le plus loin le plus serré

le plus loin le plus serré
mourning art

in memoriam

"yet I tell you, from the sad knowledge of my older experience, that to every one of you a day will most likely come when sunshine, hope, presents and pleasure will be worth nothing to you in comparison with the unattainable gift of your mother's kiss." (Christina Rossetti, "Speaking Likenesses," 1873)

Thursday, March 29, 2012


I went to see the hunger games film tonight. I've had some issues about the adaptation, because I always have issues about adaptations of books I enjoy.  I am not an obsessive, rabid Hunger Games fan; I quite like the books, I find them fantastically useful for generating class discussion on all kinds of topics, I love the way Suzanne Collins ultimately depicts the costs and consequences of war.  But the series isn't dear to my heart in any particular fashion, so my level of investment is moderate - frankly, I'm more concerned with the effectiveness of the film in conveying the messages about power, violence, war, and spectacle.

The movie was, for me, strangely forgettable. I've been home from the theatre for about two hours, and already it's fading. Admittedly, I have a terrible memory for movies; unless I've seen it multiple times, or it really hits hard, I just do not retain films.

Some notes:
Though I still wish they'd cast a less-fair actor to play Katniss, I was satisfied with Jennifer Lawrence in the role. She's a very beautiful girl in an interesting way, and she's a good actor.  Oddly - and this didn't occur to me until just now - the amount of interacting she does is semi-limited; once in the arena, there's not a lot of dialogue for Katniss. It's all action shot after action shot, much grimacing and crying and moments of pensiveness. But when called upon, Lawrence pulls it out; good enough.

I didn't like the way they open the film; I think it should start with Katniss, and it should start in the woods. In my mind's eye, I think the way I'd have done it would be to open with a shot of Katniss hunting - bow drawn, possibly even aimed out at the audience - then the successful takedown of some animal. Alas, no one consulted me before they wrote the script.

District 12 looks just about right, though I realized that I've always imagined the Distric 12 scenes in my mind as if they were in black&white film - lots and lots of greys. The District scenes were filmed in an abandoned mill town in North Carolina, which strangely enough is up for sale; you can look at images of the "set" here.

Peeta. Oh dear me. When we first see Peeta on the screen, there was a wave of laughter through the theater, which was reasonably full (though small). It should be noted that we first see Peeta moments after Katniss and Prim have had an emotional, shrieking struggle with the Stormtroopers Peacekeepers, and seconds after Peeta's name has been drawn as tribute. It is not a lighthearted moment.
The audience laughed at Peeta a few more times; I laughed at him even more. I don't think Josh Hutcherson is a particularly good actor, and he simply looked odd - strange, gape-mouthed facial expressions. He just seemed goopy and uninteresting to me, and at times laughably so.  Liam Hemsworth as Gale is startlingly attractive (sort of like a very blue-eyed Darren Criss), and it's exceedingly hard to see him and wonder why anyone would be interested in a drip like Peeta.

One thing that I found unsettling is that the film falls back on a very Nazi Germany/concentration camp aesthetic. The drab shabby clothing of District 12, with all the kids and townfolk lined up in a yard, instantly recalled similar images from, say, schindler's list, of Jewish people being rounded up and sent off to camps. When the train arrives to take Katniss and Peeta to the Capitol, there's a very brief moment where it seems that Katniss is looking into a shadowy silver boxcar. I may have mis-seen - it's very brief - but whatever I did see registered in my mind as boxcar.
Once we get to the Digitally Animated Capitol, the architecture is all Albert Speer triumphalism: enormous, blocky white buildings with the VERY Nazi-esque seal of the Capitol.
[I think there were one or two more instances of this Nazi/holocaust kind of imagery, but as I said: I'm already forgetting the specifics of the film].
Collins has said, and it's pretty obvious in the books, that the Capitol is inspired by the Roman Empire. I would have much preferred an aesthetic for the Capitol that either harkened back to the Roman aesthetic, OR one that was sleekly futuristic - which is how I always pictured it myself.
The unease I feel about the Nazi aesthetic is that it's a very cheap way to point out that the Capitol Is Bad! It's become way too easy to use the Holocaust as shorthand for evil, terrible things - because it's become a shorthand, we don't think about what it means so much. I also object because the comparison is wrong; Nazi germany was terrible, and Panem is terrible, but not in identical ways. Panem doesn't do genocide (well, not anymore, not since they put down District 13); the power structure is difference, the coercive force is different, it's all different.

