Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Hunger Games Review

This movie is a mini-miracle. In the wrong hands, with a subpar screenplay, with a talentless director, and with an ill-chosen cast, The Hunger Games movie could have been a disaster. This movie could have been—gulp—the Twilight saga. Thankfully, like with the Harry Potter series, all of the elements came together here, from the writers, to the director, to the fabulous cast, to make a rousing good time at the movies. Does the movie improve on the book, and really stand out as a superb motion picture? Not quite. The book is still much more brutal and exciting. Let’s be honest—an R-rated version of the book would have been the most successful adaptation. But the film turned out really well, and at nearly two and a half hours, there’s never a dull moment.

The book’s author Suzanne Collins co-wrote the film’s screenplay and served as executive producer, and her involvement can be witnessed from the opening scenes. The world this film creates feels very authentic to the book, everything from the tremendous production design to the nearly invisible special effects to the unique costume designs. The filmmakers do a great job from beginning to end of making the book come alive. Director Gary Ross might not have seemed the obvious choice to handle this material—he directed Seabiscuit and wrote the Oscar-nominated screenplay Dave—but he made a strange world in many ways unlike our own in his 1998 directorial debut, the magical Pleasantville. His credits may be limited, but his talent and vision is always present in every new venture he takes, and his artistry is an invaluable asset to The Hunger Games.

Not every casting choice is perfect, but the acclaimed casting director Debra Zane (Traffic, American Beauty) has done a superb job bringing the characters of the book to life. Back in early 2011 there were rumors of True Grit’s Hailee Steinfeld being the frontrunner for the main role, but it’s been said later that Jennifer Lawrence was always Ross’s first and only choice for the role. She is perfect as Katniss Everdeen, as she makes the character flawed and intelligent and vulnerable and athletically skilled and, most of all, human. She’s also one of the most stunningly beautiful actresses of her generation. Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson deliver mixed results as the main two boys. Hemsworth, mostly known as Miley Cyrus’s boyfriend, is dashingly handsome as Gale, but we barely get to spend any time with him in this installment—here’s hoping he’s in more of films two and three. Hutcherson grows into the role after a while, but he’s so baby-faced that it’s hard to imagine any real chemistry between him and the more mature and striking Lawrence as the series continues.

The really inspired casting comes with the supporting characters. The popularity of this project obviously allowed for some A-list talent in secondary roles, and seen throughout the movie are no less than Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland, Toby Jones, and Wes Bentley. Harrelson is a perfect fit for the drunkard Haymitch, and Banks is nearly unrecognizable as the spirited Effie. Tucci obviously has a blast with his role as the talk show host, and Sutherland is appropriately creepy as Snow. But the most pleasing face to see in this big event film has to be Wes Bentley, who delivered a magnificent break-out performance in American Beauty thirteen years ago, then spent a decade wallowing in drugs and despair. He finally makes a well-deserved comeback as the despicable Seneca Crane.

The games themselves are handled well, if a bit too expectedly tame. In the book Collins really goes for the gut, literally, when killing off the teenage characters, but don’t expect to see much violence in the movie. Of course we don’t need to see each kid get maimed to make the movie better, but the lack of on-screen violence makes the movie feel a bit too family-friendly to really startle and surprise the audience. The most affecting on-screen death, which happens toward the end, is handled violently and effectively, but most of the characters fight and die off-screen, with the camera shaking real fast, with the character hitting the ground and staring motionlessly off into the distance. At the heart of this story is a brutal game where kids kill each other; the intensity could definitely have been upped a notch or two.

