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Thursday, March 22, 2012 12:05 pm

Director nearly loses Games

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Bearing the expectations of millions and the fortunes of Lionsgate Studios on its shoulders, the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games arrives in theaters as a mixed bag. To be sure, fans of the novel will be well satisfied with the movie. It adheres quite close to the source material, eschewing some character development but making sure to render all of the story’s more memorable moments with the emotional weight they deserve. Unfortunately, as filmed by the unsure hand of Gary Ross, the movie’s action sequences, and even scenes that should be shot in a staid manner, are rendered in a way that will create motion sickness in even the most stable. The result is a frustrating exercise in which the film’s story seems to be at odds with the man bringing it to the screen.

For the uninitiated, and that would be many readers over 25 years of age, Collins’ novel takes place in the near future where the United States has been divided into 13 districts, a move precipitated by a rebellion that broke out after a cataclysmic war left the nation in tatters. The new country, called Panem, holds an annual festival in which two representatives from each district are chosen to participate in a vicious tournament called The Hunger Games, an event so large it makes the Super Bowl seem like a modest affair. Teenagers are picked, one of each gender, and the odds for districts 3-12 are quite low as participants from 1 and 2 are trained from a young age and usually end up victorious.

However, the tribute from District 12, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is another story. Volunteering to go after her younger sister is chosen, her sense of determination and undying anger towards the government makes her a formidable foe. Under the tutelage of former champion Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and image consultant Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the former training her body, the other bolstering her confidence, she becomes an early favorite in the games, much to the dismay of District 12’s other participant, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). And while he professes to have a crush on Katniss, there are times when his intentions towards her are questionable.

To be sure, this is a gruesome premise and the film goes as far as it can within its PG-13 boundary to deliver the contest as vividly as possible. A fine line is found here as the horror is preserved while its violence never becomes a distraction. Also not lost in the telling is Collins’ blistering indictment of organized government and class warfare as the inhabitants of the Capital, who do not have to send representatives to the games, are seen as an isolated, pampered lot, while the powers that be rule with an iron hand and have little regard for Panem’s citizens. The games are nothing more than a display of that power, serving as a reminder that the lives of those beneath them can be snuffed out at a whim.

Unfortunately, the film is not a fully engaging experience. Far too often, Ross calls attention to himself as his camera constantly bobs, weaves and wavers, even during simple conversations, creating a constant distraction long after he’s made his point. (Things are shaky and unsettled in District 12, get it?) And when action scenes are required, which is quite often, Ross is at sea, putting the camera far too close to his performers, which creates confusion rather than clarification. The result is a film in which a series of blurs is present when fluid motion is needed. This takes us out of the story at every turn.

Thank goodness for Lawrence. She is very good here, conveying much with little dialogue, creating a heroine in the classic sense. Smart and angry, powerful when need be, sympathetic at other times, she provides us with a rooting interest that helps us endure this cinematic seizure.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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