Which leads me to politics: the movie strips a lot of the political significance from the story. Gale, at the beginning, talks briefly about how everyone should stop watching the Games; Peeta has his spiel about not wanting to be changed by the Games. We see the machinations behind the scenes of the Games - Seneca Crane and the control room (a very freakish set that's a cross between Star Trek and a dentist's office), and President Snow, get a reasonable amount of air time. But the consequences of those machinations aren't made clear. Katniss looks far too healthy and clean, despite the drabness of District 12. The hunger she and her family experience isn't made enough of an issue. The scene when Peeta gives Katniss the bread outside the bakery is revealed in silent flashbacks; unless you know, you don't know that Katniss is starving and at the end of her tether.  For me, the consequences of the Capitol's policies are a hugely central part of the trilogy, but the movie elects instead to focus on the Games; it actually operates rather like an underdog sports movie.

Woody Harrelson as Haymitch was fine, though I have always imagined Haymitch as older. I did like the few brief moments during the Games when we see Haymitch watching, or working the crowds for sponsors. It's a very nice opportunity for us to see what Haymitch is giving for his tribute-mentees; we already know he's a cross, drunken bastard, so to see him laughing, schmoozing, turning on the charm demonstrates, to me anyway, that he's really putting himself wholeheartedly into supporting his tributes.

Lenny Kravitz as Cinna. NO. NO. NO.  I've mentioned before that I have found the perfect Cinna to match my mental image, and it's Raja from RuPaul's Drag Race Season 3. Old Lenny is too...tough, somehow, for Cinna. We never get to see the truly kind relationship that develops between Katniss and Cinna; all we get is Lenny Kravitz offering encouraging words in a rather rumbly, grimly serious, tone, and then a scene that read as creepy, when Lenny leans back, arm slung across the red plush settee he's on, watching Katniss right before she appears onstage in her girl on fire dress. Lenny tells her she looks gorgeous, and there's an uncomfortably long moment of tension that feels way too sexual. He looks like a hetero man sitting back and appraising/appreciating a high-class hooker he's paid for.

Amandla Stenberg as Rue is perfect. She looks just right for the part - small, cute without being cutesy, she just looks like a little girl. Which is precisely what she is, and is precisely why she's important in both book and movie. The friend I went to the theater with leaned over and said: "She looks like Prim!" and it's true: we can see why Katniss is drawn to this little-sister substitute.  Her death, and Katniss's grief and anger afterward, are one of the most affecting moments in the film (though frankly, I found very few truly affecting moments; one of the other major ones is when Katniss volunteers. Prim and Katniss both have just the right note of panic, hysteria, anxiety, fear in their voices).

There's not as much grittiness to the movie - obviously, in the book, we have to "hear" Katniss narrate every detail, which I think makes for a more intense experience. Onscreen, we can just see that she's been wounded, or stung by a trackerjacker; she grimaces in pain, and that's it. A lot of the violence happens offscreen - there are quick cuts away from the worst of anything that happens. The book doesn't linger over the violence, but it does make it present in a different way. And because Katniss is relentless in her hatred of the Capitol, her sense of the anxieties and fears of the people in her District, and so on, we're given a context for the violence that's very different than the film.

And that, maybe, is the thing that most felt lacking and made the movie forgettable: there was no context to give any of the actions of any of the characters real meaning. In the way that one gets involved in cheering for a sports team during a match, we're pulling for Katniss and Peeta; because we want them to win, not because there's any larger issue at stake. The Hunger Games happen almost in a vacuum - we see some of the grotesquerie surrounding the games, but not a lot of the real oppression and misery of the District people. That's what is conveyed so well through Katniss as first-person narrator; there's never a moment when she or we can step outside of a life of grinding poverty, fear, work, and hunger. But that life is all but invisible in the film.

