Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Nitpickery: Hunger Games -- Book v. Movie

Hey y'all.  Well, I finally went and saw Hunger Games.  Everyone said it was a good movie, and it was up on Netflix, so yeah.  Fun stuff.  And because I work at a bookstore, I was able to read the book for free. 

Notedly, there are going to be heavy spoilers.  Though I don't think it's too much of a problem.  Hunger Games isn't really one of those movies that are ruined by spoilers.  It's like watching a James Bond film; you already have a general idea of how the movie is going to end.  The same goes for the book, pretty much. 

Let's start with the film, because I saw that first.  I do like watching movies before reading the book sometimes, because it gives me a different perspective than I would have if it'd been the other way around.  In any case, I liked the movie.  It wasn't something I'll rant and rave over, but it was entertaining, thought-provoking, and the costumes were something to look at.  Overall it was fun, but I'm glad I didn't pay full price to see it.

Quick plot summary!
The storyline goes thusly: Katniss Everdeen is the oldest daughter in her family, and she takes care of her widowed mother and young sister in District 12, the mining district.  She has to hunt and scrounge to make sure her family has enough to eat.  Each of the twelve districts, however, has an annual event called the Hunger Games where two kids between 12-18, a boy and a girl, have to be locked in an arena and forced to fight to the death until only one is left.  That person is then showered with money and food, able to return to their district with new wealth, fame, and survivabilty.  This is very important to the poorer districts. 

Those that are picked for the games are done so by chance.  Each 12 year old gets their name put into the pot once.  13 year olds have their names entered twice, 14 year olds three times, and so on until eighteen.  If a person wants to earn food, they can have their name entered an extra time to bring home food for a year....for one person.  This is explained more in the books than in the movie, but it's an easy concept, and the moviegoer can easily imagine other ways the Capitol (the government) cons people into getting their names put in more.  However, when Katniss' sister is picked, Katniss volunteers to take her place.  She is joined by Peeta Mellark, and the two of them go and represent District 12 in the murder game. 

End plot summary!

One thing that is true about both the movie and the book is that the story far exceeds the presentation.  In the film, the directer used gratuitous shaky cam.  Now, I don't mind this during chase scenes, or to keep the film from focusing to much on death, but when two people are there, having a conversation, I don't need a camera to tell me something important is happening.  Seriously, Hollywood, shaky cam is overused.  Stop it.  I said stop! 

Actually, to me the shaky cam is a form of symbolism: it symbolizes the terrible narrative of the book.  Seriously, the first time I attempted to read the book, I saw it was in first person and immediately put it back.  Now, generally this isn't the worst thing in the world, but writing in first person is very hard to do well.  This is mainly because people, when they are talking or journalizing, are not fanciful enough with their words or descriptive enough of their surroundings to the standard of a good novel. 

Now, from time to time first person works.  Sometimes people use first person temporarily, like in a journal entry or musing.  Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn was good, but mainly due to Huck witnessing a lot of alternate perspectives, as well as being a male.  Guys tend to discuss things that are physical rather than things that are emotional, in our culture anyway, meaning that the reader gets a clearer picture of what's going on around the male character.  Given that the subplot of Hunger Games is a love triangle, it's automatically difficult to properly show love no matter who your protagonist is, though since Katniss is largely an internal and not so emotional person, that makes it even harder.

Honestly, the narrative is genuinely bad.  I'm not sure if Suzanne Collins planned it that way as Katniss' way of talking, or if the editor failed to do something about Collins.  I'm suspicious of the latter, given how William C. Dietz' noobish narrative in Heaven's Devils made it to publication.  Collins constantly goes back and forth in her past and present tense and says really awkward phrases.  At one point, Katniss goes, "To confuse my enemies' minds..."  Um, what normal person says that?  Can't she just say "To confuse my enemies"?  Or, if she's a little more pretentious, "To fill their minds with doubt"?  I dunno.  It just really stuck out as awkward to me.  Here's a few more examples.

- "After that, we only talk in front of people."

The thing about this is that it's jumping from past tense to present.  Again, this is just a result of the troubles of writing in first person, but yeah.  The tense of each sentence should be correct.  The "after that" implies past tense, and the "only talk" implies present tense.  To get the tenses consistent, Collins should have said something like this:  "He gets the idea.  We only talk in front of people now."

