Thursday, April 05, 2012

The Hunger Games

I have a secret: I tried to read The Hunger games back in 2008 when the first book was all there was. And I didn't enjoy it. I boiled down to two things I generally always dislike: first person POV and a love triangle. Some stories can overcome that for me, but if your entire book is going to be in one character's head it better be the best place you can possibly be.

In The Hunger Games, from inside Katniss' head was not the best place to tell that story. It was a good place to be sometimes, but I think the film version proved to me without a shadow of a doubt that the real meat of the world of Panem was outside with the Game Makers. The movie also proved that the narrative didn't suffer at all from toning down the romance aspects. In fact, it made Katniss a stronger and better heroine by doing both things.

Obviously, as little as I enjoyed the book, I actually really enjoyed the movie. I thought it took the promise of the premise and made it stronger. The film had a better delivery of the world that we were given. We really SAW what it was like to take this to extreme levels. We were witnesses to the Game Makers gleefully sending disasters after the tributes, and when you combine the marketing and the film itself the movie did something the book never managed: it forced us to face the fact that we are all, in a way, citizens of the Capitol.

Now I do want to get one problem out of the way. You see, only twice in my life have I ever actually spoken out loud in an "outdoor" voice in a movie theater. I just don't do it, I'm a filmmaker, I respect the film in front of me no matter what. But when the film is first showing us scenes of District 12 and the camera can't stay still for ONE SINGLE SECOND to actually give us an idea of what we're looking at, I said "Oh COME ON, stop moving the camera!" I doubt anybody outside a two foot radius heard me, but still, I couldn't help myself because it was that annoying.

If the movie had continued that way throughout, I probably would have ended up walking out. Or been simply miserable and hated everything about it. It was an artistic choice made for the right reasons, but used in a terrible way at the worst possible time. How could anybody really get a sense of the poverty and horrible conditions in District 12 if they can't see anything? I don't care if you were trying to replicate Katniss' point of view, it was detrimental to the film and to the purpose of the scene. Later on when a similar technique was used during the Cornucopia scene, it was used to good effect and it was perfectly chosen. But in the opening? That's bad camera work kids, don't do that at home. Or on set. Or ever again, please. I'm begging you.

Comic from Rock, Paper, Cynic, 02-08-2010

With that out of the way, as I said, I really thought that the film version surpassed it's source material in a major way. First and foremost with the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence. While I recognize that certain things were mishandled during the casting process, they chose very well for Katniss. The character became the embodiment of the film ideal of "show, don't tell." We weren't in her head completely like in the book, but Lawrence brought out the emotions and the turmoil perfectly. In doing so, she also allowed the audience to put some of their own feelings and reactions into the character, making her more personalized and interesting.

By making Seneca Crane a character, we were also able to really explore what everybody says the books are about: reality television. As a filmmaker, I'm fascinated by how things are made. How do they put together this broadcast? How is it done? Who is in charge? How many people does it take? Do they follow their ratings? Are they entertainment professionals or government officials? The film answered these questions, and they gave us a real look into how strange and messed up Panem really is. These people have watched The Games their entire lives, this is the world to them, they don't know the difference. And that is the most terrifying thing in the entire story. The film brought that out in a new way.

Lastly, I'll briefly touch on the toning down of the romance. All I can say is "thank goodness." Isn't it about time we had a heroine who isn't actually all that distracted by boys? As much as we've praised this story for being about a capable and kick-ass female protagonist, you can't deny that in the book she spends an inordinate amount of her time worrying about Gale and Peeta. But in the film, she's not that stereotypical. It's Peeta who is love struck and who makes bad decisions because of his emotions, which was a nice change.

I'm very grateful that the film changed that, because it made Katniss' a stronger female character, a more identifiable one, and one that would be an easier sell across various demographics. Which means better return on marketing dollars, which means more money for similar projects, which is a win for everybody.

Plus it just made me like her better, which made me enjoy the film.

