Thursday, March 29, 2012

Movie Review - The Hunger Games

While the world argues over whether Jennifer Lawrence was too beefy for the role of the supposedly starved Katniss, I try and rise above the sensationalistic tabloids and wonder aloud why this movie wasn't titled "Tree Girl."

Genre: Sci-fi
Premise: Set in a future where the Capitol selects a boy and girl from the twelve districts to fight to the death on live television, Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her younger sister's place for the latest match.
About: The Hunger Games is an adaptation of the best-selling book by Suzanne Collins. The movie came out this past weekend and grossed $152 million dollars domestically, giving it one of the best openings of all time. It's a confirmation of the way Hollywood seems to be doing business these days with their tentpoles – via book adaptations. After Harry Potter there was Twilight. After Twilight, now, there’s The Hunger Games. Whether this new trend starts to phase out the old trend of superhero movies, we’ll have to see, but it looks like it's going to be here for awhile until the next unexpected trend hits. Let's hope that trend is original screenplays from spec screenwriters!
Writer: Suzanne Collins and Gary Ross and Billy Ray (based on the novel by Suzanne Collins)

For a poor mining town, they sure do make stylish jackets!

Hunger Games is sweeping the nation. Which means I have no choice but to blog about it. But the truth is, I've been interested in this movie for a while, even if it’s geared towards a younger audience (it’s based on a young adult novel). Why? Because I've been saying for years they need update Lord Of The Flies. Kids being forced to fight each other for survival always felt like gold to me, so to see Hunger Games find that perfect mix of ingredients for the update was a welcome surprise.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the film, “Games” is about a post-Apocalyptic future where the land has been divided into districts. Every year, each district has to send two members under 18 (or is it 16?) to the main city where they fight to the death against the other 22 district members in a “Battle Royale” contest in the wilderness. Taking its cue from movies like “The Running Man,” the entire world watches the event on TV.

Our heroine, Katniss, is part of the poor mining town of District 12. When her younger sister - sure to be slaughtered if she’s chosen to participate – “wins” the lottery as District 12’s female representative, Katniss volunteers herself instead. She's accompanied by Peeta, a young man obviously upset that he was named after a bread, and who has had a secret crush on Katniss forever.

The two head into the city where they are paraded around in sort of an America Idol way, then train for two weeks before the big competition. They are mentored by a number of people who critique everything from their fighting skills to their style. Some of the participants take pride in the fact that they represent their districts, while others are terrified, especially the younger kids, who have no shot at winning. As the training goes on, Katniss becomes one of the unexpected favorites to win the competition, while her partner, Peeta Bread, looks like an early exit.

Once they're finally thrust into the game, we see just how brutal and violent the contest is. 12 of the participants are slaughtered immediately. Katniss is able to get away, however, where she quickly learns of an alliance that the stronger members have put together, specifically to take her out. Most surprising about this alliance is that her district buddy, Peeta, is helping them. Katniss will have to call upon her survival skills – specifically her kick ass bow and arrow expertise – if she’s to have any shot at winning The Hunger Games.

I started assessing the screenwriting in The Hunger Games almost immediately. One thing I've noticed in the past is that when you have a main character who's stuffy or off-putting or reserved or prickly, you're putting yourself in a huge hole, because chances are, we're not going to want to follow that character around for 140 minutes (yes, this was one long movie!). I've seen so many screenplays sink like The Titanic (to reference another hit film) due to this issue.

But the Hunger Games started combatting the problem immediately. One of the very first scenes was Katniss cradling her younger sister after she’d had a nightmare, singing her back to sleep. When you see somebody love somebody – be protective of somebody - this much, it’s really hard not to like them. On top of that, when her sister gets chosen to be the representative, it’s Katniss who jumps up and volunteers herself instead. This is another device that makes it impossible to dislike a character. Your hero is sacrificing her own life for someone else’s? How can you not like that person?

