-This Hunger Games may not be the book-transcending adaptation of my dreams, but I have to say, it’s pretty cool that a movie starring an asskicking Jennifer Lawrence in a sci-fi parable with special effects that aren’t super-elaborate, showcased in the trailers or even, at times, all that great can outgross at least some of those stupid Twilight movies (right? Please?).

-Here’s one for the fans: They should’ve talked about Groosling more, because I really like the word Groosling. I mean, they awkwardly shoehorned in a reference to Foxface, which makes way less sense!

-Finally: the audience definitely applauded and cheered at several moments during the movie (sometimes semi-disturbingly). Yet the applause at the end, while present, felt subdued. Maybe this has to do with a muted, open ending. Or maybe if these YA adaptations were done with a little more élan, they’d have the freedom to end in a way that get the crowd cheering the movie, not the book that the movie heavily reminds them of.