'Hunger Games' Served Bland
Kat Murphy, Special to MSN Movies
What if some red-blooded filmmaker had brought real passion and style to the adaptation of Suzanne Collins' megahit "The Hunger Games"? Then this hero's journey -- starring a distaff warrior, for a change! -- might have taken fire and captured our imaginations, signifying something beyond an industry jackpot. What we've got instead is a glossy entertainment sufficiently bland and sanitized that it will offend no one. Director Gary Ross ("Pleasantville," "Seabiscuit") slavishly illustrates Collins' YA novel (she co-wrote the screenplay), turning the "pages" with such single-minded rapidity it's like cinematic speed-reading. ADD auds won't mind that there's no time to get to know anybody, or watch a relationship unfold, or ride the dramatic rise and swell of a compelling narrative.
And Collins' tale does possess a terrible urgency and intensity, largely because we live through it from the POV of a tough, compassionate teenager, wonderfully named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). Ages ago, the 12 Districts of her North America (now called Panem) mounted a rebellion, cruelly put down by the Capitol. Now, to commemorate that war and caution the oppressed citizenry against new uprisings, a boy and a girl, age 12-18, are chosen from each District every year to participate in the gladiatorial Hunger Games. These children, called Tributes, are forced to kill one another off in elaborately designed arenas until only one remains, every bloody, dehumanizing moment televised for the pleasure of Panem's decadent-to-the-max populace. This year, Katniss, a topnotch bow hunter from District 12, volunteers as Tribute when her little sister's name is drawn. She's teamed with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker's son with few fighting skills and a whole lotta puppy-love.
Katniss' POV drives "Games." The camera watches her watching a good deal of the time -- when it's not careening around like a lunatic grasshopper. Her considering, mostly stoic, gaze anchors us in a tour-bus story that rarely stops rolling, from coal town to glittering metropolis to the arena's green woods. There's no doubt that Jennifer Lawrence rewards attention; her face has the clarity of a gutsy young angel. She's gracefully athletic, stunning in flaming finery. But the constant close-ups begin to verge on metronomic. Blame it on Panem's ubiquitous cameras; maybe their hungry eyes make Katniss go blank. Still, we yearn for the fierce immediacy Lawrence brought to "Winter's Bone."
If Katniss' grave countenance is touchstone, other characters are like pop-up billboards along the amusement park ride. Homeboy Gale (Liam Hemsworth) gets one scene to shorthand character and connection to Katniss. Past Hunger Games winner Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) does drunk to a repugnant fare-thee-well -- no backstory for his alcoholism -- then gets sober overnight to mentor the District 12 team. As Cinna, Katniss' Panem stylist, Lenny Kravitz is instantly our girl's BFF. Elizabeth Banks' Effie Trinket, lobotomized Games hostess, exists only as a clown face, layers deep in outré cosmetics. Panem itself flashes by -- Roman and Third Reich architectural excess -- and multiple crowd scenes telegraph decadence through silly, over-the-top couture and coiffures, a staple of popcorn sci-fi. (Some reviewers see hints in Panem's Games of contemporary reality shows, our own "bread and circuses" competitions, but there's no real satirical bite here, despite Stanley Tucci's expert turn as a blue-haired show-biz vampire.)
Because the movie is so compressed and accelerated, nothing lasts long enough to touch -- or wound -- us deeply. Despite the novel's lean, mean subject matter, real risk rarely makes itself felt in Ross' pretty, well-fed fiction. Aiming for a PG-13 rating, to ensure access for kid fans, meant whitewashing how dark a tale this really is, full of grinding poverty and starvation in the Districts and the brutal, meaningless death of hapless children staged as entertainment. Happily, Donald Sutherland, as Panem's president, provides a splash of cold acid; silky with menace, he resists euphemism.
Ross' camera pans through Katniss' coal-mining district, serving up depressing snapshots (à la Dorothea Lange) of wretched life in Panem's Appalachia. But when we hook up with Katniss, out in lush green woods hunting a deer with bow and arrow, she looks like a glowing advert for Nature magazine. Point is, after those fleeting hardscrabble images, no further sign of want or hunger shows up in "The Hunger Games." Similarly, carnage in the arena is shot by a camera that's insanely unmoored, whipping here and there, ginning up inchoate kinesis, blurring the violence so thoroughly it might as well not have happened. This is a movie about bad things that does not wish to see, or show, those bad things.
Suffering requires duration, especially in the Hunger Games arena. The novel had the luxury of time: time for a terrible search for water, for night terrors, for awful wounds that blur the mind with pain, for grief and camaraderie. Peeta's potential demise isn't a matter of minutes, prettily resolved in a cozy cave. It's dirty and desperate, and when those parachutes bearing meds or food float down, courtesy of Panem sponsors, they're last-minute, unforeseen gifts from god -- not just handy airlifted snacks. What happens in the arena gives Katniss screaming nightmares for the rest of her life; in this "Hunger Games," partly because ugliness has been largely suppressed, fear of maiming or death is muted. Even the climactic heart-stopping horror that concludes the games has been cleaned up for easy consumption.
As one who devoured the book with what-happens-next? breathlessness, I dreamed of a movie to match -- or even exceed -- the novel's pleasures. But that would have required an artist in her own right -- say a Kathryn Bigelow -- gifted with the cojones to see the story new, as vivid as the color of blood, as beautiful as a mockingjay's song.
Kat Murphy once had the pleasure of writing a book-length comparison of Howard Hawks and Ernest Hemingway, friends and fellow travelers in fiction (Quentin Tarantino reckoned it "cool."). She's reviewed movies in newspapers and magazines (Movietone News, Film Comment, Village Voice, Film West, Steadycam) and on websites (Reel.com, Cinemania.com, Amazon.com). Her writing has been included in book anthologies ("Women and Cinema," "The Myth of the West," "Best American Movie Writing 1998"). During her checkered career, Kat's done everything from writing speeches for Bill Clinton, Jack Lemmon, Harrison Ford, et al., to researching torture-porn movies for a law firm. She adores Bigelow, Breillat and Denis -- and arguing about movies in any and all arenas.