By Brian Lafferty
March 23, 2012 (San Diego) – The Hunger Games is gripping, emotional, and gritty. It’s Hollywood’s second great survival film after Joe Carnahan’s The Grey. On top of that, it’s an indictment on the social disparities between the elite and lower class, and on American society’s obsession with reality television.
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian future. What used to be the continent of North America is now known as Panem and separated into twelve districts. As punishment for an uprising decades earlier, the Capital of Panem devised the Hunger Games. Each District must send two tributes – one a boy, one a girl – to fight each other in an arena until only one victor emerges. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) of District 12, the most impoverished one, fights to survive as she battles her feelings for fellow District Twelve tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson).
The cinematography is by Tom Stern (a frequent collaborator with Clint Eastwood), who takes some monumental risks with his stylistic choices. Expecting an epic scope with many wide shots and a mostly-still camera, instead I got a lot of medium shots and close-ups. Add to that a handheld camera that frequently pans right and left. Not the most logical visual palette of a film in which teenagers hunt and kill each other in a large arena.
At first disappointed, I quickly understood why Stern and director Gary Ross filmed it this way, despite ample space courtesy of the 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It brought me close to Katniss. Her face may be constantly blank and emotionless, but it masks her soothing, sweet, and feisty tendencies. I felt a strong connection to her the same way I did her character in the novel. Reading the book, I saw Lawrence as Katniss. The movie – and Lawrence – confirm without a doubt that she IS Katniss.
The close-ups and medium shots don’t box in the film. Despite these shots’ prevalence, The Hunger Games is definitely cinematic, not television. I never felt the 2.35:1 aspect ratio was squandered because the filmmakers and the actors make each shot count. Stern infuses the forest with dark tones and colors. Something important always takes place in every part of the frame.
Last week I criticized The Forgiveness of Blood for its terrible and unnecessary handheld camera work. The Hunger Games’s camerawork is done right and with a positive reason. The camera is shaky, but I saw motivation in its every pan, with two types in particular. The first is the Rod Lurie style right-left-right pans in two-character dialogue scenes that similar to cinema verite. The other is movement that reveals important information in a manner imitating Katniss’ quick-thinking mind.
Sometimes the camerawork is chaotic when amalgamated with the rat-tat-tat editing seen in the few action scenes. Within the chaos is a structure that isn’t easily visible without any effort on the audience’s part. I still know what went on amidst the camera’s jerky thrusting and the two to four second takes. As long as I can assemble the entire picture in my mind, that’s what matters.
I must note that The Hunger Games is NOT an action movie. It’s a survival film. Nevertheless, director Ross and his screenwriter inject several memorable action sequences. In one scene, the game officials aren’t pleased that Katniss is far away from the other tributes. They initiate a wall of fire that chases her back towards the action, with an added arsenal of fireballs hurled faster than a Nolan Ryan fastball. The ferocious flames are bad enough, but each shot is framed so obliquely that you can't see where the fireballs come from and what trajectories they will take.
The book was a true page-turner. I could have finished it in less than five hours if I wanted to. The movie clocks in at two hours and twenty-two minutes, but it never wears out its welcome and it never drags. It’s one of those films where every glance of my watch yielded a surprise at how much time quickly passed.
The Hunger Games is now playing in wide release.
A Lionsgate release. Director: Gary Ross. Screenplay: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray, based on the novel “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins. Original Music: T-Bone Burnett and James Newton Howard. Cinematography: Tom Stern. Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Liam Hemsworth, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, and Donald Sutherland. 142 minutes. Rated PG-13.