Thursday, 13 March 2014

The Hunger Games (2012)



Following my ill advised watch of One Day on Sunday night, the film adaptation of David Nicholls' bestseller, I got into an interesting discussion about my inability to engage with what others seem to love so easily and totally.

This discussion led to an accusation that perhaps I'm the sort of person who refuses to readily engage with popular culture. That I probably have an attitude that, quote, 'if ten people like this, I must hate it on principle' and that perhaps I shouldn't judge a book or film on its readership/viewership.

It's true enough I don't watch The X Factor or most reality TV shows. I have never seen a Harry Potter film or read a Harry Potter book. Twilight is a mystery to me and I probably couldn't name any entry in the current top 10 chart. 

But that's because I'm 34 years of age. I know what I like now and I'll discover things under my own steam in my own time rather than rely on some element of the media to tell me what I should be enthusing about.

I avoid bandwagons and hype basically. It was chance that saw me pick up all three Hunger Games novels last year - thanks to a charity shop selling them at just 50p each. I guess it was the futuristic dystopian setting that intrigued me, as it's a genre I really enjoy.  I read the first one last summer, and have the remaining two on my read list. For what it's worth I enjoyed the first one and was intrigued to see what the film adaptation was like.

I waited patiently for Sky to show it, but as yet it's failed to materialise. So eventually this week I rented it from my local library to see for myself. 

First let's look at the book - and be warned I'm just paraphrasing a previous book review from this blog here - as you will probably know, there's nothing new or original about Suzanne Collins' plot. Competitive fights to the death played out as sport or reality TV for a bored dictatorship have littered fiction in the last forty or so years - Series 7: The Contenders, The 10th Victim,  and Battle Royale are all similar examples. Indeed many critics have accused Collins of plagiarism from Battle Royale author Koushun Takami in that both their novels concern children being forced to kill one another in the name of sport.

Such accusations aside however, there was still much to enjoy from the novel. It was capably written in a manner that the reader finds very easy to follow, digest information and turn pages rapidly.

Collins mixes up very familiar scenarios such as the satire on modern entertainment, Roman history and the intricacies of the gladiatorial arena, the pagan legend of John Barleycorn, and the practicalities of having to survive out in the wilderness and the wild on very little but what nature can provide for you. The satire of primetime reality TV  is rather satisfyingly handled and there are moments where the games sound rather like Big Brother or I'm A Celebrity. We witness all of this through her heroine Katniss, a sombre somewhat humourless 16 year old girl and hunter who is naturally lacking in brevity due to her tough existence. It's not difficult to empathise with Katniss and we see the horrors the Capitol enforce upon her and her fellow 'tributes' through her eyes, via internal monologues, responding equally to the cruelty in the way she would. Unfortunately some of the more moral conundrums that such a setting can throw up, certainly when our characters are in the arena, are all too neatly sidestepped at times by Collins in favour of the hand of fate moving the characters into the next plot development. 

The book wasn't without its flaws and sometimes I feel Collins takes things a step too far in her attempts to ratchet up the excitement and perils  - did we really need the mutant wolf characters who were in fact hybrids of the previously fallen tributes? Just writing that makes my eyes roll once more at how stupid that inclusion was and how it served little point at all.  Also, there were quite a few times when I felt my age reading it; because I am not a teenager obviously.

So, the film. Does it make the same achievements/the same mistakes?

I actually think the team behind this first film in the franchise have been very canny. They've opened out the material in the novel, created a proper, visually distinctive world and put some flesh on the bones of characters and stories that Collins seemed to have little interest in in this first novel. The fact that the likes of Snow and the games designers appear here far more than they did in the book - where they were largely voiceless and vague threatening entities -  helps to ground the story and shape our opinion of the bad guys not just for this film but also for the films to come. 

Visually the film is very impressive with some disorientating hand held camerawork noticeably prevalent at the start as our heroine Katniss volunteers for The Games. Much of the design seems to owe credit to Michael Radford's impressive adaptation of Orwell's 1984, proving that if you're going to imitate, go for the best. It's suitably sinister and omnipresent though I'm still in two minds over the gaudy colour and foppish clothing worn by the Capitol citizens. The satire is even better handled and the scenes of fermenting revolt added make for a much more potent watch. 

On the whole I'd say the film adaptation adds far more to the book except for one key storyline; namely the love affair played out for the Games between Katniss and her fellow tribute Peeta. The joy of that storyline in the novel was deciphering how much was genuine emotion and how much was a charade to appease the Capitol. As a reader, we were granted access to Katniss' thoughts and feelings, yet here we have no such monologue which robs this strand of some of the depth. Nevertheless I imagine this is still a success for the teenage audience who no doubt love a bit of complex romance amidst the satire and violence.

Thankfully the film doesn't make the mistake Collins did in having the hybrid tributes/wolves preferring instead to just depict them as mutant beasts created at the Capitol. The violence of the novel remains in the film but its a suitably bloodless PG depiction to keep the teens free of nightmares. 

The cast are on the whole very good, particularly Jennifer Lawrence in the lead role of Katniss, whilst the likes of Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci ham it up for all they are worth. But overall, it's Lawrence's film.

On the whole I'm glad such a franchise exists and has managed to take a hold of a young audience; anything that makes the kids of today question those in authority is alright by me. This is one book to screen adaptation that I think has improved on the original material. Does it deserve the hype? Perhaps time will tell, once all the movies have been released, as they clearly have the potential to have a life apart from the books they are based on. However one thing the film cannot achieve, which was intrinsically the book's downfalls too, is the less than believable conceit that to stave off a further revolt a nation are somehow agreeable to watch their children die in the name of sport year in, year out. Surely that was always going to actually create anger in the masses, not quell it??

A startlingly good movie, The Hunger Games is't perfect, it's a little bit too unnecessarily long for a start, but it is a good groundwork for what is shaping up to be a very successful series of films.

I look forward to catching the next one.

Just don't say I'm on the bandwagon OK? ;)

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