Hunger Games the Movie – Excellent, but marred . . .

Posted by John Brown on March 26th, 2012

So is the movie as good as so many are saying?

I liked the book a lot. You can see my review here: http://johndbrown.com/2010/09/amano-jasons-deli-and-the-hunger-games/

Yes, but is the movie as good as the book?

Let’s start with the beginning of the movie. During the first 10 or 15 minutes I was so annoyed and angry that I almost rose up out of my seat to shout “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!” at the screen.

Was this because the movie wasn’t faithful to the book?

Because the actors sucked?

Because the popcorn triggered a terrible case of restless leg syndrome?

No, no, and no. 

Then, why, John? Why?

Because the director, Gary Ross, who wrote the wonderful Seabiscuit and Big, just couldn’t trust the material, the story, to work its magic. No, he thought that it would be a really good idea to MAKE ME SICK by overexaggerating and overusing HANDHELD CAMERA MOVEMENT. You know, the idea that if you confuse the viewer and make them uncomfortable, that will help them FEEL the wrongness, the stress, and the fear of the situation.

A common technique for doing this is the tilted shot. Tilt the shot just a little and viewers subconsciously get the idea that something is wrong. You don’t notice it. The movie plays on, but you do feel that something is wrong, that trouble is brewing somewhere or someone is lying. A similar technique is used in action scenes. To help the viewer feel the “speed” of the action, they give us quick cuts. But the traditional tilted shot and quick cuts preserve understanding. They’re more of an unconscious effect. You still see the movie unfold and understand it. 

However, some directors in the last few years, maybe with Spielberg’s use of this in the beginning of Saving Private Ryan (is there a movie history buff out there who can confirm?), decided that if a little was good, good golly, ten times that would be a LOT better.  So instead of realizing that action sequences like the one in the beginning of Casino Royale or the fights in Inception, ones you can easily follow, are the kinds audiences want, they figure they need to push the shots and cuts until audiences can’t make heads or tails of what’s happening.

Instead of giving the audience tremendous thrills and suspense, they give them confusion.

Wow, that’s a good trade off.

And now, Gary Ross, who seems to have inexplicably bought into this, decides that what he needs to do is not only deliver confusion but nausea and annoyance as well.

Stop, people. Stop. PLEASE! A little spice enhances a dish and takes it to the next level. But when you dump a cupful of thyme on my plate, all you do is make me want to gag.

I’m not the only one who noticed. My 14 year old and my 19 year old noticed it as well and were bugged by it. It got so bad I told myself if it didn’t stop, I was going to walk out and ask for my money back.  Luckily, Ross toned his nonsense down and finally let the actors and story take center stage. 

Which is what he should have done from the beginning because the acting was great. I loved Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as Katniss. Loved Willow Shields as Primrose and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. Stanley Tucci playing Ceasar Flickerman, the blue-haired talk show host, was perfect. And the story was indeed a faithful translation of the book. I’m sure a huge part of that is due to the fact that Suzanne Collins, the author of the novel, helped write the screen play.  The other writers were Gary Ross and Billy Ray. 

They did change a few minor things like Buttercup the cat is now black and white (I’m so utterly devastated I won’t be right for years), and Primrose gives the mockingjay pin to Katniss instead of Madge. They added scenes with the President of Panem.  They cut some scenes with minor characters and some twists in the plot. For those who read the book, even though the lost and changed parts added texture to the story, I think you’ll still be very pleased. For those who haven’t read the book, I think you’ll be wowed and sobered by the end. You’ll think about the Romans and their gladiators. You’ll wonder how we can we humans can do things like this. And I think you’ll feel a great indignation take root in your breast against the villains who control the world of the story.

So, the move is a great experience that would have been over-the-top excellent if the director hadn’t marred it with way too much of something that should be used as spice instead of the main course.  Nevertheless, I recommend it. If you like action and drama, I think you’ll love the movie and the book. And hopefully my comments above will innoculate you to the opening scenes because you know to expect them going in.

EDIT: Matthais Stork writes about “Chaos Cinema: The Decline and Fall of Action Filmmaking“. And his response to his critics. Anne Billson of The Guardian agrees that “Action sequences should stir, not just shake“.  But here’s a fellow trying to defend chaos cinema in a way that reminds me way too much of those I met in my English degree who assumed that the highest reading was one that focused on meaning, one that assumed the story was really not a story about people to be experienced, but a clever puzzle that needed to be decoded.

EDIT: The issue with chaos cinema is that it replaces showing with telling.

It presents “big fight” and “exciting chase” instead of showing the big fight and exciting chase. It’s similar to voice over narration: using the soundtrack to tell us about what’s happening instead of showing it to us. But it goes beyond even that because at least the narration told us what was happening. Chaos cinema at its most extreme doesn’t do even that. It replaces clarity with confusion. And this is its biggest downfall.