I sort of think that maybe this should have been written in past tense rather than present, but present likely works better when it comes to a book about fighting to the death.

- "And what difference does it make?  Whether we speak or not?"

There's numerous sentences like this: choppy fragments cut up into different sentences either for stylistic purposes or perhaps to make Katniss sound choppy.  Thing is, if you're someone narrating a story, you're not going to be choppy.  You're going to know how to work the flow of the spoken word, or written word in this case.  This could just as easily be put into one sentence and flow better.  This isn't an isolated incident, either.

- "And a half-gallon plastic bottle with a cap for carrying water that's bone dry."

Note that this is a full sentence, a part of the narrative that is listing the things that Katniss found in the first pack she got.  Each item gets its own little sentence fragment instead of being listed naturally.  Choppy, choppy.

But what's obviously wrong with this sentence is the reason I'm very concerned about Collin's editor and the future of published writing in general.  The way it's set up makes it look like the bottle is only good for carrying bone dry water.  I've never heard of bone dry water, unless the dehydrated water from Space Quest counts.  And this isn't Space Quest.

So yeah, there's many other examples of that sort of thing, and the choppy narrative really saps the narrative of emotion.  It's definitely the narrative equivalent of shaky cam.  Really, when the camera on screen is more emotional than the protagonist, we have a problem.

That brings me to the actress who plays Katniss, Jennifer Lawrence.  She's not the worst actress in the world, but she's less expressive than a Muppet.  Seriously, she makes near about the same face in every single scene.  Now, I realize that much of this is the fault of the director, but it's an actor's job to have subtlety of expression.  I can't help but compare her to Sophie Marceau in her Braveheart role as the Princess of Wales.  Sophie too has a more controlled face, but at the same time, she has emotion and range and can convey emotions with the slightest twitch of her nose.  Jennifer Lawrence is basically wearing a mask in Hunger Games.  Katniss in the book is in introvert, but at least she acts like a human.

But I will cut her at least a little slack.  Athletically, I believed her, and she did all her stunts well.  She also did good at portraying the awkwardness of her TV relationship with Peeta.  This is where the books and the movie differed a little.  In the book, Katniss is in constant conflict, as she's very close to Gale, someone else in her district who hunts to support his family.  It hasn't bloomed into a romance, but as Katniss goes through the Hunger Games, she realizes how much she appreciates Gale.  This is a comparison to her relationship with Peeta, who she has to pretend to like so that she'll get sponsors in the games who will provide her with survival supplies. 

In the book she develops uncertain feelings for Peeta, while in the movie the entire relationship feels very forced.  Some people criticize the movie for this, but honestly, I think it's fine.  There's always going to be some parts of a movie that won't be portrayed correctly from the book, and this wasn't so much an error as just something that's different.  It's easier to get emotional depth in books, and the movie did a fine job.  One can just assume that in the movie version that Katniss knows her romance with Peeta is fake, and is somehow planning to get Gale's attention when it's over. 

I really like the drama in the book, though.  Katniss knows that Gale is a better match, but at the same time her experiences are drawing her closer to Peeta, though through most of the book she struggles to know if Peeta is doing it for TV or if he genuinely has a crush on her.  That part was sadly nerfed during the film, and we don't really know in that version if Peeta has any genuine feelings for her.  Like I said, it's not wrong, per se, just different.  Because the book cuts off before Peeta and Katniss have any real chance to honestly define their relationship, it probably won't make that much of a difference when the second movie comes out.

As for the other actors, they were pretty good.  None of them were terrible, though I think the guy playing President Snow was pretty boring.  The actor playing Peeta did an excellent job, if a bit on the ham side.  The guy playing Gale?  Eh, he gave a pretty typical, generic performance.  Sure he was good looking, but he didn't really have the chance to show any personality.  Like all talents, acting gets better with age and use, but for now he's no good at being subtle.  The tributes did well, especially Cato, and Rue was pretty adorable.  Actually, all in all the acting was pretty good during the arena scenes.

