Thursday, April 12, 2012

Appetite for deconstruction: "The Hunger Games"

You have to admit, it's not often a book can make Stieg Larsson and Dan Brown go, "WTF? Remember us, you fickle b!tches?"

So here's my quick background on The Book People Just Could NOT Shut Up About. First, I could have read it before all of you! Yeah, for reals. The missus used to work at a book and music distributor, and "The Hunger Games" was among these random books that she occasionally brought home. I remember looking it over and thinking, "Interesting idea, but rather derivative. And oh yeah, it's for kids. I mean, 'young adults.' No, thanks."

And then came the omnipresence, which made me hold out even more. Yes, I'm sure it's all very exciting, and the ladies sure love it. But even if some dudes were on board ... it's for teens! Can you promise me there are no sparkly vampires and boarding school students flying around on brooms? Can you?

Alas, I eventually succumbed. I mean, it wasn't going anywhere, and it did seem like something I could read in 45 minutes. And you know what? It was OK. OH. KAY. Easy to read, strong heroine, good killin' ... all fun things. But while it wasn't Sweet Valley High or the Hardy Boys, I could tell it wasn't quite for grown-ups, either. True, I shouldn't expect everyone to be all Franzen all the time, but to me "The Hunger Games" was a tease. It threw some themes out there but didn't really develop them, and when there wasn't any fighting, it didn't give you much to think about.

Which brings us to the long-awaited film version, which is mostly faithful to the book, making it a mixed bag at best.

Our story gets off to a quick start. Despite being presented through some truly annoying handheld camera work -- effective in other movies, totally unnecessary here -- the pace moves briskly after the opening text lays out the situation. It's the future, and in what's left of North America each the outlying districts surrounding the affluent Capitol have to offer up two teens each year to battle to the death before a TV audience. Take that, "Fear Factor."

We start in District 12, Appalachia, where Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer "J-La" Lawrence) lives with her mom and little sister. Soon enough, our heroine volunteers to take her sister's place and get her Hunger Games on. It's almost abrupt, without much chance to develop the family and friendship angles. But that's OK with me. Let's get to Oz and the most dangerous game!

In the Capitol, we get a sense of what high entertainment this is supposed to be. It only partly works, with no real exploration of the politics and socioeconomic aspects of this effed-up situation. We also cram in all of the supporting players, who are either tolerable (Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland, Wes Bentley) or even good (Lenny Kravitz, Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson). None are transcendent, and by default they're all really just caricatures. It is not unfair to blame the source material for this, and more on that in a bit.

After some glitz and buds of romance between our tributes, we're off to the arena. The drama of the countdown and initial fisticuffs gives way to a lot of slogging through the woods. Sure, we feel her adrenaline and fear at the start, but it's really not maintained -- even through different kinds of hazards. That includes the other kiddos, about whom we don't really know enough to appreciate the conflict. While we saw them briefly during the training, they don't seem like real people OR true villains.

This is where "The Hunger Games" comes up short against previous versions of this story. The most obvious is "Battle Royale" from Japan, which had more kids in Thunderdome but still managed to make several of them interesting on their way to demise. But it also falls short in this regard to a mediocre movie like "The Running Man," which gives us colorful characters on the hunt (not to mention Richard Dawson hamming it up). I know the "real" villain here is the Capitol and gamemasters, but you still can't have a bunch of bland on the field of combat. The other kids actually got a bit more ink in the book.

Between those lackluster battles and the lack of Katniss vs. the Capitol, I think a big chunk of the blame has to go to the director. Put another way, I'm not sure how Gary Ross got the gig, but I don't think we'll miss him the second time around. First he did that wobbly camera crap. But much more important is to treat your source material appropriately. If it's awesome, don't eff with it. If it could use improvement, improve it. I'm thinking of David Fincher and "The Social Network" as recent example. By most accounts, the book version blew, and Fincher adapted it as he saw fit. Good on him.

Of course, given "The Hunger Games," the book, knocked the Bible to No. 2 on the list of Most Important Books Ever, I can understand the reluctance to stray too far from the original recipe. Unfortunately, that leaves you with a book written for teens in the hands of director perhaps best known for a cutesy movie about kids trapped in black and white TV show. The result makes but OK fare, but as someone who truly likes this dystopian people-hunting thing, I didn't walk away dazzled.

All this is not to deny Jennifer Lawrence's performance. She's solid and not doing the same schtick as in "Winter's Bone," even if she seems like another rural girl stomping through the woods. But while she's good enough to hang this trilogy on in the years ahead, she's not enough to raise this movie to level it could have been. Perhaps the odds were never in its favor.