Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Hunger Games

So last night we went to see The Hunger Games, which I thought met or exceeded all reasonable expectations. I thought it was well-structured, well-acted, and very true to the feel of the book. It was also consistently interesting to watch, even though I, and presumably most of the people in the theatre, knew basically how it was going to play out. There are several built-in challenges to making a book as stylized and hard-edged and violent as this one into a movie. You can the tone wrong, especially when you have a book that walks such a narrow line between realism and satire, and between sentimentality and brutality. You can, in cutting out as much of the action and the interior motivations of the characters as you need to pare a book down to a movie, disrupt the flow of the narrative or put too much emphasis on one thing at the expense of another. And then there's the daunting question of how to create scenes which are adequate to the violence of the book without alienating or grossing out the millions of twelve-to-fourteen year-olds who constitute the core target audience. Not to mention getting their parents up in arms (so to speak) or getting an R rating from the MPAA. The Hunger Games succeeds in handling all of these challenges effectively and with assurance.

If there was a weak character in the movie, it would be Elizabeth Banks in the role of Effie Trinket, who has little to do other than to mince about in outrageous costumes making inane remarks. But that's basically what Effie did in the book as well. Everyone else was solid. I've read criticism of Woody Harrelson's performance, but was surprised to find him totally believable as Haymitch. Stanley Tucci takes a very minor role in the book and takes over the screen every moment he's on it. Jennifer Lawrence plays Katniss with a tightly controlled intensity that was pitch-perfect. It was one of the most satisfying movies I've seen in a very long time.

The one thing that bothered me after I had time to think about it a situation that occurs toward the end of the movie when two of the tributes who have been in the arena all the time, like Katniss, make reference to something which we as the audience know to have happened but which there is no plausible way they could have known about, unless they were watching the games on state TV instead of participating in them. But it's a logical flaw, and a minor one at that, and it does not to my mind reduce the dramatic effectiveness of the scene in question or the movie as a whole.

Then this morning I read David Denby's characteristically stodgy and humorless critique in the New Yorker in which, after bestowing such compliments as he could bring himself to make, he goes on an extended slash job in which he labels the movie "pretty much a disaster—disjointed, muffled, and even, at times, boring." He rips on the camerawork, waxes indignant about the incoherent action sequences, and complains that "the movie looks less like a fight to the death than like a scavenger hunt. Katniss is always finding something useful in a tree or lying on the ground." I wonder how many instances add up, in Denby's mind, to an "always." Denby ends his review with "The result is an evasive, baffling, unexciting production—anything but a classic."

I don't know what movie he was watching. Or why the New Yorker would choose the buttoned-up, pedantic Denby to review this particular movie, instead of co-reviewer Anthony Lane, who if he were of a mind to complain would at least do it with perceptiveness and humor.

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