Friday, March 23, 2012

Lionsgate Is The Capitol: Why 'The Hunger Games' Book Is Better...

Taking a story like The Hunger Games-- not even considering how beloved it is-- and adapting it from a tumultuous novel that lives and dies on its readers connecting to Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire, victor of the 74th Annual Hunger Games, savior of District 12, and heroine of this tale, is a feat befitting only the best and brightest in Hollywood. And yet, allowing for that-- allowing anyone to come in and tweak this tale-- seems to me no different than how the Capitol themselves were controlling the story they wanted their districts and their people to witness play out in that arena during the actual Games. Elements and even people were omitted in order to tell the story they thought most appealing-- to those who were already emotionally invested but also for their own financial and status gains; visuals controlled to one specific look; relationship dynamics tweaked to uncomplicate third party identification and sympathizing with its heroes. Film adaptations of any kind take often epic stories and strip them of much of their uniqueness and imagination, reducing them (for time and physical limitations) to something that can be mass consumed. We've always accepted it-- hell, thrived on it-- for the chance to see how beloved literature characters can pop off the page, but considering that kind of "forcing the narrative" is exactly what the Capitol should have been criticized for within this story, the meta similarities with its own adaptation were just a bit eerie.

It's poetic-- but upsettingly so-- that a big film studio like Lionsgate would be behind a story like
The Hunger Games. In a parallel to 1984 that didn't seem entirely intentional, this film seemed to thrive whenever in the presence of the Capitol. Perhaps in order to keep the rating down, perhaps in order to appeal to cautious parents who worried about depictions of poverty and violence being too much for their precious children to handle, but Lionsgate and Gary Ross' telling was very "pretty." It is one thing for everything in the Capitol to have a sheen or a gloss over it; the Capitol is a fantastical world that kids like Katniss can't even bear to dream up. But it was harder to get that feeling when Katniss' world just looked like the lowest socio-economic areas we have today. Her eyes lit up with pure joy when Gale gave her a (presumably stale) roll, but we barely got to see much of District 12, and what little we did see did not scream dystopia by any means. The devil's in the details in a story as rich and intricate as The Hunger Games, and when the details are clean, though a bit unkempt, faces and clothing, things don't seem all that terrible. The dilution may have been intentional-- in order to infuse a political statement that our own society could not be that far away from something like The Hunger Games, but if that was the case it got a bit lost in the spectacle that followed-- the spectacle that seemed to celebrate the Capitol, even in all of its ridiculousness, as only the wealthy, image-conscious Hollywood could.

The Hunger Games was absolutely emotionally powerful and really just the jumping off point for Katniss' epic story, but
unfortunately, partially due to time constraints, the film adaptation forgoes a lot of the elements that made her and her fight to stay alive so unique, reducing Katniss' tale to staying alive simply to stay alive. For one thing, the film never explicitly explained that if you go into the Games and emerge victorious, you and your family gets set up for life, and are therefore immune from future Reapings. Watching Katniss push her way to the front to take her sister's place was a noble moment in the film, but without that added piece of pivotal information, a sense that it's only a temporary fix. Prim would still have about six more years of eligibility. This film adaptation was clearly made as a supplement to the books-- to satisfy already existing fans. Audiences going in without the background knowledge and insight from Suzanne Collins' novels are getting a rough sketch outline of the complexity of this world-- and this girl-- at best. And that feels like they'd be getting cheated.

Admittedly, it may be hard to find a viewer who hasn't already read the books these days. Even if you weren't interested when they were initially released (I know I balked from the Young Adult label at first), chances are when the movie started getting buzz, you may have checked them out to see what all the fuss was about. Regardless, you shouldn't have had to. The film should stand on its own and tell the complete story. And in a way, it does. It just tells a less vibrant one, which is kind of ironic, considering how impossibly pretty the scenery of the Games is when imagined by Ross.