Babylon 5: Rewatch

Babylon 5 is easily one of my favorite shows of all time. So I was actually a little bit worried when we started to rewatch it recently. I was introducing my best friend to the show, even though I've been friends with her longer than the show has existed, somehow she's never ended up watching it with me.

We actually started by watching In The Beginning, one of the TV movies that was made later on in the show's run. I consider it to be one of the best television movies of all time (and I have a huge weak spot for tv movies) so it's a great place to start.

Some people would disagree with watching this first, because the brilliant thing about B5 is that you get a very slow reveal of a lot of major story points. There is actually a throwaway line in the pilot movie that gives away one of the biggest plot twists of the fourth season. From the beginning, J. Michael Straczynski (the showrunner and head writer) knew what was going to happen for the most part, and that comes through so brilliantly when you rewatch the show and know what comes later.

But there's a trick about B5: the first season is not really good indicator of how good the show is going to get. A lot of people give up without finishing it, not realizing what they are missing. But if you start with In The Beginning, you're giving them a taste of just how moving and powerful this show really is, and who these characters are. So I think the trade off is worth it.

The first season was generally as bad and as good as I remembered. There's a lot of debate amongst fans as to which is worse, the first or fifth season. But when you rewatch the first season, you see these great glimpses of what will come later. Having this foundation makes the rest of the show better. But there is some real scenery chewing when it comes to acting, and some really boring episodes.

The thing is though, as much as the show hasn't really aged with some of the writing and the themes that it presents, the acting is very much a part of it's time. It is some late 90's acting with just about every guest star that comes their way. Oh, sure, I love them all the same. But you can't really say that they are being even slightly subtle.
The place where Babylon 5 excels is in the writing, especially the third and fourth seasons which are written entirely by JMS. It's actually very scary to watch this show and see political ideals that we're hearing our primary candidates espousing right now. The formation of Nightwatch and Clark's government recall the Patriot Act. Only the Patriot Act was signed into law years after the show was off the air. It is a stark and telling reminder of how history repeats itself, even into the future.

The show is also chocked with memorable characters, a fabulous sense of humor, and some of the best alien designs that television sci-fi has ever seen. While the bulk of their aliens are still bipedal, this isn't Stargate where they're all more or less human (SG-1 is one of my favorite shows, so yes, I know the in universe explanation). About half of the special effects still look good, while some of them are laughably bad at this point. Which is a pity.
The only problem with rewatching Babylon 5 is that eventually you finish those amazing third and fourth seasons and you get to Season 5. Like I said, people debate which is the worst season of the show and I am firmly in the Season 5 camp on this. We didn't even bother to buy it until I could get it used for under $12 and with a gift card. And you can tell how much the show runs out of steam because we've stopped watching it regularly.

During third and fourth season, we would watch 2-3 episodes a couple times a week. Once we watched a few episodes every night for a few weeks. But as soon as we started season 5, we started waiting weeks in between watching a single episode at a time. It's just not compelling, the new characters aren't as interesting. There are decisions made about other characters that actually make you reflect on earlier episodes and like them LESS. Season 5 actually lessons what came before it, and that's a huge shame.
It pains me that my favorite show ends on such a bad note, and I was very tempted to just pretend that season 5 didn't exist. But I couldn't skip over some of the major story points that happen, and the actual series finale is probably the best series finale I've ever seen. So we plod ahead.

In general though, I think anyone who like sci-fi should absolutely have seen Babylon 5. Start with In The Beginning, you can skip The Gathering if you want (it's good for completionists, but it's not a great place to start). But make sure you just keep going through the first season. Ignore the over the top guest stars and focus on the main players. Fall in love with Ivanova, Garibaldi, and Dr. Franklin. Pay attention to G'kar and Londo, Vir and Lennier and Na'toth. Just focus on getting to know them. Then, about halfway through second season, you'll realize you've been pulled in. When you get to third, then you'll really start to get it. But if you get bored during season 5, well, I wouldn't get upset with you for skipping it but if you love Londo and G'Kar you really owe it to that storyline to finish it.

But no matter what, make sure you end with Sleeping In The Light. Even if you skip Season 5, watch the end of the show.