The Cameraman Who Was On Fire
Hey, readers, welcome to my very first companion review of a movie based on a banned book. I’ll be doing these from time to time, when I review a book that has a movie adaptation. Today’s repeat offender is The Hunger Games. Remember, this is a blog about intellectual freedom and controversial ideas. I’m not telling you what to think about the movie. I’m telling you what I think. Agree? Disagree? Tell me what you thought of the movie or the controversy surrounding it.
REPEAT OFFENDER: The Hunger Games (2012).
THE REVIEW: Following suit with the book, The Hunger Games‘s movie adaptation was a bit of a mixed bag. I’ll start with some criticism I don’t agree with: I have heard some complain that Katniss did not look thin enough.
While actors have gotten very, sometimes dangerously, thin for movies in the past (The Pianist and Les Mis just to name a few), I would feel very uncomfortable with a young actress like Jennifer Lawrence losing too much weight for the role. In Hollywood’s culture of eating disorders and given how many young girls look up to Katniss and, thus, Lawrence, I think the cost might far outweigh the need for realism. Suspension of disbelief, people. Pretend she’s starving.
On that note, however, I feel like the stark socioeconomic realities of District 12 were lacking. I don’t need to see Katniss look starving. I need to feel it. One of the strengths of the book was the description and characterization of the Seam, the Skid Row of District 12. It is a place straight out of a Charles Dickens novel where dreams are slowly choked to death, yet the people linger on, their meager rations just enough to keep them alive (some of the time).
This part is far better written than anything else in the book. I felt the suffocating, hopeless despair here far more than in the Games themselves. Katniss’s reality and way of life are so well described and driven home that the Seam becomes a character itself. The Seam is quite possibly the most compelling character in the whole book, since many others remained frustratingly one-dimensional.
The movie pretty much skips right to the Games. Cutting straight to the action isn’t always a bad thing, but in a post-apocalyptic setting, as in Sci-Fi or Secondary World Fantasy, skimping on world-building is shoddy storytelling. At best, the viewers are confused, as in the case of many a friend of mine who read the books solely because the movie failed to explain the world of Panem. It was not clear in the movie that Panem is a post-apocalyptic North America, rather than being set in some other world. At worst, the viewers haven’t connected with the world and so don’t connect to its characters and their struggles in it.
Luckily, this is countered by the strength of the acting. While there was no shortage of controversy surrounding her casting, Jennifer Lawrence carried this movie. She is strong, vulnerable, and ever so slightly sociopathic. Everything Katniss should be.
It was her performance, helped by a few good supporting actors (and hindered by a few mediocre ones), that kept this movie from being just another poorly-developed speculative fiction romp, devoid of depth. I could not connect with the Seam and its people in the movie, but I could connect with Lawrence’s portrayal Katniss. And the cameraman certainly does. Lawrence’s close-ups are frequent and very, very close-up. By the end of the film, the audience knows her every pore and beauty mark.
This brings me to another issue with the movie. While a visual spectacle, this movie falls victim to the dreaded shaky cam. Instead of getting to know Panem, we are, to quote X-Play, thrust into the world of bad camera angles where we must ask the question ‘WHAT IS KILLING ME?’
Directors, stop doing this. I know you think it conveys action and a sense of confusion, but all it does it make the movie harder to watch, especially for the epileptic or otherwise light-sensitive cinephile. Rely on your skill as a storyteller to make me feel like a confused, anxious adrenaline junkie, not shortcuts better suited to bad horror movies.
Some reviews have accused this movie of moral cowardice. For the most part, this is not the movie’s fault. The things this review takes issue with are the the things I disliked about the book. Yes, the movie could have taken liberties and changed things, but its moral cowardice was, for the most part, the cost of being a faithful adaptation of the book.
However, the movie does simplify the book’s message and social commentary. It cuts not only the characterization of the underprivileged but the so-called privileged as well. Gone are the mayor’s daughter, Madge, and the Capitol runaway Katniss could have helped. These characters helped make the message less black and white, showing that those with privilege are also trapped by their circumstances.