But every fan of the books, even non-fans, are, of course, going to nitpick. The Hunger Games is a marvelous movie, the best studio release so far this year, the first big event movie of 2012. Director Ross does a great job of keeping the story grounded and focused on Katniss, making her journey one we as an audience can share up close and personal with her. The screenplay allows for quiet scenes that help build the characters and the character relationships. The film ends on an ominous note, the kind of tantalizing one that will keep us excited for the next two installments. And most of all, more than anything else, The Hunger Games makes a giant star out of Jennifer Lawrence. The movie is really good; Lawrence is sensational.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I write a lot about crazy people, about people who scream and vent their frustrations through dialogue. There's Vivien Slate in SLATE, Mrs. Gordon in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME, the villain (I won't give it away here) in TOWNHOUSE, and Hannah in HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO ME AGAIN and HAPPY BIRTHDAY TO YOU. Often with these characters I'll write a line of dialogue where the character screams, and having all the letters lower-case just doesn't feel like enough.

When Mrs. Gordon comes across Cameron and Charisma kissing passionately in the back of her library, she shouts at them, "What in God's name is going on over here?" But I wanted to make the reader understand that she was crazy angry, not just angry, so I wrote it in the book as, "WHAT IN GOD'S NAME IS GOING ON OVER HERE?" I like to think of characters shouting in all uppercase letters as screaming so loud the other characters' eardrums might explode. I used this technique a lot in my first four books and didn't think much of it, until some of the reviews started coming in...

  • From Ashley at Goodreads: "He just wrote with these little quirks that bugged me--like his overuse CAPITALIZING WORDS. ENTIRE SENTENCES WOULD BE CAPITALIZED, AND IT JUST MADE EVERYONE SEEM LIKE THEY WERE HARD OF HEARING AND SHOUTED ALL THE TIME. You see how that starts to lose its potency the more you read it?"
  • From Amie at Goodreads: "There was also a severe over-use of the word “shout” in all of its verb forms (shout, shouting, shouted). This in combination with capital letters EVERYTIME SOMEONE WAS UPSET made me feel like I was being screamed at through the whole book."
  • From Britta at Goodreads: "Also, I didn't like how way too many questions ended with a "!" instead of an "?", and the letters would be in all caps, like this - WHY IS EVERYTHING IN CAPS! I understand that what you are trying to say is supposed to have emphasis, but it sort of started to lose its meaning when everything was written this way."
The use of capitalizing every letter in sentence was something I didn't think would bother readers, but now that I know it does, let me promise this, and let me promise it in big fat letters: I HAVE STOPPED USING CAPS IN FULL SENTENCES! I'm in the middle of the final revision of my new YA horror book The Vampire Underground, and I'm only using all-capitalized words sparingly. I'll have a character shout a word in all caps here and then, but rarely

For now? I think the exclamation point will suffice.

Look for THE VAMPIRE UNDERGROUND, the first book in a new YA horror series, on Amazon this April!

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Happy Birthday to Me Takes Over Amazon, Part II!

On December 9th, I took great advantage of the then brand new KDP Select program for indie authors, and I made the first installment of my YA Birthday trilogy free for that weekend. I was hoping a few hundred readers would pick up my book, but I was astonished when nearly 15,000 readers downloaded it between December 9th and December 13th. At this point in my career, my number one hope is always that my words are reaching readers, and because Happy Birthday to Me is the first of three books, it's important to me that people read it by any means possible, even if it's downloaded for free, because that means they might pick up Books 2 & 3!

Well I put up Happy Birthday to Me for free again yesterday, and the book has once again blown through the roof on Amazon's Top Free Books in the Kindle Store. It's gone all the way down to #29 in the Free Store, and it's remained #1 in the Humor section for nearly twenty-four hours. Wow! Amazing! The best news of all? Nearly 8,000 more readers have downloaded my book since yesterday morning. I'm so excited for more people to discover my work, especially Books 2 & 3 of my Birthday trilogy!

Happy Birthday to Me will remain FREE until midnight tonight, and then it will go back to 99 cents. Have any of you read the book recently? Post your thoughts in the comments. I'd love to know what you thought.


Anyway, now, back to work. I'm starting the last big revision on my new YA novel The Vampire Underground. It's coming this April!