For someone to react with emotion to a situation, they must (1) understand what’s going on AND (2)believe that the situation is real. The moment you deliver confusion, you take away one of the two necessary antecedents, and prevent the audience from responding emotionally. They now can only respond intellectually, e.g. Ah, I congnitively see that we are having a fight; I have no idea what’s happening and how that affects the guy I’m rooting for, but I see we’ve inserted the “fight” concept. (For those interested in the excellent discussion of emotion and stories, you’ll want to read Jenefer Robinson’s DEEPER THAN REASON: Emotions and it’s role in literature, music, and art.)

Take it too far and you remove the second antecedent as well because now, instead of reacting to the story, you’re thinking about the camera man. Which is what happened with me when I just about came out of my chair to shout at the screen at the beginning of HUNGER GAMES. And what happened to half a dozen others I know who couldn’t look up because it would make them dizzy, and another half dozen who did look up and got sick.

Chaos cinema trades in the super powers of cinematic storytelling for a bunch of rocks.

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11 Responses to “Hunger Games the Movie – Excellent, but marred . . .”

  1. Lisa Deon Says:

    John,

    I agree with much of what you said about the film. Changing the cat’s color didn;t bother me much, and in fact they could have cut the cat out. I do wish they had spent less time on the shakey camera in the woods scenes and more fleshing out the relationship between Katniss and Rue. Still, my husband who had not read the books enjoyed it. After the film I encouraged him to read the books, and he seemed less resistant than before (It’s difficult to convince a 53 year old man that YA can be enjoyable.) And in my estimation, any time a movie can draw in readers, it’s successful indeed.

  2. Sherry Lewis Says:

    I haven’t seen the movie (and don’t plan to). Haven’t read the books either (and don’t plan to.) I do try to avoid having an opinion about something without reading or seeing it first, but in this case I have a moral objection to the concept in general. I just don’t see children being forced to kill one another as entertainment. But I so agree with you about the overuse of “clever” camerawork in general, I just had to comment.

  3. John Brown Says:

    Sherry,

    That is an interesting point. I will say none of it is “entertaining.” There is no glory in any of the killing. But I do see your concern. Now I never liked LORD OF THE FLIES, but did you have the same reaction to that or even war movies? Or is it just the whole set up that bugs you?

  4. Jordon Says:

    In reply to Sherry. If you believe writing books, composing music, painting pictures and making movies is solely for entertainment then I feel bad for you because you’re completely missing so many other aspects of these arts. They tell stories, they communicate information, they share ideas, they do so many things and some of the best of them do a combination of these purposes. If movies were made of some of the atrocities that exist in our day would you still not see them just because you don’t agree with it? Or would you want to know what is really happening in our world, why is it happening, and who is out there fighting it? Our world has already seen events portrayed in the Hunger Games series. Perhaps you should know about it.

  5. Sherry Lewis Says:

    No, I didn’t have the same reaction to LORD OF THE FLIES and I have no objection to war movies. In fact, I think I’m usually pretty open-minded about things so I really don’t find myself having objections to many concepts. But this one is just so wrong to me — adults setting children up to fight to the death for entertainment — I just don’t want anything to do with it. It gives me that “this is seriously wrong” feeling, and when I get that about someone or something, I’ve learned not to open the door.

  6. leeflow1 Says:

    The camera work threw me right off the bat. The second thing that cheesed me off was that when Katniss retrieves her bow it is strung. I think that at that point we were between 3-5 minutes into the movie, and I was really worried that I was going to be continually pulled out of the story. Luckily it did get better and I was able to suspend reality to get through bad archery stuff and actually enjoy the movie. However, as a big fan of the books, I don’t think I’ll buy the movie.

  7. leeflow1 Says:

    @Sherry_Lewis
    I think you are missing out, but I think it is more important to trust your gut. So stick to your guns.

    FYI: The way books play out is far less disturbing to me than the real life accounts of adult led child on child violence in the Lords Resistance Army, in Africa.

  8. John Brown Says:

    I missed the strung bow. Probably BECAUSE OF THE CAMERA SHOTS!!! But I did wonder about her to the chin instead of the cheek pull.

  9. Kelly A. Says:

    As a loyal supporter to the book, I agree with you on the camera angles, cuts, and etc. John. As opposed to its use in the Bourne movies, I would have liked more steady camera shots in the Hunger Games. There was enough tension in the movie itself to keep me going, not the cinematography.

  10. John Brown Says:

    Exactly. I think the Bourne movies even pushed it in a few spots. Loved em. But those are tame compared to the crap going on at the beginning of this one.

  11. Martin G. Says:

    I agree completely about the shaking camera almost ruining the movie. Other than that, I thought it was pretty well done.