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The Hunger Games (2012)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

THE HUNGER GAMES (2012)

Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Donald Sutherland

Written By: Suzanne Collins (also novel), Gary Ross, Billy Ray Directed By: Gary Ross

The Short Version

Another YA novel series makes its way to the big screen.

Despite losing some detail in translation, this one’s got some real power.

Jennifer Lawrence delivers an outstanding lead performance.

Director Gary Ross does a good job of setting the scene for her and then getting out of her way.

The Hunger Games doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth your time.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

ARTISAN SWISS.

There are gaps in it, but it’s really good, so you don’t care.

.


Pairs Well With...

STRONGBOW.

Hard cider that seems a natural match for eagle eyed archer Katniss.

“Hope.  It is the only thing stronger than fear.  A little hope is effective.  A lot of hope is dangerous.”

 

Always with adaptations, the book and the movie are separate entities.  No matter how faithful the imitator is to the original, the fact is that they’re two different media experienced by their respective audiences in different ways.

On rare occasions, though, that line gets blurred.  Case in point: The Hunger Games.

Adapted in part by novelist Suzanne Collins, the screenplay for The Hunger Games is just about as faithful to the source material as anyone could reasonably hope for out of modern Hollywood.  A few subplots are dropped, major details are glossed over, and a character who was only named-dropped after the fact in a later book is given a prominent role, but overall, the gist of the book is there, and people who have read it – which one can reasonably expect to be a significant percentage of the overall audience (including myself) – are unlikely to find themselves angry over any of the changes that have been made.

For those viewers who haven’t read “The Hunger Games,” the movie will still make sense, and is perfectly enjoyable as a standalone.  Oddly enough, though, these are the viewers who are most likely to notice what’s missing from the movie but can be found in the book, because there are definite gaps in the presentation of the film that those “in the know” can easily fill in, but which those who aren’t are bound to notice.  Sure, the script sketches the premise in well enough to follow, but it is obviously just a bare bones sketch.  People participate in a mass spectacle to the death for a dystopian regime; you’ve seen the like in The Running Man and Battle Royale and many other stories.  (And for students of history, the origin of the name of the country in question, “Panem,” will be familiar.  For the rest of the crowd, look it up; it’s Roman.)  But as far as the question of why exactly these are called “Hunger Games” is concerned, this sketch doesn’t draw in that particular detail, and the hole is obvious… and it has friends.  As such, The Hunger Games is one of those adapted movies that provides significant encouragement for new viewers to go back and read the novel, and by extension, since such an inspired audience is likely to keep going with the rest of the films, to read the next two volumes, as well.

That is what I mean by the line being blurred.  The Hunger Games does stand alone, yet it strongly invites viewers to pick up the book not as a counterpoint, but as a companion guide.  The movie wants to be part of a set with that novel, and that is damn rare.

(It also presents me with a personal quandary, since while I enjoyed the first book, I didn’t intend to read the rest.  Now that I’ve seen this movie, I want to see the rest, and so…)

But let’s put the books down for a moment and just have a peek at what’s on the screen.

What’s on the screen is something that refuses to pander to “blockbuster” conventions or short attention spans.  Even as it’s shedding details from the novel, The Hunger Games takes its time to get started, making sure that the audience gets to know the protagonist and the mechanics of the contest in which she will be fighting (if not necessarily the full “why”).  Sketchy though the past may be and elusive though the motivations of some supporting players are, the circumstances of the present are drawn in detail, with direction that helps the viewer to feel just as “thrust into things” as the lead character herself is, along with some peeks off to the side at how the spectacle is prepared for public consumption so that the viewer may also come to know what must inevitably be considered “the forces of evil” of the totalitarian state of Panem.  These “peeks” also serve to make clear to the viewer something else that director Gary Ross and his team intend to do differently…

…namely, the fact that once the action finally does move into the arena, the “spectacle” style of presentation is quite plainly turned off.  There is no glory in the combat of the arena.  There is no flashiness.  There is just survival in the woods.  It’s not quite raw, but it’s definitely not what one would expect of traditional action movie fare, and this is true for a reason: if this part of the film was flashy like that, then it would be exactly the spectacle that the government of Panem tries to sell, and the director does not want to tell this story from their perspective.  Even if he hadn’t admitted as much in later interviews, the approach is plain to see on the screen, and it’s precisely what needs to be done for The Hunger Games to remain true to its source material and elevate itself to a more thoughtful status.  For some, the result is a second half that feels “slow,” but if the story matters at all to you as a viewer, then this can only be seen as a brilliant move.

But regardless of what the director does, The Hunger Games lives or dies based on the performance of Jennifer Lawrence (X-Men: First Class) as Katniss Everdeen, and by that standard, this flick is livin’ large.  Flat though many other characters may be, Katniss is deep and multilayered, and Lawrence brings every one of those layers to life and then some, providing a rare presentation of a hero who is also a true human being and all the more heroic because of it.  Lawrence acts with every nerve and muscle in every scene, speaking volumes with body language and expressions even when she’s not saying a word, and regardless of whether or not she’s the focus of a given moment.  Her performance is simply outstanding, and anyone who doesn’t believe that the world is ready for movies powered by female leads outside of an ensemble needs to have a look at what Jennifer Lawrence does here and then sit down.  She leads it, she owns it, and she carries it.

And because of what Jennifer Lawrence does, along with what the director does to set the stage for her and then get out of her way, The Hunger Games succeeds, despite the surprisingly large number of gaps and flaws and holes that crop up throughout.  Glossed over plot points, unfinished supporting characters, major details unspoken… none of these things feel like they matter while the movie’s playing, and if they matter afterward, it’s only to the extent of providing inspiration to go read the book.  I’d call that a success even if I didn’t know the box office numbers.

Bottom line, The Hunger Games is not a perfect film, but it is a damn good one all the same, thanks in large part to an outstanding lead performance from Jennifer Lawrence, backed up by savvy direction from Gary Ross.  If you’re even the least bit curious about what this YA novel adaptation has to offer, it’s definitely worth your time to find out.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, April, 2014


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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