Saturday, 14 April 2012

I'm so hungry I could eat a book

So I’m a little late to the party (ok, about 3 and a half years late) but I finally got round to reading The Hunger Games; I then lasted approximately 15 hours before I had to see the film too. (I have this thing, y'see, where I always have to read the book first. It’s movie OCD.)  

Even the title makes me think of food.
For those not in the know (people living under a rock / my parents) The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future in which “Capitol” rules over the 12 unfortunate districts which are the remains of what was once known as the USA.

Citizens are controlled with a shortage of food and rebellion is strongly discouraged. Just in case anyone’s getting any ideas, they are kept in a culture of fear by the annual hunger games; 2 teenagers from each district are sent to battle to the death, gladiator style. The last survivor wins (duh), and the whole thing is televised. So it's like Big Brother / I'm a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here, but with instant death instead of the slow demise of appearing at G.A.Y and miming. It's also kind of like the classic Arnie / Stephen King combo Running Man. (It’s one of my faves and I mentioned it here.)

The internet has been ablaze with accusations of plagiarism because of the similarities between Suzanne Collin's Hunger Games and Koushon Takami's Battle Royale, published almost a decade earlier. (I haven't yet read this but comparing plots on Wikipedia, yes, it's the same book.) Like Stephanie Meyer claiming that she never read The Vampire Diaries or The Sookie Stackhouse / True Blood novels despite the striking similarities to our beloved Twilight stories, Suzanne Collins says she had never heard of the Japanese book. This may stretch credibility, but isn’t impossible. The idea of a televised battle to the death isn't the hardest idea to come up with, and the Big Brother-style spying as victims are picked off is almost becoming passé. With films like Kickass proving popular, it's logical that murderous kids will hold a particular fascination.

So, the book: read it. It won’t give you lines of epic beauty that you will want to write in a notebook because they’re so poetic and lovely, but it will keep you reading. I chomped this down in a day. The film? It’s better in some ways, inadequate in others. Jennifer Lawrence is spot on as Katniss – she’s believable as a hunter, protector and quick-thinking adversary. There have been complaints that she is "chubby" which is nonsensical
– she does have round cheekbones which suggest she would still look like a bonny wee lass even if she was skeletal, but she is clearly fit and healthy. Bratty teenagers have been whining "But the whole point is that she's hungry – she would be thinner." Yes, the districts are starving, so I WILL NOT REST until I can source hundreds of anorexic and emaciated actors. I'm talking method, people! 

Here's the gigantic heifer you've heard so much about
Oddly, nobody makes any complaints about the boys being muscular or the general, adult population being normal-sized. The districts aren't starving anyway – there are bakeries and butchers, and others, such as Katniss and her best buddy Gale, go hunting to feed their families. If the Hunger Games participants were malnourished, the show would be over in a day, and where is the fun in that?

The rest of the casting is INSPIRED. Stanley Tucci is flawless as the game show host who conceals a kind heart under TV patter and bouffant hairstyles. Elizabeth Banks brings the vacuously selfish host Effie to vibrant life, and Woody Harrelson provides mentor Haymitch with more character and authenticity than the book would allow. I wasn’t sure about Josh Hutcherson as Peeta, (I had imagined someone more solid and phlegmatic, not the love child of Alex Winter and Alan Tudyk) but he grew on me as the film went on.

The trailer is probably better than the film in terms of swift storytelling; it also features Liam Hemsworth heavily although he gets barely 5 minutes of screentime in the film. I haven’t yet read the 2 sequels in the book franchise but I am guessing that they didn’t cast the hottie for a bit part.

Visually, the movie has a lot of fun with the Capitol folk – it reminded me of  Dangerous Liaisons or Amadeus; these are hedonistic, carefree people. When Lenny Kravitz appeared as the kind and protective Cinna, my first thought was "OF COURSE!"
– he fits the bill perfectly. Imagine my astonishment when I read that his casting, and that of Amandla Stenberg as little Rue, was considered controversial because they’re black. You can read more about this at, in which stupid people humiliate themselves by tweeting their surprise and disgust that "all the good characters are black". Much hilarity ensues when it's pointed out that Rue is actually described in the book as having dark brown skin, so IN YOUR FACE, suckas! But, wait... if Suzanne Collins had omitted that one little line of physical description, would Rue default to white anyway, leaving the casting director without a leg to stand on? Really????
Are we saying she's not CUTE enough?!
I've long believed that racism in movies will only be overcome if actors from all ethnicities are cast, with no changes to the script. If it doesn’t matter to the plot what race someone is, let's push the boat out and make them non-white! This film did exactly this and has been pilloried for it. In 20freaking12.This is slightly more depressing than a TV show about children killing each other.

