The Most Dangerous Games, by Kyle Anderson
Author Suzanne Collins, an accomplished television writer with several children/young adult series credits to her name, is a bit of a genius. Clearly a fan of speculative science fiction, she took the dystopian future game show of The Running Man and coupled it with the age restriction of Logan’s Run and threw in a heaping helping of the teenaged brutality in Battle Royale, made a brave girl the main character, and aimed it at her core audience of Twihards and Potter-Lovers. Run all that through the Cuisinart of Fiction and you get her novel The Hunger Games, now a motion picture of the same name. I’ve never read this book, but I know plenty of people who did, people who are already excited for the movie and will go see it regardless of what I have to say here. I’m not the target audience, despite my predilection toward things both sci and fi, but having seen the film in a screening populated with both critics and fans, I’m certain the $100,000,000 movie will make a boatload. Whether it’s a “good” movie will be up to fans. There’s a lot I liked, and some notable things I did not.
For the uninitiated, of which I was one, The Hunger Games takes place in a future where the world (or country, I’m not sure really, nor does it matter) is divided into 12 districts, with each district a different class of people. For instance, the film’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) comes from District 12, a bleak mountain town full of coal miners. Some years ago, the twelve districts rose up against The Capitol and as punishment, every year one boy and one girl, aged 12-18, from each district are chosen through lottery to compete in the eponymous “Hunger Games,” a televised bloodsport where the poor kids must survive in a harsh landscape and kill each other off until there’s only one left. The Games are the biggest event of the whole year and the kids, known as “Tributes” are treated like celebrities, until they die of course. At the beginning of the film, it’s “The Reaping,” a none-too-cleverly named ritual by which the two names are drawn. This is the first year Katniss’ sister Primrose is eligible but, wouldn’t ya know it, she’s chosen. In order to save her young, weak sister, Katniss quickly volunteers to go in her stead. She and the male from District 12, a friendly but somewhat effete boy named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are taken by trail to The Capitol for training. On the train, they meet Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who is one of the only winners of the 73 Hunger Games to that point to come from District 12. He teaches the kids that it’s not simply how good they are with weapons (Katniss is amazing with a bow and arrow), it’s how likeable they are so they can get sponsors. They also have to contend with the teams from Districts 1 and 2, a higher class of people who spend years training for the Games and always volunteer. These are our bad guys.
There’s a lot of interesting things going on here, not the least of which is how the Games, like the Colosseum in Ancient Rome, are used as a distraction for the people as it gives them someone for whom to root. As the sinister President Snow (played by Donald Sutherland) explains, it’s easier to control people through hope than fear. We get short glimpses of Peacekeepers, who are basically jackbooted soldiers who work for the fascistic government, something that is omnipresent and behind everything. The film also explores the idea of instant celebrity, something with which nobody with a television in America today should be unfamiliar. The kids are taken from their poor, impoverished districts to The Capitol to get dolled up and paraded around for the rich people to see and to charm them. One interesting character is Cinna (played by rocker Lenny Kravitz) who is District 12’s official fashionista who dresses the kids for their various appearances and who becomes an ally to Katniss. The filmmakers do an excellent job of making the importance of the Games very evident. Also interesting are Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones’ characters of Caesar Flickerman and Claudius Templesmith, respectively (seriously, Ms. Collins, these character names are the dumbest) who are the commentators for the Games. Each contestant must also go on Caesar’s chat show to be as charming as possible to gain as much favor with the audience, specifically the rich ones, as possible.
The film was directed by Gary Ross, the four-time Oscar nominated screenwriter and director of Seabiscuit, who co-wrote the script for The Hunger Games with Collins and Billy Ray, a screenwriter whose rather dubious credits include Flightplan, Breach, Suspect Zero, and Shattered Glass, which he also directed. I’ve not read the books, but I assume they’re pretty large with lots of plot and environment elements which couldn’t possibly fit into a film. There’s a few sloppy storytelling devices such as having Tucci’s character pop in to deliver important explanations of things, and setting up a few things that don’t get paid off. The story sort of peters out toward the end and the third act has almost no tension, which is a shame. The “final showdown” with the most evil kid is not compelling or exciting. The film is 142 minutes, and I understand them wanting not to go too long, but so much time is spent on the events leading up to the Games and the first bits of it that they have to rush through the climax. I’m also aware that there are two more books, but the film just sort of ends in a weird place. The dialogue also is very melodramatic and cheesy at times, especially if delivered by some of the less experienced young cast.
I also wish to sit Ross and director of photography Tom Stern down and tell them about these things called “tripods” and “dollies” and “zoom lenses.” These are filmmaking devices which allow the camera to be still when shooting still scenes and move fluidly during other scenes. I know the new thing is a kind of veritae style of shooting action, and that generally doesn’t bother me, but the camera jostles around so much, especially at the beginning, that it was difficult for me to focus and eventually I became nauseous. Seriously, there was a point about a half hour into the movie when I contemplated leaving the free press screening, something I as a film critic find tantamount to texting or falling asleep. The camera work was THAT off-putting. There’s even a sequence where Katniss is having venom-induced hallucinations where they add even more jostles and unsteady camera things to show how out of sorts she was. A barf bag should have been given out. I understand a fair amount of movement during action, I’ve come to expect that in a post-Bourne Supremacy world, but even those were impossible to follow. The story involves kids killing other kids with sharp implements and, for a PG-13 movie, there does need to be some restrain shown. Ross’ solution is to keep put the camera in the hand of a palsy patient so we can only barely see what’s happening. The aforementioned final confrontation was particularly hard to decipher, thus relieving any tension that might have been had.
Script and directing issues aside, I think I enjoyed The Hunger Games. I’m unsure as I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a film that made me physically ill before. I think the main reason for this is Jennifer Lawrence’s fantastic performance. She’s good looking, yes, but she’s incredibly compelling and conveys the character’s toughness and vulnerability with equal expertise. If they’d gotten a lesser actress, there’s no way I’d have been as engrossed as I was. The rest of the cast is pretty good, especially the adults who seem to get the gist of their characters. As I said, some of the younger players are just okay. Another reason is the production design and the detail in the weird future world. The costuming, sets, props, and scenery are all interesting and different enough to what we’ve seen in other such films so as to not seem like a pastiche. Some of the CGI is a little ropey, but it’s not distracting. Finally, the story itself is pretty fascinating. It sort of makes me want to read the books; something I’ve never said about anything ever. There’s such a rich world at work here and I feel like the movie only touches a small percentage of it. Again, I’m not the target audience and fans of the book will likely not nitpick the filmmaking problems the way I did, but it was certainly mostly enjoyable. I strongly urge people who get motion sickness like I do to take a Dramamine before going and if they make the next two books into movies, which I will probably want to see now, I hope they don’t hire Hud from Cloverfield to shoot it.