Tuesday, May 1, 2012

"The Hunger Games" is a great mix of action and emotion

Year: 2012
Directed by: Gary Ross
Written by: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, Billy Ray
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Wes Bentley, Stanley Tucci

Arguably the most anticipated movie of 2012 has finally hit the screens on March 23rd. The Hunger Games, the first installment in Suzanne Collins' best-selling book trilogy came to life with the help of Gary Ross' masterful direction and the strong, emotionally truthful performances from the whole cast, Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson in particular. As someone who loves the books, I had many worries and hopes for this adaptation, but every doubt I had vanished with the first scene. The movie managed much more than to simply stay faithful to the book (with the few changes that worked just fine).  It is visually captivating and gritty, it pulls you in and might make you hold your breath more than once.

This dystopian story takes place in the country of Panem, where as a punishment and a reminder of the past rebellion by the Districts against the Capitol, the annual Hunger Games were started. Two tributes - a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18 - are chosen at the Reaping by lottery from each of the twelve Districts. The sixteen-year-old protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, volunteers to go instead of her twelve-year-old sister, whose name was drawn during the Reaping.

Casting Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss was a great decision - it was evident already from the trailers. She doesn't disappoint for a second and brings incredible strength and intensity to Katniss. There is something especially visceral about her performance and it comes from a true place. The Reaping scene is one of the more powerful in the movie, as Katniss screams "I volunteer!" to take part in the Games instead of her sister. It is followed by the equally emotionally charged moment, where the people of District 12 salute Katniss in a silent acknowledgment of her sacrifice. "Emotionally charged" can be easily applied to the whole movie - it never lets you catch a break, just like the book.

As Katniss is about to enter the arena, she is shaking - an incredibly realistic touch that makes her very believable and human, and brings her so much closer to the audience. Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark, the second tribute from District 12, is another great casting decision, and it's especially showing in the cave scene with Katniss. Other very memorable characters are Woody Harrelson as Haymitch, the mentor for Katniss and Peeta, and the stylist Cinna, played by Lenny Kravitz. Haymitch brings the most of the comic relief to this not-so-funny story, and Cinna seems to be about the only authentic human being in the Capitol. While Donald Sutherland as President Snow has a very limited screen time (the movie's addition, we never see him in the book), he manages to convey a very distinct sense of a quiet, not-well-defined menace, all the more unnerving for its uncertainty. The movie made another interesting addition to the story - we actually see the control room, where the environment of the arena is being manipulated. This only strengthens the sense of the tributes just being easily disposable pieces in a game.

The minimal use of soundtrack turned out to be very effective. After all, silence is sometimes more powerful, as is obvious in the Reaping scene. The "shaking camera" style of cinematography only enhanced the experience, making the action look more urgent and realistic - the combination this story required. The editing was very effective as well, especially in the opening scenes showing the life in District 12, and later on, during the Games, in the sequence where Katniss is hallucinating after being stabbed by the tracker jackers.

The book gets pretty graphic at times and initially, I had a bit of a problem with the PG-13 rating, thinking it would make the movie too "tidy". However, there is no shying away from the violence, even if sometimes it's implied rather than shown. For instance, the fighting at the Cornucopia at the very beginning of the Games is handled very discreetly, if you will. It is supposed to be a bloodbath, and while you don't exactly get one in the movie, there is a very good sense of precisely that going on - again, the "shaking" camera helps immensely.

The Hunger Games in the movie are an ultimate reality show with a touch of gladiator fights - an interesting reflection on our age of obsession with the reality TV. There are many layers to be uncovered and interpreted, and it's great that The Hunger Games seemed to find that balanced combination of action and meaning, only securing its success. Part of that success, it seems to me, is also that it somehow resonates with our ever-changing times.

May the odds be ever in your favor.

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