PG-13: Our New Crutch

Let me get this out of the way first: I liked the Hunger Games movie overall. I liked the acting and the pacing of the story. I also liked the book series. But that doesn’t for a second mean that it’s a sacred cow and that I’m not going to complain about certain things. Also, past this point, there be spoilers, so if you haven’t read the books or seen the movie and don’t want to know what happens (the dog dies in the end), go away.

Great. Now that we’re alone, get out the lotion, because this one might be a little rough. I went and saw Hunger Games yesterday, and something struck me as odd and somewhat off-putting. That something was the camera work. Through the vast majority of the movie, the camera bounces around, which is a technique usually employed when there’s a lot of rough action, like running up a hostile beach (Saving Private Ryan) or away from a zombie horde (Dawn of the Dead), and which are appropriate when the characters in Hunger Games are actually running. But the shaky-cam is in almost every scene, it seems: conversations in the woods, character close-ups during the Reaping, and pretty much any time we really needed to focus on the grief or horror of a situation. We need those scenes to hang in the air so we could feel that noose tighten, but director Gary Ross keeps literally shaking us loose from that focus by not allowing those important moments to breathe.

Something else on the shaky cam. It is usually used for action sequences because it’s a plot enhancer, and doesn’t necessarily convey the emotional state of a character. It gives the illusion of rapid movement, which can bring the audience’s adrenaline level up, but that energy rush is not emotional content. The emotional content is what we see the characters doing in that scene. In Saving Private Ryan, for example, there are soldiers who are madly scrambling up the beach, but there are others who are calm and collected, which is something that lets us understand much more about who they will be later on in the story. During the calm moments, the camera is calm because we need to see how the previously mad-dash and steady characters each react to the non-action. The trouble with the cinematography in Hunger Games is that in those shaky-cam sequences, there’s so much of it that we can’t really tell which character we’re looking at, never mind how they’re reacting to the imminent threat of death. It’s clearly a stylistic choice to show the madness and confusion of the bloody brawl in front of the Cornucopia, but it doesn’t have to be turned up to eleven. There are quiet, still moments in the film, but not nearly enough of them when it really counts, when we most need to see a character act outside the threat of death. This is why, among other reasons that aren’t within the scope of this post, characters aren’t as strong as they should be.

Now here’s the real complaint. The shaky-cam action sequences don’t convey a sense of panic as much as they hide the grisly brutality of the Hunger Games. One of the reasons why the books are so compelling is that they are open about the violence and callousness that are central to the story. It’s a series of books about children killing each other, and then learning that it’s a better idea to kill the adults instead. The book and the movie end with the main characters telling the people who supposedly control them, “Nope. We’re not doing it your way anymore. We’d rather kill ourselves.” This is a grim, violent series, with a grim, violent ending. There’s nothing happy about it.

But, the argument goes, the book series is labeled as young-adult, and the target demographic is 12-21, so we need to get a PG-13 rating so the young readers can see the film. Bull shit, man! How is it that we can have a teen/tween audience read a book where, among other atrocities, a twelve-year-old girl is practically disemboweled, but should there be a movie made, we have to tone down the violence. Suzanne Collins keeps reminding us in the books that the audiences in the districts have to watch the unfiltered violence on television. Fine, but we’re not those people, are we? We’re just watching a movie. Should we have to watch that kind of violence? No. Not all the time, but in this case, yes. The story is inseparable from the brutality, and it’s a bit dishonest to suppress that in the movie. It’s true that a film’s success largely depends on grabbing the right demographic, but at some point, you have to take a stand for the integrity of the work and tell the folks down in marketing to get with the program. The books, if rated, would be slapped with a big, bold R, so why should we nerf the movies? Most (I’d say 75%) of the people I saw waiting in line and in the theater for Hunger Games were seventeen or older, and I’ve never known anyone who had trouble getting into an R movie underage. Is getting that 25% into the theaters with no questions asked so important that it’s worth changing the movie?

I bring up artistic integrity because grief, anger, and panic are the driving forces of the books largely because we know exactly what kind of danger our characters face, both in the arena and in the districts. If we nerf that danger, something has to replace it. In this case that something is going to be the love triangle, which is the hallmark of teen/tween-centric entertainment. The love triangle in the Hunger Games books never really worked because it always felt artificial. Gale had no real character development until the end of Catching Fire, so the obvious answer always seemed to be right in front of Katniss. Making her pine after Gale, and be kind of sad to have to settle down with Peeta at the end of the series never really worked because it didn’t feel organic. In the film version, taking Katniss out of her head and viewing her from the outside did a lot to make that love triangle seem more natural. But, again, that was never the driving force of the story. Taking the sense of danger out of the movies (if there are more on the way) will force them to be about the love triangle. And, dear God, we don’t need another Twilight.

Not a shield.