Friday, March 30, 2012

THE HUNGER GAMES....Action and Character can coexist.

I have always stayed away from dystopian novels and films. Only a few have really intrigued me. On film, Ray Bradbury's fantasy FARENHEIT 451 received a somber but effective treatment from French director Francois Truffaut. In a future world firemen don't put out fires, they burn books. One scene stays with us. A woman's library is burned and she steps into the conflagration raising her hands to the heavens and becomes a martyr for reading. P.D. James' CHILDREN OF MEN pictured a future where there would be no more births. The film version by director Alfonso Cuaron is one of the great dystopian films, a riveting suspenseful story that ends with hope for the human race.

When Suzanne Collins' HUNGER GAMES TRILOGY exploded on the young adult novel scene in 2008 it became a sensation just as the TWILIGHT phenomenon began to ebb. When I read a plot summary, I was horrified that a teen novel had a premise that was sadistic and violent. However, when I finally read the first novel recently on my daughter's kindle, I changed my mind. It had ideas, a strong plot, and something really unusual--a strong feminine leading character who is both vulnerable but also able to "kick ass," as the target audience might say.

And naturally I went to see the highly anticipated film version, which far exceeded my expectations. Director Gary Ross has cleverly reduced the actual violence through fast cutting and quick shots of the victims. He has earned his PG-13 rating, a necessity for the teen audience, and he has lost very little of the novel's drive. As most of the world knows, THE HUNGER GAMES tells the story of a dystopian future in which the repressive government holds a yearly competition pitting 24 young people between 12 and 18 in a violent game in which only one survives. The first half of the film is an emotional roller coaster in which the heroine Katniss Everdeen volunteers when her 12 year old sister is chosen by lot. Soon she and the male tribute Peeta Mellark are whisked to The Capital, where they are prepared for the the hunger games. The Capital has an eerie set design, recalling other fantasy films, especially THE WIZARD OF OZ's dazzling Emerald City. Oddly the sets and people in the Capital are bizarrely off kilter, emphasizing a society that lives only for pleasure.

The 24 tributes are groomed, beautifed, and presented to the public to gain support for their efforts. This scene looks back to Roman games and men and animals fighting to the death for the amusement of the people. And it seems influenced by reality tv shows like SURVIVOR and BIG BROTHER, where public embarrassment seems the lure. There is also a whiff of LORD OF THE FLIES, especially as the youngsters hunt and kill each other. The second half of THE HUNGER GAMES plunges the tributes into the wild (played beautifully by nature in North Carolina). Almost immediately 8 tributes are slaughtered, and Katniss must fend for herself, something she knows how to do since she is from District 12, which used to be Appalachia. And here, to avoid spoiling the rest of the film, I must stop.

Jennifer Lawrence, who won a Best Actress Nomination for the Appalachian drama WINTER BONE, gives Katniss a fierce, determined grace. Her best scenes are in the wilderness as she fights to survive and save the wounded Peeta. What seems most important in THE HUNGER GAMES is that for once we don't define a hero as male. Katniss Everdeen is a hero for all seasons...well, at least until the last film of the series is shown.

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