The trifecta comes when, during the game, Collins gives Katniss another character to love, one of the younger girls in the competition who has no shot. The two have a nice little rapport going and it's clear that Katniss will do anything to protect her, just like her sister. This protective quality of Katniss overshadows her bitchy/unlikable side, a huge key in getting us to root for her.

Moving forward, I noticed the first big mistake in the script. This whole movie revolves around the emerging relationship between Katniss and Peeta. So why is it we spend the opening of the movie with Katniss and Good Looking Pointless Guy? Katniss and Good Looking Pointless Guy obviously have some chemistry, but after their initial scene, we see Good Looking Pointless Guy for a total of 5 seconds for the rest of movie. Which begs the question – why not use this opening to establish the relationship between Katniss and Peeta instead??? Wouldn’t that have been a much better way to utilize the screenplay space?

And to show you how one mistake can lead to others, because they didn't set up Katniss and Peeta in the opener, they’re forced to explain their relationship through a series of clunky flashbacks instead (showing Peeta come out of his bakery and toss bread to pigs with Katniss looking on – I think hungrily – nearby). Not only is it impossible to understand what any of these flashbacks mean, but they’re just plain clunky.

Hey look!  It's Pointless Good Looking Guy!

In fact, the flashbacks here should serve as a deterrent to any writers who want to use flashbacks in their scripts. Had they just set up Kaniss and Peeta instead of Katniss and Good Looking Pointless Guy, the movie would’ve moved along a lot smoother. (And I know somebody is going to say, “But Good Looking Pointless Guy’s really important for the next two movies!” I don't care. I'm watching *this* movie. All I care about is *this* movie making sense.)

My next problem with the film was the most unique screenwriting problem I've ever dealt with. I refer to it as the, “protagonist hides in trees too much” problem. Katniss seems to literally spend tens of minutes during the movie up in trees. Not only does her Tarzaness obsession get weird, but I don't like any scenario in an action movie where your main character is allowed a big fat “time out.” This is a battle royale!!! It shouldn't be as easy as hopping onto the nearest Sycamore whenever you need some R&R.

The third big problem, which was almost baffling to me, was that Katniss never had to get out of any tough situations herself. She's saved every single time by somebody else. It’s like the movie’s one long string of mini-deus-ex-machinas. Katniss will be at death’s door with a girl holding a knife to her throat when, voila, someone else will kill the girl at the last second. Even when she’s up in her favorite place, a tree, she needs to be saved by someone else.

I don’t get why writers keep doing this. Don’t they know that the audience would rather see our hero solve her own problem? Isn't it so much more satisfying when they escape via their own doing? My theory is that writers take this lazy route simply because it’s easier. Why spend four or five days sweating out a memorable escape scene, like Hannibal slipping away in an ambulance pretending to be a massacred guard, when you can write another character saving them instead (i.e. one of the guards drops a key near the cage)? It’s my opinion that this is what separates the truly great writers from the rest – the ones who are willing to do that extra work.

But maybe I'm being a little harsh. Suzanne Collins did just write a screenplay that made more money in its opening weekend than every other film in history except for two. But if I can’t analyze a screenplay to death then what’s the point of this site? :)

And in the end, I did like this movie. I thought Collins did a tremendous job with the characters (Effie Trinket was great!). There was some clumsy stuff near the middle with the love story, but I definitely loved Katniss and wanted her to succeed. And if you really want the main character to achieve her goal, then the writer’s done her job. Combined with the cool subject matter, I was totally on board with The Hunger Games.

[ ] guaranteed death
[ ] Lousy odds
[x] odds are looking decent
[ ] odds are in your favor
[ ] guaranteed winner

What I learned: The big thing I learned here - or at least was reminded of - was how protectiveness over another individual can make an unlikable character extremely likable. This is a huge advantage when you think about it because lots of stories require you to start with a protagonist who has negative traits. So if you don't have tools in place to offset those negative traits and make your character likable, chances are we're going to dislike them and, by association, your story.