Sunday, March 25, 2012

Spoilers Ahoy!: Thoughts on "The Hunger Games"

First, a confession: I re-read the book the day before I went to see the movie. I realize now that doing so was a mistake. I had a hard time focusing on thematic consistency---which is how I generally try to compare movies to their source books---because I kept getting caught up in nitpicking.

With that disclaimer, here are my thoughts on the movie version of "The Hunger Games."

The Good

* Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss. She was perfectly cast. I did think she played Katniss a bit too hard in the beginning---we didn't get to see any of the fear and vulnerability that comes out early in the book---but I think that was more a failure of direction than acting.

* Elizabeth Banks as Effie; Woody Harrelson as Haymitch; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna; and Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman. The supporting cast was well chosen and well played.

* Foreshadowing. I appreciated that the filmmakers saw the whole story---not just one book---and tried to weave in some elements from later books where they made sense (even if this might be confusing to those who only read the first book).

* Gale. Or, lack thereof. Not that I have anything against Liam Hemsworth. I thought he was one of the better physical transformations into a character. But I was very grateful that the filmmakers played down the Gale-Katniss-Peeta romantic triangle. The movie could so easily have gone down the "Twilight" route, where the girl makes all her decisions based on a boy. Instead, the filmmakers stuck to portraying a strong, smart, resourceful girl who thinks for herself.

The Bad

* Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. This one was a big casting misstep. Hutcherson had zero chemistry with Lawrence, and the rest of his acting was equally flat.

* Wardrobe, Hair, and Make-Up. The clothes were generally a letdown from what was described in the book. And the hair and make-up departments were a total fail in the arena. We're supposed to be watching a group of kids who are sick, injured, and starving as they fight to the death. But most of the actors remained fresh-faced and too pretty throughout. Peeta is supposed to be on death's door: pale, sweating, feverish. So why does he look like the picture of health? I get that they can't have a bunch of young actors starve themselves down for the arena scenes, but they could have at least given them some dark circles under their eyes, some bruises and scars, something that makes it look like they are in the arena---not the community park.

* Character Development. Or lack thereof. Jennifer Lawrence, as noted, is amazing as Katniss. But she can't carry the movie alone. Yet, Katniss was the only character with any depth. As a result, the movie lacks any emotional punch. In the book, we get more about Katniss' relationship with her sister, Prim---how Katniss sees herself as her sister's caretaker---so the reaping scene is that much more powerful. We get more about the relationship between Katniss and Rue---that Katniss sees so much of Prim in Rue---so that when Rue dies, it is absolutely heart wrenching. The relationship between Katniss and Rue is also thematically important in the book: As Katniss learns more about Rue's district, it opens her eyes to the brutality of the Capitol. In the book, Katniss doesn't just mature emotionally but also politically, which becomes important for the next two books.

* Violence. Or, again, lack thereof. I get that the filmmakers wanted to get a PG-13 rating. But I think they pulled too many punches. The one that really bothered me was the finale---when the muttations attack the final three tributes. In the book, the muttations have characteristics of the dead tributes, whereas in the movie, they are generic techno-mutts. Also in the book, the attack on Cato continues for hours; in the movie, it lasts mere seconds. Again, both of these elements are thematically important to Katniss' political awakening as she realizes the lengths the Capitol will go to ensure a good "show." I think a more creative director could have conveyed the sense of violence while still showing restraint in what appears on screen.

* Flashbacks. I thought the flashbacks---to the mining accident that killed Katniss' father, to her memory of Peeta giving her bread---were too abstract. They didn't add to any understanding of the movie, unless you had read the books to know what was being referenced.

All in all, I thought the movie was . . . okay. I do think the filmmakers focused too much on making a franchise, rather than a really good movie. They tried too hard to appeal to the teen crowd. The thing is, I think they are underestimating their audience. The books didn't become a phenomenon because they featured Teen Beat-worthy actors and simplistic storylines. The books are challenging, raw, sophisticated, complex. The books are political. And, yet, readers of all ages flocked to them. The filmmakers didn't seem to trust that the audience will accept these same qualities in a film.

I also think---and this may be nitpicking---that the filmmakers ignored consistency in places where they could have thrown a bone to the fans. I know that the movie can't be a scene by scene replica of the books, and I do think that the filmmakers made some smart choices in where they cut and condensed material (e.g., cutting Haymitch's drunken dive off the reaping stage; condensing Katniss' early days in the arena). But they sometimes cut or changed things for no good reason. Why leave out the early scene of Katniss and Gale sharing a picnic in the woods? Why cut the number of tributes killed by the wasps from two to one? Why have Katniss off stage during Peeta's declaration of love for her---instead of on the stage, blushing and panicked? Why not have Katniss and Peeta's discussion on the night before the games take place on the rooftop? Why have Peeta throw the bread to the pigs first, and then to Katniss---which changed the scene thematically? The filmmakers seemed to be counting on the audience having read the books---see above, re: flashbacks, among other things---but then they didn't seem to care about getting the little details right---even though it's the little details that matter so much to the fans.

Now that I've written all this out, it seems like I really disliked the movie. Which isn't entirely true. It's just that I liked the books so much more.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday(ish): Spring To Be Read

I wasn't going to do my top ten this week. Quite frankly, I've spent enough time in front of my computer for the week. And, let's face it, I'm not actually going to have time to read anything I want to read until some time in June. But, if I lived in a perfect world and had time to read, these are the books that would be on my To Be Read Books for Spring.

1. Pulphead: Essays by John Jeremiah Sullivan

2. Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman

3. Payback: Debt and the Shadow Side of Wealth by Margaret Atwood (This one has been on my TBR list for approximately forever.)

4. There But For The by Ali Smith

5. The Book Thief by Markus Zusak

6. The Subversive Copy Editor by Carol Fisher Saller

7. The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

8. Beyond the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

9. I've Got Your Number by Sophie Kinsella

10. The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler

The hardest part of making this list was choosing from the long, long list of books I want to read. I've become addicted to the sample option for Kindle, so I have a growing number of "samples" stored up for when I do have time to read.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Top Ten Tuesday: Books on Writing and Grammar

This week's Top Ten Tuesday topic from The Broke and the Bookish is "Top X Genre Books." I'm preoccupied with preparing my students to write their fieldwork assignments, so I've got grammar and writing on the brain. Hence . . .

My Top Ten Books on Writing and Grammar

1. On Writing Well by William Zinsser. A classic, and rightfully so. I also highly recommend Zinsser's Writing to Learn.

2. Walking on Water by Madeleine L'Engle.

3. Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day by Joan Bolker. A new favorite, this book got me over my writing blocks and into writing my dissertation.

4. The Careful Writer by Theodore Bernstein.

5. The Art of Fiction by John Gardiner.

6. Getting the Words Right: How to Rewrite, Edit, and Revise by Theodore Cheney. I'm not a fan of some of Cheney's other works (especially Writing Creative Nonfiction), but this book is a great overview of the revision process.

7. Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner.

8. Sister Bernadette's Barking Dog by Kitty Burns Florey. An entire book on sentence diagramming!

9. Negotiating with the Dead by Margaret Atwood.

10a. The Gregg Reference Manual by William Sabin. A nuts-and-bolts workhorse of a book that lays out the basics of professional communication.

10b. Words Into Type. Another classic. Words Into Type isn't so much about writing and grammar, but about the whole process of turning a manuscript into a final printed work. An extremely useful primer for would-be authors.

I currently have in my reading queue The Subversive Copy Editor, How to Write a Sentence, and Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks, so I may be adding to this list in the coming weeks.