March 26, 2012

MOVIES: The Hunger Games (Gary Ross, 2012)

As much publicity as the movie's gotten, I'm assuming everyone knows at least the basic outlines of the setup, and won't waste time with plot details. The good news first: The movie's very well made, aside from a few cheap-looking effects, and it's almost perfectly cast. The exception would be Donald Sutherland, who is underpaying a bit too much as President Snow; I'm not saying he needs to be twiring his mustache, but the characters from the Capitol are supposed to be a bit larger than life, and there should be at least a hint of the hissable melodrama villain in the character.

But Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly tough and vulnerable as Katniss, Josh Hutcherson (despite an unfortunate blond dye job) makes an adorable romantic interest, Woody Harrelson is appropriately dissolute as Haymitch, and Elizabeth Banks glitters with just the right sharp edges as Effie.

The problem is that the movie emphasizes all of the book's flaws -- the deus ex machina rules changes during the Games, the way Katniss is allowed to evade moral responsibility for those she kills (note that all of her killings are directly in self-defense or in defense of her allies; she never kills simply to advance her position in the game).

But most sharply, the movie makes it impossible to ignore the fundamental hypocrisy at the heart of the story. Suzanne Collins gives us a condemnation of a society that would present as entertainment a sport in which its children are forced to kill as another, but her condemnation takes the form of just such an entertainment.

That hypocrisy is somewhat more tolerable in the book because what we read is not seen in the mind's eye as sharply as what we really see; the book doesn't force us to actually look at the violence and the deaths. Prose allows us to maintain a certain distance that film does not. And to some extent, Collins could make the argument that she was criticizing the excesses of another medium.

But put the story on screen, and suddenly it's all too clear that The Hunger Games is precisely what it condemns; the presentation of kids killing kids for our amusement. And as adapted by Collins, Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross, the screenplay isn't sophisticated enough to address that issue; it's not really even interested in doing so. It hopes that filming the worst of the violence so frenetically that we don't ever get a direct look at it will keep us from focusing on the horror of what's being presented.

So, a very mixed reaction here. The movie's a fine piece of craft on almost every level, but it's morally bankrupt, neither willing nor able to examine its own hypocrisy.

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