The lack of emotional context also feels absent in most of the relationships in the film. We get so little of Gale, and none of Katniss's reflecting on him in the arena. We get even less of her mother's breakdown after her father's death, and Katniss's need to become the family's breadwinner. Peeta is so awkwardly acted that every scene with Katniss where he speaks is either a cliche or simply emotionally void. We get none of Haymitch's story, and not enough of his sullen, bitter, sorrowful attitude. Cinna and Katniss's interactions are stripped of all meaning and weight as well. The most successful interactions are Katniss and Rue, and Seneca Crane and President Snow. We see people in those characters and interactions, people with complexity and emotion and interest and motivation beyond an extremely basic drive for survival. The movie is one long example of telling, not showing (weirdly enough) and so we have, as an audience, very little skin in the game, so to speak.

I realized, as I watched the movie and afterward, that most of my emotional reactions were anticipatory: I knew the scene when Rue dies was coming up, and I started feeling teary. I knew Katniss was about to make the love & farewell gesture, and got choked up. I knew Katniss and Peeta would stand there staring at each other by the lake, and I leaned forward tensely. I think, as I watched the entire movie, I was more engaged with the book than with what I was seeing on the screen. I don't mean in a critical sense, either; I wasn't checking for flaws and failures (though I definitely noticed them), I was somehow trying to merge book and film in my mind. And I was reacting to the book, not the movie; when the film broke with my sense of the novel, it became flat and - at worst - laughable to me. When it meshed reasonably well, it was just a confirmation of the images I already had in my mind. I've never had quite that experience in watching an adaptation, and it's rather odd.

Ultimately, the movie doesn't do some of the things I was afraid it would do (namely, turn us into eager spectators), but then it doesn't really do much at all, other than tearjerk during Rue's death. What I was most anxious about in the adaptation was losing, or watering down, the politics at work in the text, and that's precisely what happened - but it also watered down everything else.
No doubt I'll go to see the sequels, once they're filmed, but I'll go with low expectations, and hope to be at least a little bit pleasantly surprised with what I get.

In the meantime, we can all contemplate purchasing the town where District 12 is set, or we can watch this absolutely delightful and funny video of the Hunger Games as performed by Beanie Babies (it really is entertaining. I especially like the way they represent Peeta disguising himself in the creekbed, a moment which, in the film, again provoked laughter from our audience).

1 comment:

sarah bagley said...

This is all really interesting. I haven't seen it yet, but I do have some comments about the aesthetics of the film as it's represented in the trailers and as it sounds like it's represented in the film that may or may not actually bear out when (if) I see it.

First, on Katniss. I didn't actually picture her as much less fair - more tanned/freckled from being outdoors, but not necessarily Native American as lots of people have implied. Maybe someone looking more like a young Olivia Munn.

I have other stuff to say about her looking healthy, which seems to have caused a general stir in a lot of reviews/blogs. Mostly, I still think it's feasible - if you're exercising a lot and getting a minimal - but still enough - amount to eat, especially if you're female, your body starts storing it differently, and you get very strong, with a lot of endurance, but you don't get lean.

I do not understand their casting of Peeta. I always imagined him as something of a mirror image of Gale. Where Gale is dark and kind of exotic and of-the-woods, Peeta is blonde and wider-eyed.. But they're both pretty tall and big/strong. I can't imagine this Hutcherson kid playing the dangerous, crazed, wild-animal Peeta of the later books. And the most important thing about Peeta would have to be a sort of insane charisma, which it doesn't sound like this kid has. Someone who could provoke laughing-with, but NOT laughing-at in the creek-bed scene. Lots of people laugh with Peeta, but nobody, ever, laughs at him.

Your analysis of the holocaust imagery is really interesting. It's partly the teacher in me, but I really don't think they played that angle quite right. I do think, though, that the lack of politics makes sense. The series is really political, but the first book itself is not. If they temper the politics in the later movies I'll be really disappointed, but it seems like for the first one it makes sense.