One of the things the movie did better than the book was cut out a really bizarre incident from the book.  Now, it was pretty weird that computers generated animals in the arena, but in the book it was instead the fallen tributes who had been genetically mutated into monsters.  The other thing the film did better was keep Katniss from talking about being naked all the time.  Seriously, Katniss, what the heck?

There were a few problems with the plot, however.  In the movie, District 11's male, Thresh, spares Katniss because she protected District 11's female, little 12 year old Rue.  However, at no point does he explain how in the world he knew Katniss did all that.  He wasn't there when Rue and Katniss hung out, and if he found Rue's body after Katniss put the flowers on her, he'd have no way of knowing Katniss was the one who did it.

I found out, however, that in the book the plot is even weaker.  Katniss simply tells him that she was caring for Rue and he believes her.  The assumption is probably that he heard Clove talking about killing Rue, but if he heard that then why did he take so long to attack Clove?  And, in both the movie and the book, if he was so concerned about Rue, then why wasn't he with her?  Why didn't he try to protect her somehow?  It's not the biggest plot hole I've ever seen, but it's pretty important.

There are a few other plot holes, but they're less troublesome.  For a book example, Katniss takes a guy's pack, and as this guy is one of the "Careers" (people in richer districts who train specifically for the games), she assumes she'll get good stuff.  It turns out that the only food he has on him was a pack of dried fruit.  Katniss figures he only had that because he was too arrogant to carry much food on him, as the Careers had most of the supplies in the arena.  Thing is, if you're in a survival situation, don't you assume that at some point you may run low on food?  Even if you have some stashed away, aren't you going to at least carry a day's worth of stuff with you in case you get pinned down somewhere?  He at least should have packed some beef jerky.

A plot weakness in both the film and the book was the scene where Katniss shoots an arrow into the apple in a roast pig's mouth.  She does this to impress the Gamemakers, who will decide what ranking she gets, which in turn determines the odds for people gambling on the games.  However, this was instantly odd to me.  Now, the Capitol took a lot of precautions in making sure the tributes don't try to kill themselves or escape before the Hunger Games began.  They even installed a force field on top of the tribute's tower so that no one could jump.  Why then didn't they put some impact resistant glass between the tributes and the Gamemakers?  Maybe hook up a monitor and camera so that the Gamemakers aren't at risk?  That seems like the number one obvious thing to do.

To a lesser extent, it also bothered me how Katniss' clothing designer, Cinna, comes up with a brilliant concept, but the other designers don't really compare.  You'd think the designers for the rich districts would be really skilled at this point.

One final nitpick: how in the heck can Peeta paint himself into a rock?  I know the movie was trying to make it look extreme, but even the book wasn't that ostentatious.  Collins had him hiding in mud.  Think about it.  If you're in a survival situation where you're being hunted down, are you really going to waste hours and hours trying to make your face look like a rock?  Especially when your face is clearly obvious on the side of it, and when your leg is very badly hurt so it's hard to make sure the camo is right?  Hollywood went a bit too far on that one.

However, for all its weaknesses, the Hunger Games is a better story than something like Heaven's Devils.  Unlike William C. Dietz, Suzanne Collin's weakness was primarily in presentation.  The base story itself was very good and intriguing.  There's a reason why it got picked for a movie.  Even in the places where the story is weak, the audience is still able to connect to the characters and enjoy the plot for what it is.  The concept is great, the costumes are brilliant, and the idea of having a bunch of people in a computer room controlling the games was a great addition.

This movie is for:
- Casual moviegoers
- Action film fans
- Teenagers
- People with an obsession with drama
- People who like weird clothes.

This movie is not for:
- Children (seriously, don't bring your kids)
- People sensitive to violence

Best actor: Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark

Simply put, Hutcherson does a great job of bringing a really dorky guy to life.  He has a lot more personality than some guys I've seen on screen, and his acting takes up a lot of the slack left by Jennifer Lawrence.

So yeah, why not see this movie?  It's pretty good, and doesn't even have a lot of cursing in it.  But yeah, the deaths can be a problem.  As for the book, it won't take long to read, and even despite its narrative, I was able to care about the characters and make it to the end.  It's like Mortal Kombat from 1994; it's not great, but it's entertaining as all get out.  And next time I'm at work, I'm going to get the second book.

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