Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Hunger Games (2012)

Apparently, somebody convinced Suzanne Collins that the narrative of The Hunger Games, her teeny-bopper dystopian novel, needed some "fixing" for the film version of the book.  So Collins, whose millions of avid readers turned out for the opening of The Hunger Games (2012) last weekend, tinkered with the story to explain why the "game maker" -- the fellow charged with making the gladiatorial Hunger Games of a future, Fascist America entertaining and instructive for the survivors of a failed rebellion -- would change the games' rules of engagement on the fly.  And she destroyed the focus that was crucial to the success of her novel.

Why Collins would agree to fix something that wasn't broken is a mystery to me.  I'm guessing some of the money men and women behind the film were too dull to understand the overarching importance of young love, star-crossed lovers and love triangles to Collins' readers.  That a cynical game maker would play up the love angle for a sappy and spoiled audience and then sadistically pull the rug out from under the lovers didn't require any explanation at all.  Neither did the fact that the idea of the lovers committing suicide -- the ultimate symbol of  rebellion against a dystopia -- would panic the game maker. 

Certainly, there is no reason why a film should conform slavishly to the novel it's based on.  The novel is one thing and the film quite another.  But these are not trivial changes.  They go beyond "tweaks." They are irritating shifts in the narrative that complicate rather than clarify the story.  They distort the story's point of view and diminish the story's heroine, young Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence.

And Jennifer Lawrence is exactly what The Hunger Games (2012) has going for it. She is immensely likable; someone an audience can care about.  She moves well, and her face is large enough and smooth enough for the camera to linger on, to turn into the kind of landscape that's missing from most of the film.  Simply put, The Hunger Games doesn't need a single scene that doesn't have Jennifer Lawrence in it.


Jennifer Lawrence, The Hunger Games (2012)

If anybody deserves a poison berry for the The Hunger Games (2012), it's Gary Ross. His direction was even worse than the script.  He never found the right mix of action and contemplation to make his film work.  Ross never catches the power of nature, violence and unreason that drives the book.  What master made the lash, Yeats asked.

Whence had they come,
The hand and lash that beat down frigid Rome?

Gary Ross doesn't have a clue.

It's hard to get from a first-person novel to a third-person film. That may explain why the producers of The Hunger Games (2012) ended up with a second-rate director. Maybe the good directors shied away from the script.  What Katniss is thinking dominates the book, and, when you take that away, an enormous weight is placed on Lawrence's delivery and body language to communicate what's going on in her mind.  In the novel, Katniss Everdeen makes a dangerous passage from a young girl to a woman, from a huntress to a warrior, and, at the end, back to a teenage girl. If The Hunger Games team had pulled that off, they would have had a great movie. All of that teenage energy, confusion and drama, dropped into the middle of gladiatorial training and combat. My god! 

It turns out, of course, that a PG-13 rating was more important.  The bad news is the team planning the sequel may be just as inept.  The producers couldn't get Tony Scott, whose Man On Fire (2004) had exactly what The Hunger Games films so badly need.  The buzz is they'll soon sign music video director Francis Lawrence who made I Am Legend (2007), a boring remake of The Omega Man (1971).  The one ray of hope is that someone on the project has signaled by dumping Ross that they think there is more at stake here than a massive boxoffice that's already a dead hog cinch.  There are moments in popular culture when great myths finally crystalize.  Maybe somebody understands that The Hunger Games novels and films could be that kind of moment.  It's a damn shame if they're not holding out for a director and writers who are equal to the task.


Quinn the Eskimo said...

Well, i'm intrigued now.

Probably going to end up reading, and watching, both this one... and Battle Royale. Apparently, its film version left the carnage a bit more raw, and it's now touring North America, so.... perhaps worth viewing both.

You can also then rate them on the "In Need Of Doctoring" scale.

Billy Glad said...

I'm going to go back into this piece now and then over the next week or so. The books embody some interesting themes. Raw v. Cooked, Nature v. Civilization, Altruism v. Selfishness, and are clearly intended to invoke the decline and fall of the Roman Empire.

Quinn the Eskimo said...

Slight tangent, but is there another Empire - other than the Roman - which the U.S. has been more like? I always hated the Romans, and the U.S. never seemed to match it very well.

Miguelitoh2o said...

As Quinn said, I too am now intrigued, and feel unschooled. Dare I say that I've never read a Suzanne Collins novel? I suppose so.

Billy Glad said...

I'm not surprised, since The Hunger Games trilogy is, apparently, a step up for Collins from the 4th to 6th grade audience she previously wrote for. Gregor this and Gregor that. I understand Rowling is doing an adult book, hoping to cash in on an aging Harry Potter audience. So maybe the strategy is to follow your readership into adulthood, becoming a more mature writer on the way. If I didn't have a younger reader in the family, I doubt I would have read Collins' trilogy. Collins has worked hard I think to reference the decadence of Rome, and the Katniss character is complex enough to satisfy me. Collins has obviously read a lot and let her reading shade her own work in ways I like. Satisfying to watch a pawn in the game fight her way to the top, a symbol of the revolution become a real revolutionary.

Miguelitoh2o said...

Well I read the trilogy, and I am a fan of the book. The description of Panem as a government totally at odds with the welfare of 12/13ths of the population does seem to be a fairly apt metaphor for what our current political reality is, so I can understand why you place the weight on the film and it's direction that you do. I'm going to try to catch the movie this week, as it's in town now.