(Because really, who are we kidding? If the Hunger Games existed, we’d totally watch it. The fact that Jerry Springer and Jeremy Kyle have TV shows is rock solid proof of that.)

Impeccable casting aside, the film does suffer a couple of flaws. There are small ones, such as the annoyingly uncommunicative flashbacks of Peeta giving Katniss burnt bread
– if you've read the books, you'll know what's coming; if you haven’t, you may wonder what incredibly profound part of the story is being imparted. Also – I'm sorry, art director, but when you burn bread, it doesn’t leave half the loaf pale and the other half an incinerated lump of coal, with a neat line down the middle. I know you're trying to make sure we can see it's bread, but... that looked really, really stupid.

I thought director Gary Ross also blundered at the moment when Prim Everdeen is picked in the lottery of death. The book convincingly describes the paralysing shock that delays Katniss’s reaction, but by focusing instead on Prim, the long pause implies a good 60 seconds of thinking "Damn, my little sister got called. I wonder if I should volunteer to take her place, maybe? I guess I should. Ok
– WAIT! I VOLUNTEER!" If we could have seen a shot of Katniss looking stunned, it might have helped convey the instant and uncompromising nature of her protectiveness towards her sister.

And one last niggle: I know it's a law that horror films have to feature dark nights because it's scarier than broad daylight, but in this case of the grand finale, it was hard to see what the hell was happening. Besides, certain engineered horrors are more hair-raising if you can actually see them clearly. 
How did this picture of a topless Lenny Kravitz get here? That has nothing to do with the film!

On the whole, the film covered all the bases and I look forward to reading and watching more. Not everyone was as enthusiastic; The Daily Mail proffered an article from a moron who was trying to jump on the Samantha Brick bandwagon by writing things so stupid that people would have no choice but to publicly ridicule her.

With the headline "Why I feel I'm a bad mother for taking my girls to The Hunger Games." Shona Sibary went on to explain why she actually is a pretty bad mother. She took her two daughters, aged 11 and 13, to see this film apparently nothing in the "children battle each other to the death" description tipped her off that it may not be ideal viewing for a child who cries when somebody steps on a ladybird. (Ms Sibary worries about the film leaving her children with lasting emotional scars, it doesn’t occur to her than any of their classmates might read newspapers.)

Just like Jan Moir's take on New Moon she mixes in untruths with garbled hearsay. Firstly, it's not “targeted quite deliberately at young children," it's clearly aimed at teenagers. (There are clues to look out for; films aimed at young children often feature talking animals and they don’t tend to be rated 12A.)

Nor is it "dressed up as wholesome, family entertainment". Sibary opines "The first half-an-hour of the film lulls you into a false sense of security that this is nothing more than a skewed take on our modern-day obsession with televised, X Factor-style elimination games. But then the grotesque twist becomes apparent." What, the grotesque twist being the children fighting to the death? Like you saw in the trailer? That twist? 

I thought it was going to be all bunnies and talking deer!

She seems to have seen a different film from the one I saw; "At one point a young girl’s neck is ruthlessly snapped." (Ok, I don’t remember that at all, but maybe I wasn't paying attention.) "At another, a child has a spear skewered through her stomach." Yes, but you don’t actually see that. It's all done very carefully to stick to the 12A rating; you see a spear sticking out of a bloody torso. It’s no more gruesome than anything you’d see in one of those Sunday afternoon John Wayne films that we encourage kids to watch because they’re classics.

She goes on: "But perhaps even more gruelling is the gradual awareness that dawns on you that this is not a story about good overcoming evil. It’s about innocent children being forced to turn on each other and
against any received moral or human code fight for themselves till the end. Like any decent parent, this is not a message I’m keen to expose my daughters to."

Wha...? Perhaps Sibary is not one for subtle moral messages in films. Did she miss Katniss volunteering her life in exchange for her sister’s? Or the part where she befriends one of the children she is meant to be fighting against? (This is partly because Rue reminds her of Prim, and partly because Katniss isn’t a mindless killer even when her life depends on it.)

Actually, a strong theme in the film is that even in the arena, Katniss and Peeta are determined not to sink to the Capitol’s level – they must retain their integrity if they are to remain “themselves”. Shona Sibary, try reading Man's Search For Meaning (Victor Krankl) if this concept is something you've never heard of. This film is deeper than you think.

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