Additionally, many of the characters are compartmentalized. It's one thing to have to cut sequences or moments and not get to know them as well as we could-- and did-- in the books. It's another to string all of their importance together to "wrap up" their storylines quickly, neatly, and efficiently. That is the antithesis of the savageness of the Games and was quite disorienting when noticed. It clearly occurred with Cinna, who in this telling seemed like a gentle, kind, perhaps slightly romanticized man, but who barely said a few words to Katniss before we were supposed to accept that they had connected. And Haymitch, like his drinks in the film, was watered down. So much about a character like Haymitch can be said with just a look at him-- the whole him, with the unstable swaying and inability to meet your eye at first. But he was softened, made more palatable, downplayed on his drunkness in order to not dive into the very dark, but very real issues of life post-Games. Even Elizabeth Banks, who was absolutely phenomenal and the stand-out performance here, as Effie, was reduced to comedic effect, zingy one-liners. But it was most troublesome with young Rue, whose relationship to Katniss in the Games couldn't help but have your mind wandering to Prim back home-- how Prim was reacting watching her sister take someone else under her wing, how Prim would have reacted in the Games without someone like Katniss to take her under her wing (or if one of the other Tributes would have and who). But all of her scenes were strung together, in one little "short Rue film" within the film, which diminished that bond and made it feel like just another plot point to "get through." They didn't even release a cannon when Rue died! Though it was undoubtedly omitted to allow Katniss her quiet, lonely grief, punctuating her flowered good-bye with the sonic boom would have not only brought it all home but simply stayed continuous for the most basic elements of the Games.

Rue wasn't the only Tribute who we didn't hear a cannon ring for or see a face flash in the night's sky. As a film, The Hunger Games didn't seem to care about the structure of the Games at all, only Katniss' "learn as you go" way to survive them. It is Katniss' story, and being alone with her in the woods, watching from her vantage point, solidified that. But she used those faces in the night to mark time-- passed and left, depending on how many more had to drop before they could crown a victor. And the audience wasn't glued to her; the film pulled away numerous times to show what was going on behind-the-scenes-- from the Capitol creating fire to get Katniss closer to the other Tributes, to Haymitch rallying and convincing sponsors to help his Tributes, to President Snow and Seneca's discussions of story arc. So to let the details of the Games go just felt sloppy, as if the film couldn't decide what it wanted its POV to be.

There was so much buzz, and yes blow-up, after the initial castings were announced. Diehard fans of the novels feared the guys were mismatched in their roles, yet it is Jennifer Lawrence who can really make or break this franchise. It's a lot of weight to put on a young actor's shoulders, just as a lot of weight was put on her character's shoulders stepping in for her younger sister and heading to the Games. The parallels between the women, though admittedly in worlds that could not be more distant, should have automatically created a fusion between the two-- Lawrence's real life overwhelmed sensation bleeding over into her portrayal. But where Lawrence is sweet, humble, and lately it seems a bit self-deprecating, Katniss is humble, too, but also strong and somewhat calculating. In the novels she begins to manipulate the system within the Games. She hears Haymitch's voice in her head telling her that to be liked is to be saved, and she plays on that-- she plays to the cameras and the sponsors watching. Finding and mending Peeta is not out of love or some deep common bond in the beginning; it is out of the recognition that strength is in numbers; that an alliance can buy you more time (and with the Capitol's "twist," life). In the books, you were in Katniss' head. You understood her motivations, her movements, her manipulations, even if at times you felt sorry for Peeta because of them. She certainly used him, but in the end it got them both ahead, so he'd have to forgive that, right? But it wasn't love. If it was love she would have put him out of his misery when she saw how badly he was wounded before knowing the Capitol would provide some aid.

Lawrence was good in The Hunger Games, but she was not truly great until the very end of the film-- when Katniss had returned home, with Peeta at her side, and she took in the enormity of the situation she created, by ultimately, getting into bed with the Capitol. Her unhappy, uncertain smile on stage set up the emotional conflict I wish we had seen from her back in that cave, when she decided to really play the game. She spent most of the film instead, though, with a stoic, somewhat gentle poker face. As she told her mother not to cry when she was taken away to train, she seemed to take the same advice: don't let them see what you're thinking; don't let them see you sweat. It worked for a young woman who didn't want to appear weak in front of peers who were sizing each other up like trophies, but it didn't always work for the audience trying to connect with this central heroine. More often than not you couldn't see the wheels turning behind her eyes.
You couldn't see her mental game-- and her mental game was everything. You could say this made her more likeable because it made her less conflicted, but wasn't her great struggle what so many connected with in the first place? I know it was for me. And really we don't see implications of how she used Peeta affecting her until the final moments of the film, which perfectly sets up a strong arc for her in the second installment but doesn't do much for this opener.

Peeta famously tells Katniss that if he's going to die, he doesn't want the Games to change him. He doesn't want to lose himself to the system. It is a poignant line in the book and perhaps even more so in the film since it is the first and only moment of true intimacy we get between the two characters. But it's poignant for other reasons, too: the Games will forever change the way the tributes are viewed and remembered-- by their Districts, their families, themselves. Just as this film adaptation will change the way this story is remembered by its fans. The world will be watching, indeed, but the world really should be reading.

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