Wednesday, March 28, 2012
BOOK TO FILM: THE HUNGER GAMES
I finally saw The Hunger Games Tuesday afternoon. It's not perfect, but I'm certainly not going to begrudge it the holy-moley-great-balls-of-fire-fuckgantic box office gross it's racking up. For all we want to be cranky old people farting at the younger generation for being nekulturny nihilistic retards, sometimes the shit the kids are into is pretty good. Hell, Justin Bieber doesn't suck. Yeah, I said it. Sure, “If I was your boyfriend I'd never let you go/I can take you places you ain't never been before” ain't exactly William Butler Yeats, sure it's funny when Bieber uses the word “swag” (as in swag-ger, fellow olds), sure he looks like a lesbian. But “Oh yeah, I'll tell you something I think you'll understand/When you say that something, I wanna hold your hand” is stupid too, no one knew what the fuck “gear” meant even at the height of Beatlemania, and Paul McCartney looked even more like a lesbian than Bieber until he died in that car crash and his slightly butcher doppleganger took his place and grew a mustache. Sure, John Lennon could have melted Biebs with telekinesis, but the kid makes perfectly competent pop music. He's way the fuck better than the pop music teenagers listened to when I was a teenager—I don't care how female and how twelve years old you once were, the Backstreet Boys are war criminals—and moreover, you couldn't get kids to read books at gunpoint in the mid-90s. The Harry Potter books changed all that, proving that as long as you didn't try to get kids to read Paul Bowles, they would read. Publishing companies went “whoa, shit, let's try that again,” and while that meant we have to suffer the shame of being a species that created the Twilight series, it also meant a bunch of other YA properties are out there keeping books in kids' hands. One of which, and arguably the premier non-Potter out there, is The Hunger Games trilogy.
Thus far I've read the first book and a chunk of the second, and I gotta say, they don't fuck around. Suzanne Collins, with sparse, direct prose, renders a genuinely dark and scary far-future dystopia, where a totalitarian regime has divided North America into 12 (formerly 13) Districts, each devoted to producing a resource needed to keep the wildly luxurious Capitol in the lifestyle they require. In the other corner, weighing in at a lot less than she would if she had enough to eat, representing District 12 (the poorest District, whose raison d'etre is its coal mines) is Katniss Everdeen, 16 years of age. Katniss provides for her mother and younger sister by sneaking out into the woods and hunting, which while illegal is tacitly permitted by the local Peacekeepers (read: cops), since District 12 is widely considered too backward to be dangerous to anyone. All this changes forever, very early in the first book, when it comes time for the Hunger Games, held annually, which involve each District providing a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death on TV until one champion remains. The champion then returns to his or her District and lives in government-underwritten splendor for life. Katniss' younger sister is selected to compete, at which point Katniss volunteers to take her place. Katniss and her male counterpart, baker's son Peeta, are whisked away to the Capitol to get a crash course in media relations before being tossed into the arena for the Games.
When reading The Hunger Games, one (fairly dorky movie industry inside baseball) thought kept recurring: “How the fuck are they going to bring this in as a PG-13?” At one point in the Games, after a party I won't name does something that really pisses Katniss off, she shoots him in the throat, yanks the arrow out, and watches (reasonably dispassionately) as the guy chokes to death on his own blood. Now, I'm definitely on the “more the merrier” side of the ownage fence, but that's an R to me. So I knew that bit probably wasn't going to be in the movie (at least until Gareth Evans does the reboot with Iko Uwais in drag as Katniss) but at the same time, the thing Katniss is pissed off about is A Really Big Deal, narrative-wise, so if she just gives the dude a wedgie the significance of the moment is lost. There are a few other key moments where things get a bit bloody, too. It's not so much that I thought a movie version would be soft, it's that I was impressed with how dark the book gets. It “goes there.”
And, as much as ratings board issues and length restrictions made changes in the adaptation mandatory, the movie does too. Working from a script on which he collaborated with Collins herself and the very talented screenwriter Billy Ray, director Gary Ross made the cinematic equivalent of what The Hunger Games was as a book: an exciting, occasionally rough, but fiercely compelling SF action picture. Freed from the first-person narration in the book that limits the action strictly to what Katniss does, observes, and remembers, the movie is able to provide context to the world of the story, though this is a bit of a double-edged sword, as knowing more about what's going on kind of takes the edge off certain aspects of Katniss' path through the Games, and some of the more frightening surprises. Still, it's a damn solid movie.
Its one major debit as a movie is its overuse of handheld camera. Now, I'm not as militantly anti-shaky-cam as some, and it doesn't give me motion sickness or anything. But there's a time and a place. (Ed. Note: read that last sentence in your head as Paul Henreid. You're welcome.) I think the real problem is that Hollywood needs to either a) start cutting its cocaine with something a little more chemically equanimous, like, I don't know, Valium or something, or b) stop giving its camera operators quite so much of the shit, because man, the camera in The Hunger Games is jittery. Combined with the quick cutting, a lot of the movie is lost in a blur. Weirdly, the action sequences (some of which were directed by Steven Soderbergh, who's kind of the Energizer bunny of cinema; I pictured him coming up to Gary Ross being like, “Man, principal photography doesn't start for my other four movies for like three days, man, I need a fix, man, I need to shoot something, I don't give a fuck, man, I'll shoot second unit for you man, please, man, I'll suck your dick!”) are more visually clear than the bits where Jennifer Lawrence is just walking down a path in District 12 moodily contemplating her downtrodden existence. You get used to it (if you're able to) after a while, but the bit when they're arriving at the Capitol and seeing just how much more it is in ever sense than anything Katniss or Peeta have ever seen would have worked a lot better if the damn camera wasn't doing its coke-freak-out tarantella all over the fuckin place.
