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Blu-Ray Review: The Hunger Games

The spectacular special features are worth the price of admission, but they inadvertently reveal why the movie doesn't work.

 

The Hunger Games Blu-ray contains a sparkling, exciting and insightful motion picture that you should all probably see. It’s a pity that it’s not Gary Ross’s adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ novel, but at least it’s something.

The feature-length documentary Game Maker: Suzanne Collins and the Hunger Games Phenomenon is the best kind of special feature: informative, in depth and articulate about the production, whether or not you liked it. All the participants describe relevant, interesting stories about the making of The Hunger Games. Even though they’re still exerting most of their energy marketing the film, even though the warts have been lasered off of the production, you can still see the scars in the little turns of phrase. The producers speak very cautiously about the failed drafts of the screenplay, particularly from Collins herself, but the information is still there to be digested by even-minded audiences. I learned a lot about the movie version of The Hunger Games from this documentary. Like why the actual movie doesn’t work.

The Hunger Games takes place in a future civilization called Panem, in which two children from each district are chosen at random to partake in the yearly “Hunger Games.” They are forced to fight to the death for the nation’s amusement, and to keep the lower classes demoralized. The story is told from the perspective of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), the newest “tribute” from District 12, who volunteers to save her young sister from certain death in the arena. Katniss is a skilled hunter whose proficiency with a bow could keep her alive, but only if she can manipulate the system in her favor. Manipulating the system requires her to navigate a series of entertainment staples, however, that run contrary to her down-to-earth demeanor. She’ll have to become a celebrity in order to stay alive.

When I first reviewed The Hunger Games earlier this year, I had not read the novel and was struck by just how odd the motion picture was. I’d seen suspiciously similar derivations of The Most Dangerous Game before, like Series 7: The Contenders and the infinitely superior Battle Royale, but director Gary Ross’s approach to the film was a muddy one, awkwardly mixing subjective character-driven storytelling with the surreality of the world in which the film takes place. I knew he was trying to tell the story from his protagonist’s perspective, but it wasn’t entirely clear until I saw the special features why this was such a poor idea in the first place.

Ross explains, backed up by the producers, that shooting The Hunger Games in a glossy style would make the production seem cynical, and was therefore avoided. What they seem to have missed is the fact that Panem is a cynical world that warranted exploration. Readers of the novels can fill in the blanks that Ross omits in his adaptation, and focus on the heroine’s journey undeterred by pesky details. For those of us, like myself, who haven’t read the novel, those details are necessary elements to the story. While adapting Suzanne Collins’ book with utter faithfulness would have been unwieldy, telling the story in such a way that the audience understands the full context of the narrative would have allowed us to actually enjoy the experience.

Filming the second half of the film entirely from Katniss’s perspective fails to sell the very notion of The Hunger Games themselves. Katniss’s plight is a tragedy, but it’s being sold as entertainment, and ignoring that aspect of the story prevents the film from feeling like a rich experience. The Truman Show found a superior balance, as Peter Weir filmed his own reality TV parable from both Truman’s perspective and the perspective of the audience, depending upon the needs of the scene. Watching the murders at play in The Hunger Games from both perspectives might have been a fair compromise: we see a young life brutally cut short, and then an “instant replay” from a more polished, detached perspective, selling the concept of the film and cleanly emphasizing the emotional detachment of the typical movie audience. Without some sort of balance between the two elements of The Hunger Games, we’re left with a personal story about an impersonal world, and it’s impossible to truly understand the heroine’s journey because we don’t fully appreciate the context in which she lives.

But for those of you who have read the books, and can appreciate what The Hunger Games has to offer, you have a fine Blu-ray on your hands. The transfer is strong, the sound design is striking and the special features effectively immerse you in the production itself. For the rest of us, we’re forced to look upon The Hunger Games as a strange curio, an “almost film” of the highest order. It’s almost great, it’s almost engaging, it’s almost smart, and it’s almost badass. Almost.


The Hunger Games:

The Blu-Ray: