The Hunger Games

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The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross, is no exact adaptation of the book from page to screen. Although purists may be miffed by some elements that had to be left out of the film version, Ross’s film captures the essence of the book, faithful in all the areas where it matters most. The film complements Suzanne Collins’ book in a mostly straightforward way, but with an occasional flash of insight. It can be likened to good illustrations in a book: the film offers a wonderful visualization of the story that is not complete in and of itself, but which instead simultaneously provides both a complementary vision of, and a new lens through which to view, the book.

First off, Jennifer Lawrence is perfect. Although she’s forced to externalize much of what was internalized in the book, her acting is not histrionic, but subtle. She plays Katniss with the contradictory fierceness and tenderness that renders her character so uniquely captivating. Josh Hutcherson, not given quite enough screen time or character development as Peeta, makes up for his occasional lack of subtlety with his winsomeness. Liam Hemsworth has a strong presence in the few scenes he is in.

As is always the case in book to film adaptations, particularly in books with first person narration, a certain degree of character development falls to the wayside, most keenly felt in the development of Katniss and Peeta’s relationship. So much of this was internalized and developed chiefly through conversations and looks in the book that only a fraction made it to the movie. While disappointing, we can only hope that two such well-cast leads are given the chance to further develop their characters in the upcoming films.

Ross and his team visually read between the lines in many design elements, making this a particularly familiar, historically grounded, post-apocalyptic dystopian society. He develops beautifully the cultural and historical undertones of an Appalachian-like region as the probable setting for the story.

The cinematography, with its jerky, often handheld camera, is obviously inspired by the reality TV that the film both critiques and often seems to takes its stylistic cue from. This can either be seen as annoying or as an interesting stylistic choice given the subject matter. For me it was both.

Heavy silences often remind us of the weightiness of the events depicted. Music is well used throughout to simply enhance what is happening onscreen, instead of being utilized to dictate emotions the viewer is supposed to be feeling. Although it is not always the case, the lack of music in many critical scenes is notable and refreshing. The film tastefully shows how serious and jarring the deaths of these children are, without adding an element of gratuitous violence. Such thoughtfully accomplished visualization of so many tributes’ deaths makes us realize the gravity and disturbing quality of something I’m afraid even I was occasionally guilty of breezing over as action when reading.

At the same time, these deaths could have been made more jolting than they were. Aside from glimpses of desperation, many of the adolescent villains are left relatively undeveloped (as in the book), turning many of them into teenage killing machines without the benefit of the backstory that leads us to instantly sympathize with Katniss and Peeta. With the possible exception of Cato, the “Careers” and other of the less sympathetic tributes are thus somewhat dehumanized, even more for the film viewer than for the reader. Perhaps we should be just as jarred by who is doing the killing in these cases as the fact of who is being killed.

The film also incorporates elements of the series that were not revealed until the second book, thus tying events together, whetting the audience’s appetite for the next film, and creating what will be a very cohesive final filmic trilogy. The film is not perfect, but as far as inaugural filmic installments in popular series go, this one gives us much to look forward to.

For all those that see it, the film is a good reminder as to what exactly it is about this story that has captured the imaginations of so many. The story’s themes blur (or perhaps reveal?) the lines between typical Young Adult fiction themes and those archetypal themes of guilt, betrayal, courage, the value of life, and every kind of love—sacrificial, unconditional, unrequited, wondering… Such heady themes are intertwined into a story that also has allusions of the literary and historical kind (e.g. Romeo and Juliet, Greek mythology, the Roman gladiatorial games), and social critique à la reality TV and our culture’s edging towards violence as entertainment. Perhaps such elements of timeless relevancy are what give this series their almost mythic quality for so many—boys and girls, young and old.


One For St. Patrick’s Day…

With St. Patrick’s Day only a few days away, I thought I would recommend a film set in Ireland. So if you are wondering what to watch as you settle down with a slab of corned beef and a hunk of soda bread, look no further! This film is a feast for the eyes and the mind…

The Secret of Kells, recipient of a 2010 Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Feature, is one of those lovely films that sets itself apart from the majority of commercial animated fare, fitting into its own category as a sort of cinematic literature…and it is certainly not only for children. The film explores Celtic mythology and history as it interweaves the history of illuminated manuscripts, the famed Book of Kells, and the medieval threat of barbarians with Irish lore of fairies and dark mysteries in the forest.

The film follows Brendan’s discovery of the enchantment of the natural world and the secrets of an unfinished illuminated book as he navigates the conflict that surrounds him.  Although Brendan encounters an array of conflicts (good vs. evil, light vs. dark, preservation vs. perseverance, man vs. nature, to name a few), the core of the film is its celebration and exploration of the illumination that Brendan is ultimately questing after. The Book of Kells represents the light of faith and hope and imagination that many medieval abbeys fought to preserve in a world threatened by the darkness the barbarians would bring if they succeeded in quenching the lights of learning and the illuminated Gospels.

The hand-drawn animation plays upon the theme of illumination while paying tribute to the intricately detailed illuminated manuscripts that inspired its style. Every scene set in the forest is teeming with life and hidden patterns. Sunlight flickers down through treetops and clouds and dapples the world beneath. Designs and patterns are hidden in almost every scene while intricately moving borders adorn and further develop many others. I was often tempted to simply pause my DVD for the chance to absorb the many dimensions of light and color and detail in a scene.

Bruno Coulais, the French composer behind several other whimsical and wonderful scores (Coraline, Babies, The Chorus), provides an alternately lively and subtle soundtrack that adds yet another layer of delight to the film.

I meant for this to be a simple recommendation, but I got a bit carried away. Suffice it to say, The Secret of Kells is ultimately a richly historical and truly illuminating film that is exquisitely textured, both visually and thematically.

Image found here.

Fox 2000 Taps ‘Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival To Direct ‘The Book Thief’ –

Cover of "The Book Thief"

Cover of The Book Thief

Fox 2000 Taps ‘Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival To Direct ‘The Book Thief’ –

I’ve been waiting expectantly for some time to see who would pick up this haunting book for its inevitable film adaptation.  It is hard to imagine any film truly being able to depict the nuances of the book, but a good adaptation could be a thing of beauty.

Screenwriter Michael Petroni penned what was for me the most disappointing of the Narnia films (The Voyage of the Dawn Treader), but Emmy-winner Brian Percival has directed some lovely things (Downton AbbeyNorth & South), albeit mostly for TV.

I will be following preproduction with much interest.