But anyway, enough of the problems. There's plenty that's awesome about The Hunger Games, and it all starts with the aforementioned Ms. Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence is made out of movie star. She's gorgeous, she can act, she's got terrific physical presence. And there's this air of “wait . . . you're serious? You mean I get to make movies? That's ridiculous, and awesome, but I mean, come on. You're not seriously letting me be in movies, right?” about her that seems totally unaffected, and is endlessly endearing. She'll play along with the “joke” and keep being in movies until someone yells “psych!” at which point she'll shrug it off and go right on doing whatever. Except if she keeps being this awesome in everything she's in (Winter's Bone's still out there to watch, too) no one's yelling “psych” for a long, long time. Everyone's good in the movie, especially Lenny Kravitz, who's just terrific in the small but key role of Katniss' stylist Cinna, Woody Harrelson, quietly peaking as one of the best character actors alive as the drunken and haunted mentor and ex-Hunger Games champion Haymitch, and a young actor named Amandla Stenberg, as Rue, a District 11 competitor Katniss befriends over the course of the Games, who turns in a really affecting performance without the benefit of a ton of dialogue, but all Rue's subtext shines on the screen.
Most of the core story of The Hunger Games is right there on screen. A number of details of the story are presented with little or no explanation, which is fine as fan service, but might leave people who haven't read the book out in the cold. The only two worth mentioning (and it's something that could quite easily be addressed in the next movie) are, first, the pin Katniss acquires early in the movie, that she gives to her sister for luck, only to have returned when it turns out Katniss is going to be competing in the Hunger Games, and which is subsequently incorporated into one of her costumes by her stylist. It's identified as a “mockingjay,” though it's never explained what a mockingjay is. The book explains a mockingjay is a hybrid bird genetically engineered by the Capitol as a means of spying on the people, only it proves uncontrollable and slips the Capitol's grasp, living on as a signifier of the frailty of totalitarian rule. Also, Mockingjay is the title of the third and final book in the series, implying that it's pretty damn important. Still, with the first movie being entirely concerned with Katniss competing in the Hunger Games and finding that to be just the beginning, with the rebellion of the Districts (briefly addressed in the movie, in a scene not in the book that ends up being one of the movie's most powerful moments) coming mainly later on in the series, there is still time for the explanation of the significance of the mockingjay.
The second omission is a little more problematic. In the books, food is an enormously important thing. Katniss and nearly everyone else in District 12 is constantly on the brink of starvation, even though the ruling regime could feed everyone with little more difficulty than a snap of the fingers. It's a reminder of the power of the Capitol, and virtually every moment of Katniss' day at home is given over to acquiring and trading for food. The Hunger Games are so called because the winner never has to go hungry again, and as a reminder that their (optional) hunger is a symbol of the power the contestants' (and everyone else's) rulers have over them. The movie doesn't have as much time to address this as the book, with that exposition having to share room with all the other crap the movie has to pack into its first act, and while Jennifer Lawrence tells her mother “Don't let [my sister] starve!” that's about it. It wouldn't be that big a deal—any book loses pages on the way to the screen—except the movie's called, ya know, The Hunger Games.
That narrative shortcoming, and all that “holy shit give the fuckin camera operator some Thorazine” camerawork, are the only things really holding The Hunger Games back from being legitimately great as opposed to just really good. And, in a way, the jittery camerawork is the equivalent of Suzanne Collins' occasionally clunky prose, which cancels it out as a deal-breaker for the movie, which has the benefit of the book's dark, intense relentless narrative momentum. It's a damn easy movie to get caught up in. Damn, damn easy. And that's a blockbuster's job. I can nitpick the camerawork and the vagaries of book-to-film adaptation all the livelong day, but the most important thing about The Hunger Games is, it's the kind of movie whose strengths inspire a great big I-don't-give-a-fuck about its weaknesses. And, much like at the top where I compared Justin Bieber to Paul McCartney, allow me an additional sacrilege: The Hunger Games inspires a similar level of I'm-caught-up-in-it-so-fuck-the-parts-that-don't-work as Star Wars. By which I mean the real Star Wars, the one from the 70s.
Now, there's no way The Hunger Games can have the same cultural impact as Star Wars, which literally reinvented the movie industry almost singlehandedly. But if the kids who are the same age now as the kids were who made Star Wars into the institution is today grow up venerating The Hunger Games movie equivalently to Star Wars, it's not that they're assholes, or they don't get it (to reference an earlier movie featuring the actor who played Peeta, the kids are all right.) It's a legit comparison, speaking strictly as cinema.
All inflammatory nerd provocations aside though, here's to Jennifer Lawrence, movie star, who'll keep The Girl On Fire burning forevermore. May the rest of the movies in the series work as well as pop cinema as the first.