SABOTAGE: THE HUNGER GAMES
At this point, you must be wondering why I am babbling about Peter Jackson’s pictures and what the connection between The Lord of the Ring and THE HUNGER GAMES could possibly be. Well, I kind of wished I were still fourteen years old when I saw it last Tuesday.
Believe me when I say that I don’t mean this as an insult as I know that they are girls and boys out there who are much older than fourteen and who adore The Hunger Games beyond reason anyway. To those of you, I want to address this message: I understand. I even envy you. I wish I could love this film as you do. I wish I could join you in your enthusiastic praise of it. Most of all, I wish I could allow myself to be a hardcore Peeta fan like I used to be a Frodo one. Because yes I have found Peeta unbelievably cute and touching and God knows I would love to be fourteen again so I could plaster his face all over my bedroom but I can’t. Not because I would be ashamed to do it but rather because my crush on Peeta is not enough to make me overlook the flaws of The Hunger Games. Someone has to be the party breaker and I guess it is going to have to be me. It is my job to honestly and objectively tell it like it is and that is what I am going to do. Just keep in mind while you read this review that I don’t condemn your shipping. Do it an extra more on my behalf would you do?
My esteemed colleagues must be thinking that I have gone soft making such a demand but they can rest assure that I have not. Nevertheless, it would be hypocritical of me to not admit that it is almost natural to react this way to The Hunger Games and I would even say that it is a part of the experience of watching this film.
As a matter of fact, The Hunger Games was clearly adapted on the big screen because it had the inherent elements to produce such a chained reaction. It was made because it would undoubtedly get a huge following. The Hunger Games is a blockbuster, a franchise and there is nothing wrong with this concept. The big promotional campaign that has accompanied its release did make me want to see it and furthermore succeeded in making me want to like it and to join the army of its fervent worshippers. I am a sucker for pop culture phenomenon and I would have gladly let myself be swept away by The Hunger Games mania. That is if the film was good. Unfortunately, I felt that the director, writers and producers were so certain that they had a hit in their hands that they got lazy.
They just want a good show, that’s all they want - Gale.
The adaptation of the first book of Suzanne Collins’ trilogy, Hunger Games promised a lot and looked like it could deliver. On the paper, everything sounded appealing and reassuring for the fans of the literary best-seller but also for those of us who had not read it but were not against a good entertaining new saga to help us forget these dreadful years under the stranglehold of the awfully painful Twilight.
With Collins having supervised herself the screenplay by well-established Hollywood writer Gary Ross who also doubled as the director – reprising a position that brought him critical praises for Pleasantville (1998)and Seabiscuit (2003) -, it did not seem possible that it would be their fault if anything went wrong with Hunger Games. As it is often the case with movies depicting teenage lead characters, disappointment is rather expected from the performances of the young actors entrusted with these roles. Hollywood is populated by starlets and good-looking kids that it is trying to sell us as the next Leonardo DiCaprio or Cate Blanchett which they prove to not be most of the time. So when I discovered that Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson were the ones carrying this monster money-maker (it engrossed 152.5 millions dollars in its opening weekend in North America), I thought they would be the let-down.
I had only seen Jennifer Lawrence in X-Men: First Class and although she did not irritate me, I did not find her especially outstanding and I had remained suspicious of her because of the massive press coverage she had been the object of, despite the good reviews she received for Winter’s Bone (2011). As for Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson, I did not consider the first as nothing more than the boyfriend of Miley Cyrus and little brother of Chris Hemsworth while I had no idea who the last one was. I feel like apologising for my defiance and my ignorance because it has to be stated that these three young persons did a fine job in their respective portrayals of Katniss Everdeen, Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark. Each of them proved that they can act and not pose. I do believe Jennifer Lawrence is going to be durably around, not because of her looks but because she has range. Despite his little on-screen appearance, Liam Hemsworth used his time well and made understand and want to know more about his character. Finally, Josh Hutcherson has leading man potential, somehow reminding me of a young Tom Cruise – that they share the same height not being the reason why -, with a touch of fragility. I was therefore pleasantly surprised by the performances of this young ensemble (including the rest of their equally juvenile co-stars) as well as the ones of the grown-up actors.
But, it was the least to expect from veterans Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman) and popular Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane) and Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket). Quality work was what was expected of Ross too; little did I imagine he would one-handily sabotage The Hunger Games with his directing and scenaristic choices.
Everyone loves a good underdog - Seneca Crane.
I have confessed this so many times on this blog that I am starting to feel seriously uncultivated but here I go again: I have not read the book so my critics will only be aiming at the film itself. Furthermore, I will not get into the debate surrounding the accusation of plagiarism concerning the similarities between The Hunger Games and Battle Royale.
My best friend listed them to me and if it hasn’t been such a long time since I last watched the Japanese movie then perhaps I would be fuming about the lack of originality of Hunger Games too. Due to the fact that I don’t remember it and that I think that this souvenir of this polemic is not what spoiled my viewing of the American film, I will let others do this comparative analyse. Don’t I always say – paraphrasing French novelist André Gide - : everything has be said, all is left to do is retelling… well, I might add.
