Saturday, March 24, 2012

Review of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is expected to be the biggest block buster of the year.The movie is based on the novel by the same name, written by Suzanne Collins.  It's directed by Gary Ross and stars, Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth. Other notables include, Amandla Stenberg, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland and Woody Harrelson.

The Hunger Games is set in a post apocalyptic North America, which has been divided into 13 sectors.  Each year, 24 tributes - 12 boys, and 12 girls are sent to fight to the death in the arena.  This is retribution for an uprising that occurred 74 years ago, and is supposedly meant to remind them of the horrors of war. When Katniss' sister Primrose is chosen, Katniss volunteers in her staid. Also chosen from district 12 is Peeta, the son of a baker.  Katniss and Peeta come from sector 12, which is a poor mining district.

They are provided with Haymitch, the only tribute ever to win from district 12 to train them.  Peeta understands immediately, that part of surviving is playing the game and being as likable as possible, while Katniss is only focused on the mechanics. Haymitch at first doesn't not seem very concerned with their well being and is only interested in getting drunk.

The capitol is very rich in comparison to the district. They have the latest in technology and the people seem to have time to groom themselves ridiculously. Katniss and Peeta prepare for the games, firm in the knowledge that only one of them will live, as there can only be one winner.  In the preparations, Katniss is stiff and it is only through the help of Cinna, the designer played by Lenny Kravitz that she manages to catch the crowds attention.

The novel is told entirely from Katniss' point of view, but the movie seems to tell the story without any introspection at all.  This gives the viewer no real reason to invest in Katniss or want her to win.  We know that she hunts for food, but we don't get any real sense of how hard her struggle is.  There is no background information on her relationship with Gale, and he could easily be her cousin, boyfriend or friend.  If I had not read the book, I would not have had any idea what their relationship was about.

Because we get no real background story of any of the characters, it at times turns Katniss into a precious Mary Sue.  We have no idea why people are sacrificing themselves for her.  Rue is killed off so fast that we are lead to believe that the only reason Katniss cried is because Rue was killed in front of her, rather than the fact that they became close over a period of time.  In the book they talked about their individual districts and even shared a meal together. We did get the salute when Rue died, but in the film there was no offering from district 11 to thank her for caring for Rue, instead we saw a rebellion break out.  This had a negative effect, because in this scene we saw the largest gathering of POC, and of course they are being violent.  Without a firm understanding of the privations that the districts suffer, the violence has no real context to occur.  Rue after all is not the first tribute that they have lost in the hunger games.

There were only three characters of colour in the film, and though Katniss is described as having olive skin, she was played by the very White Jennifer Lawrence. Black people largely appeared in the background.  I actually counted 23 people of colour in the film.  It may appear that there are more, but what actually happened was the director inserted the same people of colour repeatedly into the background.  I fully understand that this story is meant to be a post apocalyptic North America, but what does it say then that people of colour are so few in number?  Where are the Indigenous people and the Asians?  Throwing in 23 characters of colour in largely background roles does not count as inclusion.  All those who were upset when Amandla Stenberg was cast as Rue, and Lenny Kravitz was cast as Cinna can relax, because The Hunger games is yet another White lead Hollywood film.

When I learned that Woody Harrelson was cast as Haymitch, I thought that it was a perfect choice.  Watching his performance on screen, I cannot help but think that he was specifically told to tone it down.  We see Haymitch drinking, and generally speaking being apathetic towards the plight of Katniss and Peeta, but he is most certainly not falling down drunk and embarrassing himself.  This is not going to make it believable when we later learn that he is suffering from PTSD.  Similarly, the depression that Katniss' mother went through after the death of her husband was extremely downplayed.  It was only acknowledged by Katniss telling her mother that she could not blank out again.  We also don't learn anything about her mothers work as a healer.

In many ways, the movie felt rushed.  It was so invested in getting into the arena so that the life and death matches could begin that the characters were absolutely empty.  Katniss was suitably awkward, but we did not get a real sense for how charming Peeta can be.  Without the inner dialogue, we did not get a sense that Katniss was only pretending to care about Peeta, because she saw this as a part of the game of survival. This pretense is maintained because there is no confrontation on the train between Katniss and Peeta, and makes it appear as though the director was more interested in setting up a sequel than telling the story.

When most books are made into movies, they do not come close to the original, and this is very much the case when it comes to The Hunger Games.  Had I not been intimately familiar with the story, I would not have found Rue`s death touching, nor would I have been rooting for Katniss.  I hope that in the next movie they will engage in more world building and give us a reason to care about the well being of these characters.  As it stands, The Hunger Games felt like one big fight scene without much of a plot.