Friday, 29 November 2013
It's long been argued that Hollywood has been making movies for 14-year-old boys for some time now: big-budgeted blockbusters high on explosions and testosterone, and little in the way of character or plot. Movie-making is, after all, a business and you won't go broke appealing to the lowest common denominator.
But three new films, adapted from Young Adult novels, aim to arrest if not exactly reverse this 'blockbusters for boys' trend. And two of them do so with young, strong-willed female characters as their driving force.
HOW I LIVE NOW (Madman Entertainment, now showing), set in a not-too-distant yet recognizable future, sees 16-year-old Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) shipped from her New York home to stay with cousins in the English countryside. Not too long after, a war of-sorts breaks out and Daisy and her three cousins (two younger, one older) are left to fend for themselves.
Who the enemy is and what they are fighting for is never explained; they're never even glimpsed which prevents the film, directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland, 2006), and adapted from the novel by Meg Rosoff, from venturing into Red Dawn/Tomorrow, When The War Began territory. Shot for realism, it's without gloss or machismo.
Thematically, How I Live Now is about finding family and your place in the world; the second half of the film becoming a survival tale which sees Daisy and her younger cousin, Piper (Harley Bird), trekking cross-country to reunite with the boys (George MacKay, and Tom Holland from 2011's The Impossible) and the pastoral idyll they enjoyed before the war.
Yes there's the seemingly compulsory YA staple of romance (between Daisy and her older cousin; what is it with YA fiction and incest?), but How I Live Now rests squarely on the shoulders of Ronan, a highly capable and intelligent actress beyond her years. Daisy doesn't begin as the most likeable of protagonists but her pluck and strength carry her, and the film through its rough patches.
ENDER'S GAME (Icon Film Distribution, opening December 5) boasts a male protagonist (Ender, played by Asa Butterfield of Hugo (2011) fame) and is set in a more distant future that is also at war. But the film, directed by South African Gavin Hood (he made the Oscar-winning Tsotsi in 2005), and adapted from the novel by Orson Scott Card, is, for all its military bravado and hi-tech explosions, an anti-war film.
After staving off an invasion by an alien insect-like race dubbed the Formecs, the Earth's military forces have been preparing for a return bout; enlisting the best of the world's youth to train, physically and mentally for battle: the powers-that-be believing that young minds have the malleability and out-of-the-box thinking needed to defeat their extraterrestrial enemy.
And Ender is soon deemed to be the best of them, burdened with the role of humanity's saviour while yet to start shaving. Lauded by his commander (Harrison Ford) while initially despised by his peers (the cadet-on-cadet bullying and abuse wouldn't be out of place within the Australian Defence Forces), the sensitive yet headstrong Ender is determined to be the hero, only realising too late that there are no winners in war.
Like The Hunger Games, Ender's Game touches on the subject of conscription and sending young people to fight a grown-ups war. And while it has the look of your typical blockbuster -- the visuals and CGI are impressive -- there's a lot more brain than brawn in this not-quite 'boy's own' (hello Oscar nominee, Hailee Steinfeld) space adventure.
Of course, the best of the book-to-film YA adaptations at present has to be The Hunger Games. They don't come much bigger or -- with the second instalment, CATCHING FIRE (Roadshow Films, now showing) -- much better. Directed this time round by Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, 2007), Catching Fire successfully expands upon the universe, characters and themes of the first film, even as it repeats the structure (protracted set-up before the actual Games; it's a 146-minute film).
The stakes are upped this time as Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, even fiercer), having survived The Hunger Games, along with her fellow District 12 tribute and faux lover, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), must keep up appearances for the less than impressed President Snow (Donald Sutherland).
Angered by her manipulation of the last-man-standing game, and wary of the message of hope it sends the other 11 districts, Snow wants nothing more than to make an example of Katniss and crush any thought of rebellion against the Capitol. So it's once more into the arena for Katniss and Peeta.
Politics, propaganda, conscription, reality TV, the One Percenters and more are all smartly if not always subtly skewered in Catching Fire, but it never forgets that it is first and foremost an action-thriller aimed at (but not exclusive to) Young Adults, with a powerful female character at its centre.
I've not read Suzanne Collins' trilogy of books (inevitably to be four films) but I'd suggest she, nor her readers, could be too displeased with what they've been presented with on screen thus far. Intelligent, thrilling and, yes, emotional, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire gives us (boys and girls) a heroine -- and a YA franchise -- we can root for.