June 26, 2012

The Hunger Games (2012)

According to author Suzanne Collins, the concept that would later become "The Hunger Games" was born while she was swapping channels on TV, and happened to watch the contrast between reality shows and the Iraq war. With those images in mind, Collins took the myth of Theseus as basis and developed a novel of romance and science fiction about a futuristic society where television and death are heavily linked. Published in 2008, "The Hunger Games" appeared in a time in which young adult literature was at its best moment in terms of sales and popularity: Stephanie Meyer was at the top with her "Twilight" and there was a healthy audience for the genre that welcomed Collins' books with arms wide open. Naturally, talks about a film adaptation soon began, and just as the "Twilight" film series was about to end, director Gary Ross would start the series of films based on "The Hunger Games".

"The Hunger Games" takes place in the futuristic nation of Panem, which is made up by 12 Districts governed by a Capitol. After the rebellion and eventual destruction of a thirteenth district, the Capitol established the Hunger Games, a televised event in which two youngsters of each district, a male and a female, are selected in an annual lottery as "tributes", to fight against each other in a combat to death, until only one of them remains as victor. The story begins in the impoverished District 12, where young Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is chosen as female tribute for the celebration of the 74th Hunger Games. Knowing that young Prim wouldn't be able to survive in the games, her older sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) decides to trade places with her and voluntarily participate in the Hunger Games. This will be the first act of rebellion in Katniss' fight against the Capitol.

Adapted to the screen by author Suzanne Collins herself collaborating with scriptwriter Billy Ray and director Gary Ross, "The Hunger Games" is relatively faithful to its source novel, narrating Katniss' progress through the Hunger Games, as well as the relationship that's formed between Katniss and her fellow District 12 tribute, Peeta (played by Josh Hutcherson). Like the novel, the screenplay is focused totally on Katniss' character, and through her eyes it takes us inside this society in which entertainment controls the masses. However, another inheritance from the novel is that there is a greater weight placed on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta and the conflict this causes with Katniss' feelings for her best friend Gale, who remained in District 12. The plot unfolds smoothly, though often the many details that were cut while adapting the book are missed, as several aspects of the story are explored in a quite shallow way.

Director Gary Ross employs a series of different visual styles to narrate his movie, supporting himself in the effective work of cinematography done by Tom Stern. To do this, Stern gives a washed out look inspired by the Great Depression for the humble District 12, and contrasts it with the colorful kitsch world of the Capitol. However, with the idea of replicating the look of reality TV, Ross and Stern abuses a bit of "shaky cam", which becomes a tad annoying. The production design by Philip Messina is quite interesting as, with a certain degree of minimalism in its construction, it achieves a futuristic style that generates the appropriate atmosphere without taking precedence over the story, which is where director Gary Ross's vision is chiefly focused. This focus on the human side of the plot follows the novel's style, where Katniss' feelings are what matters the most over any aspect of social criticism that the premise may have.

Carrying the weight of the film is Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen, whom manages to transmit effectively the inner strength that her character has. Lawrence gives Katniss a restrained intensity, quite appropriated for a character as independent as hers. In fact, perhaps the only problem in Lawrence's performance as Katniss is the fact that she just doesn't look physically as someone who has lived in hunger (in fact, the hunger element is downplayed as a whole). The same thing happens to Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta Mellark. However, in contrast this is only the lesser of Hutcherson's problems, as his acting is considerably inferior to Lawrence's, lacking the naturalness and screen presence that his counterpart has, ending up looking wooden and stiff in his acting. The rest of the cast does have interesting moments, though in general, it's brief the screen time they could use, as the film is entirely focused on Katniss and Peeta.

This is perhaps the greatest problem in "The Hunger Games" as a science fiction film, because by centering exclusively on the relationship between Katniss and Peeta, it leaves aside no only the supporting characters, but also any kind of exploration of the world that Collins has created in her story. In fact, the explanation of "The Hunger Games"' premise is reduced to a narrated explanation at the beginning, which isn't quite clear in its explanation about the Capitol or the 12 Districts. In general, any attempt to let us inside the workings of Panem's society ends up being too shallow, avoiding the chance of taking the plot to any kind of social commentary. This is particularly notorious in the fact that the great dramatic implication of the premise, having teenagers killing each others for a prize, isn't really tacked at all, and it would seem that none of those youngsters truly cares about being forced to kill each other.

Certainly, none of this prevents "The Hunger Games" from being entertaining, and in general, director Gary Ross makes an appropriate job in his film adaptation. However, there's still an odd feeling about the film, as if something was missing, as if it was incomplete in some way. By focusing exclusively on Katniss' feelings, the great potential of the film's premise has been sadly left aside, and the result is that rather than being a science fiction film with touches of romance, "The Hunger Games" is a teenage romance film with some deaths and brief touches of science fiction.


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