The major surprise hit last Winter was The Hunger Games, a movie that sounds like exploitation trash but is actually a carefully produced film version of a popular first-person young adult novel by Suzanne Collins. A film teacher friend in Idaho was compelled to see the film because his students praised it as if it were great literature. Let's make that literature with a very high identification factor for teens that might like to imagine themselves as oppressed underdogs, fighting for their lives in a deadly but glamorous (and televised!) competition. The leading character is a highly likeable young woman forced by a cruelly uncaring society into a ritualized game of death. The fact that millions of kids swarmed to this show is impressive: the movie takes its time building characters and laying out a complex situation, without an action scene every few minutes. Does The Hunger Games prove that young audiences have longer attention spans?
The setup is a thoughtful mix of science fiction, fantasy and social sadism. Far in the future, an imperial nation called Panem keeps twelve outlying, formerly rebellious districts in line by demanding their yearly participation in The Hunger Games. Each district must send two randomly chosen teenagers between 12 and 18 to fight to the death. Called Tributes, the chosen combatants are taken to the capitol, where the televised games are given the status of a combination Olympics and Reality Show. Popular, telegenic Tributes sometimes win sponsors, who can help them by sending special supplies into the combat zone.
In the depressed rural mining country of district 12, unhappy Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to become a Tribute when her trembling younger sister Primrose is chosen. Katniss leaves behind her boyfriend Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and is teamed with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutherson), an apprentice baker with low self esteem. In the gleaming capitol they come in contact with urban upper-class citizens, a decadent bunch untroubled by the outlanders' low chances for survival. Katniss has archery hunting skills but feels unprepared, especially when her mentor Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) tells her that entrants from other districts are volunteers specially trained for mortal combat. Katniss can't even count on Peeta's help: according to the rules, the killing continues until only one Tribute is left standing.
The beautifully constructed first half of The Hunger Games engages the viewer bit by bit in a futuristic world where the poor and dispossessed are oppressed even further by heartless rulers. This particular fantasy may resonate with contemporary kids' awareness that their families could suddenly become homeless; there's also a tinge of rural resentment against a remote government. The film is directed with assurance by Gary Ross, who scored a winner thirteen years ago with Pleasantville, another special effects-laden fantasy that uses an odd society to comment on contemporary problems. Author Collins insists that the fantasy is about war -- are Katniss and Peeta representatives of history's young people forced to volunteer to fight absurd political wars?
The Hunger Games cannot replicate Katniss Everdeen's interior monologues so it instead watches her face almost constantly. We see no tearful breakdowns or appeals for understanding. Katniss seems strong simply because she keeps her anguish to herself, and puts up the best front she can. Besides looking fantastic in an assortment of flashy costumes, actress Lawrence's worried expressions communicate fear, humiliation and frustration at being forced into the role of a glamorous gladiator, complete with a phony romance invented to attract sponsors. Like a Cinderella of the coalmines, beautiful clothes and hairstyles transform her into a vision of a feminine warrior, a Diana with bow and arrow. Haymitch even comes up with a gag that uses a fire illusion as a costume accessory for Katnis's grand entrance in a chariot. Katniss doesn't turn out to be of royal blood, but otherwise this self-realization fantasy is the female flip side of the slacker-warrior fantasy of George Lucas' Star Wars.
The Hunger Games is so solid an entertainment that nobody seems to care that its second half is fairly weak tea. The actual killing game is conducted under an enormous electronic dome monitored by fantastic computer technology. It's difficult to accuse the story of being a direct rip-off of the violence-porn Japanese movie Battle Royale, when the movie downplays its violence at every opportunity. We don't dwell on the younger combatants being slaughtered at the outset. Most of the killings are off camera or much cleaner than they might be -- nobody ends up writhing and screaming on the ground from some horrible wound. In fact, our pure-minded Katniss never really confronts the full horror of her situation. She mostly helps other combatants, like her partner Peeta and a younger 'enemy' that aids her in a jam as well. Katniss never stalks anybody. She never kills aggressively, only in self-defense. Her most effective strategy involves using a hive of extremely dangerous wasps, a move that frankly makes us think of a gag from a Road Runner cartoon.
Just the same, Katniss's dilemma can't help but involve us emotionally. If she were to let loose her cynical side and embraced the ruthless slaughter, the movie would quickly slide into exploitation territory. Plenty of those movies come out Direct-to-Video. This PG-13 compromise is not a betrayal as much as an effort at a civilized thriller. The ending leaves the door open for installment number two (the book is only the first entry in a trilogy). At the finish all the major characters are still in place. The Machiavellian officials in charge of The Games (leader Donald Sutherland and his sinister, insincere underlings Wes Bentley and Stanley Tucci) harbor a grudge against our unbowed heroine. Katniss will have to deal with a problematic surfeit of hunky boyfriends, her whiny partner in the combat and her brooding, understanding old flame back home.
Collins has said that she found her inspiration by flipping TV channels between war coverage and reality programming. The real progenitors of The Hunger Games are many, with obvious candidates for partial idea patrimony spread between stories and films as diverse as Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, the straight adventure tale The Most Dangerous Game and the black comedy The Running Man. Kubrick's Spartacus faces up more honestly to the inhumanity of gladiator combat. The 10th Victim makes assassination into a televised game, with commercial sponsors. Rollerball turns a violent sport into a blood sport, and sees corporate masters altering the rules to effect desired political outcomes. In the post-apocalyptic society of A Boy and His Dog a self-appointed elite class dresses in retro costumes and wears extreme, mask-like makeup. The otherwise dull Logan's Run invents a cruelly fraudulent ritual that promises its participants physical reincarnation. Both The Bubble (Fantastic Invasion of Planet Earth) and The Truman Show create a sealed off world through the use of giant environmental domes.
Although it involves no autocratic government, perhaps the best movie to examine the idea of 'reality programming' interfering with the dignity of human life is Bertrand Tavernier's Death Watch (La Mort en Direct), in which a dying woman is hounded by a cable channel that insists on turning her personal problems into a reality show. The heroine leads a personal rebellion, much like the one that Katniss inspires back in district 12.
The Hunger Games was the kind of success story that distributors dream about. Jennifer Lawrence has earned a career notch that adds to her accomplishment in Winter's Bone; she's half the show here and deserves the accolades. A happy antidote to the gloppy, pandering teen-oriented Twilight movies, Gary Ross's Sci-fi action spectacle is a solid and worthy entertainment. Its immediate influence can be seen in the TV miniseries Revolution that was touted during the televised Olympics: that show's fashion-conscious young drifters include a very Katniss-like beauty who wields a wicked crossbow.
Lionsgate's 2-Disc Blu-ray of The Hunger Games includes an ultraviolet digital copy (Your movies in the cloud!). As expected the transfer is gorgeous, with the added resolution of HD helping in the densely detailed city scenes. James Newton Howard's music score is brightly rendered as well.
The first disc contains the feature and the second follows with all of the extras in HD. An EPK-like making-of show has plenty of input from the film's producers. One featurette addresses the special effects and another sees director Gary Ross interviewed by critic Elvis Mitchell. The propaganda film-within-a-film explaining the Games is present without interruption. Another piece billboards actor Donald Sutherland's personal letters explaining his personal philosophy of how the powerful prey upon their own citizens. Suzanne Collins and her publishers appear in a piece on the book source, and a marketing archive contains trailers and various ad artwork. Interested fans will find all the inside detail on The Hunger Games they ever wanted to know.
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T'was Ever Thus.