Unfortunately, Ross did not tell his story well. There is in his The Hunger Games an absolute absence contextualisation, characters development and exploration of interesting narrative angles. Completely estranged from the world in which the fates of Katniss and Peeta will be sealed, I needed to be briefly introduced to it. I needed a few basic informations and explanations: what is Panem? A city? A nation? Where is it located? Against what the so-called twelve districts rebelled? Why are they famished? Maybe I did not pay enough attention but I did not get answers to these simple interrogations which led me to remain an outsider to this world. I did not expect a written introduction à la Star Wars but a bit of consideration for those who have not read the book was required. This lack of contextualisation had me reduced the supposed rich and imaginative universe created by Collins as a very schematic, Manichean one: rich people dress in eccentric and colourful designer clothes eat like pigs while poor people wearing grey and used ones see their children being taken away from them to play gladiators in an annual contest broadcast on T.V. Food and blood, are these really the defining elements of Collins’ vision?
Just like Ross has thought judicious to not inform us with some vital data, he has neglected important characters and storytelling dynamics of The Hunger Games. Visibly obsessed with the desire to constantly make the spectator see how special Katniss is that he ended up sabotaging his heroine aura. By the end of the film, I had overdosed on Katniss awesomeness. To borrow a quote from the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer: “she’s hot, she’s tepid, she’s all temperature Katniss”, gotcha! Well, actually, not really. Despite the avalanche and succession of scenes to prove Katniss worth, I simply still did not understand when the credits rolled in why she deserved to win the games instead of Peeta or another. Aside from the fact that she is drop-dead gorgeous, brave and has skills, what made her so uncommon that literally all the other contestants either went out of their way to help her or to eliminate her? Katniss claimed to Lenny Kravitz that people don’t like her and yet, they are willing to sacrifice themselves to assure her victory. “Why” is the interrogation I cannot shake off. She appeared to me as a self-centred and rude tomboy, certainly not as the hunting Diana she is supposed to be. Did Peeta and the eleven years old Rue not prove themselves to be as brave if not more than her as they faced their destinies knowing that they don’t have as much strength and popularity than Katniss?
I think Ross should have turned the spotlight considerably more on the rest of the characters instead on incessantly focusing on Katniss. That she is the undeniable central protagonist of The Hunger Games should have not meant that she could not share her thunder.
I just keep wishing I could think of a way to show them that they don’t own me. If I’m gonna die, I wanna still be me - Peeta.
Depriving the spectators from the chance to pick up their true favourite character by unrelentingly pushing Katniss before our eyes is not the only questionable narrative choice Ross has made.
What should have been a multidimensional, captivating and energetic adventure turned out to be a monotonous and uneventful one. The expected issue of the game that is the triumph of Katniss is not a problem in the sense that everyone knows that she is going to survive otherwise there would not be two other films/books. However, what bothered me was that her victory was too easily obtained.
Not for one single moment did I feel that she was in danger. The road was marked out for her, all she had to do was to wait for the other contestants to kill each other or provide her with their resourcefulness to allow her to serenely go on. As one of the friend with whom I watched the Lord of the Ring trilogy put it, “I have rarely seen a character who had been confronted with so little real threatening ambushes”. After being built up for almost one hour about the amusingness of the spectacle I will get to witness in the upcoming Hunger Game, I was left wondering if the ratings for this season had been the lowest in the history of the television of Panem. To generate an excitement that he had not been able to produce through his scenario, Ross relied on his directing to give us a sense of the emergency that Katniss felt during the game as he said it during an interview. Therefore, his use of the shaky camera would “had a lot to do with the urgency of what’s going on and to reflect protagonist Katniss Everdeen’s point of view” (source IMDB). Perhaps this subterfuge functioned on some of the viewers but it only managed to give me a headache. I genuinely felt dizzy only a few minutes after the beginning of the film and I had at multiple times to close my eyes to be able to properly see again. What Ross justifies as an artistic decision looks to me more like a visual trick to make up for the lack of ingeniosity in the writing of the screenplay.
Making up for the monotonous trek of Katniss during the game itself could have been done by developing aspects of the stories in parallel. During the first part of the film, Woody Harrelson’s character insisted on the importance of the sponsors. It would have been interesting to actually see them à l’oeuvre but all we got is a one minute scene during which he asked a couple of persons for they help. We heard nothing of the dealings but it went apparently extremely well as Katniss immediately received a potion to heal her burning wound. Just like I had been shut out from the universe of Panem, I felt shut out of the game. As a spectator, I should had been given the privilege to be let in the secrets of its machinery but I was denied this access, being nothing more than another standard and dumb viewer of the hunger game. Watching the scenes between Seneca and President Snow I felt like a modern Tantalus: I was tempted with an exciting political and social back story but never truly got a proper taste of it. Leaving the theatre, I was still hungry.
With this first instalment of The Hunger Games, I cannot help but to think that Ross did exactly what he was supposed to denounce: he tried to force the viewer to like and root for an individual, using visual and narrative devices to do so. It is the omnipresence of Katniss and the brainwashing reaffirmation by the other characters of her uniqueness that drove some of us to think that she is indeed precious, not her personality and achievements. In the end, Katniss is a not a heroine, but a marketing product. Ross failed in blinding me, like President Snow and Seneca failed in controlling the games. It is a pity that he did not succeed to make out of The Hunger Games an interesting entity on its own not a two hours and twenty minutes long introduction to an upcoming second film as the true game clearly starts at the end of this one.