Similarly, Effie’s meager bit of characterization is gone and the fascinating relationship Katniss and Cinna share in the book becomes a lukewarm one that is unexplainedly friendly without any of the tension or depth. The riot scene in reaction to Rue’s death was an excellent addition, but, again, it would have meant more if this world was a little more grey and a great deal more fleshed out.
I enjoyed the movie and will likely wind up buying it. I’ll also probably see the next one. But the movie, like the book, could have been so much better. In the end it was visually interesting but lacked substance and worked solely because of the strength of its lead.
THE CONTROVERSY: The Hunger Games set the internet ablaze last spring. And no, it wasn’t because of Katniss’s interview dress or Jennifer Lawrence’s premiere dress. At the center of the controversy were two issues.
Firstly, several characters in the book, including Katniss herself, were thought by many to be non-white or mixed race. Katniss’s description as having dark hair and olive skin was ambiguous as olive skin can mean anything from Mediterranean to Native American to Eastern European. Katniss’s ethnicity is never expressly stated in the book, but it has been argued that the fact that her skin color was pointed out at all implies she might be something other than Caucasian, given that characters in Fantasy/Sci-Fi and fiction in general often default to white unless otherwise stated (I could have an entire discussion on this, but I fear this review is long enough already without the ramblings of a fantasy writer from a hippie school. Another day, my friends.).
When reading the book, I pictured Katniss as mixed race, likely of Native American descent, given her coloring and geographic location, but with some European ancestry on both sides, given her mother and Prim’s recessive blonde hair and blue eyes.
Would I have liked to see a kick ass interracial female lead in a blockbuster film? Absolutely. But the studio’s potentially cowardly move was excusable to me after seeing the film. As stated above, Lawrence’s performance carried this movie. Maybe someone else could have done as good of a job, but her acting was one of the few things the director did right, so I won’t press the issue.
More diversity amongst the rest of the cast would have been appreciated, though. Yes, Rue and Thresh are African American, but, from a purely logical standpoint, race should be a lot less cut and dry in this world.
C’mon, it’s however many centuries after the apocalypse. Where are all of the mixed race and racially ambiguous people? Mixed race is already the fastest growing group on the US Census and 1 in 6 couples today are interracial. Are you telling me that when the shit hits the fan and we devolve into a world of fascism, gladiator fights, and Manic Panic hair dye that people will inexplicably only date others with a similar racial background?
The second controversy surrounding race and ethnicity came from those who, when reading the book, did not realize that Rue was black; their reaction to the film; and other people’s reaction to their reaction.
This is the ultimate frustration of writing. At least for me, I don’t feel like I should always have to point out a character’s ethnic or racial background. It can feel awkward or clunky and sometimes seem like tokenism or exoticism. However, when the author does not, the character is assumed to be white.
Suzanne Collins DOES explicitly state Rue’s race, describing her skin color as ebony. Yet people still assumed she was white. Clearly America’s reading comprehension skills are lacking. Some people who missed that little factoid got upset or seemed to think that this somehow rendered her death less meaningful and, for reasons unknown, felt the need to share this on the internet. Others, already frustrated about the casting, were not surprisingly upset by this and said racist sentiments set off a maelstrom of heated (very, very heated) internet-based debate.
1) The book clearly states that Rue is black. It’s not subtextual or in any way ambiguous, unlike Katniss. 2) If an innocent little girl dying is not as sad to you upon discovering that she does not share your racial background, then you are a terrible human being. Children dying is sad. Frankly, people dying is sad. The color, creed, or culture is immaterial.
Despite the controversy surrounding the film’s casting and the objections to the books themselves, largely due to violent content, the movie was still extremely commercially successful with the 3rd highest-grossing opening weekend of all time, trailing such competitors as The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2.
Not too shabby, Katniss. Not too shabby at all.