Monday, May 07, 2012

BuboBlog Reviews 'The Hunger Games'

Okay, so I'm a bit late with my "Hunger Games" review.

I guess I'm running for the proverbial Cornucopia after all the good weapons have been taken, only to be gored by a carbon-fiber scabbard. But I'll share my thoughts anyway. One benefit to being so late: I can aim this review at people who have seen the movie already (or at least read the book).

On balance, the film was a skilled adaptation. Subplots and characters were wisely excised (Madge, the crew from the Hob), while others were fleshed out. Seneca Crane, who orchestrates the Hunger Games competition, has a major role in the movie, despite not appearing at all in the book (though he does get a posthumous mention in "Catching Fire").

The novel was told entirely from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen: You only see what she sees firsthand. Katniss doesn't even learn the names of most of her Hunger Games opponents until the competition is well under way. That wouldn't have worked cinematically. You want to know your enemies early on, and that includes knowing their names. So the filmmakers used the reality-show conceit to introduce the other Tributes before the Games begin, including Cato, Glimmer and Rue.

Interestingly, there was no effort to fill in the gaps in personal information missing from the book. Katniss and Peeta Mellark are introduced on TV by first and last name; the other Hunger Games tributes only get announced by their first names (because Suzanne Collins didn't reveal their full names in the book). Maybe District 12 is supposed to be the only part of Panem that uses surnames?

By showing the running commentary during the Games, the film was able to deftly supply exposition without it seeming forced. (What's a Tracker Jacker? Here, we'll tell you.) It was also fun to see the behind-the-scenes negotiations between Haymitch and the gamesmakers — something left to your imagination in the novel.

With that said, I didn't love the aesthetic decisions made by the filmmakers, even though the choices felt true to the book. The Capitol fashions and makeup are meant to show how superficial the people are. But on screen, they just looked tawdry and borderline campy. I would have dialed it back a bit. (Side note: Most medical advances in the future will apparently take the form of fluorescent balms.)

Director Gary Ross also is fond of using extreme close-ups, no matter how unflattering. He manages to make most of his actors and actresses look unattractive for much of the film, even Katniss herself (played by Jennifer Lawrence). One exception: Seneca's facial hair, which looked fabulous from every angle. But would it be so hard to take the Capital lifestyle to its logical conclusion and give everyone starburns?

When we see the gang of Career Tributes tramping through the forest, Ross makes them seem like an ordinary gang of teens (who happen to enjoy killing people). That helped spotlight the horror of the situation. Even so, the tone felt a bit off at times. When they chase Katniss up a tree with cheeky enthusiasm, the scene had a faint resemblance to a "Mentos" commercial.

Ross' fight sequences, meanwhile, are herky-jerky to the point of being incoherent. Again, I understand why he made this choice (to reflect the chaos of hand-to-hand combat), but it doesn't add to the enjoyment of the film. (The New Yorker's curmudgeony David Denby complained that the movie was like being tossed in a washing machine.)

But these are minor points. The film largely succeeds — better, in fact, than most of the "Harry Potter" movies. It was less cluttered, more urgent.

"The Hunger Games" is often at its best when it strays from the source material. When we see how Katniss' accidental subversiveness inspires rebellion in the districts, it raises the stakes of the Games. That was missing from the novel. And the scene where Seneca is locked in a room with nightlock berries is priceless — even if I can't imagine a Capitol resident agreeing to commit suicide.

The "That is mahogany!" line, which apparently has become an Internet meme, also wasn't in the book.

If that becomes the most famous bit of dialogue from the movie, it will be reminiscent of "Deliverance," a novel that didn't contain much banjo playing or the line "I bet you can squeal like a pig."

Sometimes screenwriters really do earn their paychecks.

BuboBlog Rating: 3 asterisks (out of 4).