This post refers to the film version of The Hunger Games. From the official site:
Every year in the ruins of what was once North America, the evil Capitol of the nation of Panem forces each of its twelve districts to send a teenage boy and girl to compete in the Hunger Games. A twisted punishment for a past uprising and an ongoing government intimidation tactic, The Hunger Games are a nationally televised event in which “Tributes” must fight with one another until one survivor remains.
Pitted against highly-trained Tributes who have prepared for these Games their entire lives, Katniss is forced to rely upon her sharp instincts as well as the mentorship of drunken former victor Haymitch Abernathy. If she’s ever to return home to District 12, Katniss must make impossible choices in the arena that weigh survival against humanity and life against love.
The question in my mind going into the movie was, “how do you shoot a book like the Hunger Games?” First person isn’t always a problem – Twilight survived the transfer from book to screen after all* – but for a large part of the Hunger Games Katniss is either alone in the Game itself, or alone on the page as she analyses her situation. Katniss is quite the chatty Cathy inside her own head, but stoic and awkward to the outside world. Without that access, how does the viewer connect with the character?
The answer, it seems, is to do two things: firstly, hire an excellent actress for the part. Secondly, shoot the entire thing around her, at the cost of everything else. For the most part, it works brilliantly. The Hunger Games is a very good movie that takes a well-worn premise and turns it into an at-times powerfully emotive viewing experience. It is not without faults, but they are miniscule enough compared to the film’s successes that they are easily forgiven.
Jennifer Lawrence, as I say, is excellent in the role of Katniss. She is every bit as stoic and occasionally confrontational as the character demands, but at the same time is given room to show us a very afraid and very desperate young woman. The scene between her and Cinna prior to her entrance at the Games themselves has very few lines and little action, and yet is one of the most penetrating insights into Katniss’s character. Director Gary Ross gives her a lot of help on the way, particularly in the whirlwind of pre-Games training and orientation, where images flash and judder across the screen, and sounds fade in and out to mirror Katniss’s confusion at the riot of life as a tribute.
Once in the Games themselves, it becomes less a game of her versus the other tributes and more of her versus the Games themselves. It’s an important distinction, and one that works to the overall advantage of the film because we are forced away from sympathising towards the other characters, many of whom die in the first few minutes of the Games themselves. Certainly the “fox-face” redhead would be an alarming competitor for the audience’s sympathies if we had spent any more time on her – instead she’s left long enough be almost forgotten, only reappearing to resolve a standoff situation that looks set to drag on forever and then finally to be tied up as a loose end all of her own.
Instead, we flick back and forth between the Capitol control room and Katniss, with occasional reaction shots from the Districts outside, to show that she – and the other tributes – are being manipulated from above, and that her actions are in defiance of the puppeteers, not the other puppets. There is a great moment in the cave between Peeta and Katniss where – just for a moment – she looks up at the camera and out of the screen. It’s nothing more than a glance, but it’s enough to threaten the integrity of the in-world fourth wall and lends solid credibility to President Snow’s seething veneer of civility at the end. He – like the viewer – knows she is playing the system.
Josh Hutcherson, by comparison, comes off a lot weaker than Lawrence. Part of it is due to his character being effectively rail roaded off-screen to make more room for Katniss, but some of the blame has to ride on his own shoulders. His one great opportunity to really deliver a powerful, sympathetic moment – his half-delirious remorse for not bringing bread to her all those years ago – comes off stilted and wooden. Any chance he might have had to save the fumble with a “if we don’t get through this” speech is cut off with by a sharp shush from Katniss.
Even Rue, played by the unbearably cute Amandla Stenberg, doesn’t get to muscle in on audience share. Instead, her death becomes a foreshadowing device for the rebellious undercurrent that will flavour the rest of the film.
But like I say, these things can be forgiven. There is a lot to get through in the running time, and the story has an agenda to make Katniss believable as the motivation that drives a world to a second uprising. The ripples of her actions spread out from the arena into the world beyond, and we are led into the sequel by another very powerful scene that is again more about staging than dialogue or action: the inimitable angular Wes Bentley (sporting the most awesome beard ever, ever as Gamesmaker Seneca Crane) being led into a room to face the consequence of what has been simultaneously his best and worst Hunger Games.
With an amazing take on its opening weekend, I can’t imagine there being any problems with the summer schedule for Catching Fire maintaining its green light. I’m quite looking forward to seeing how it turns out.
*and thanks to some tongue-in-cheek cinematography, did quite well out of the move