I’ve looked on with a sense of confusion and curiosity as Suzanne Collins’ book series “The Hunger Games” turned into a wildly successful series of young adult novels. The books, which revolved around a televised gladiatorial event of sorts where young teenagers are forced to fight to the death, was hardly an original idea. We’d seen similar scenarios play out in everything from the 80s Schwarzenegger film The Running Man to the 2001 reality TV spoof Series 7: The Contenders, to the video game “Manhunt” to the music video for the 1998 Puff Daddy song “Victory.” Maybe the property it most resembles is the 2000 Japanese film Battle Royale which also had teenagers battling one another across a closed off island over the course of a couple days. What surprised me most wasn’t that the concept was derivative (this has been done so many times that it can pretty much just be seen as an entry into a sub-genre of sorts rather than a ripoff) but that it was suddenly socially acceptable.
Battle Royale never even saw an official U.S. release until recently because the very idea of watching kids kill each other for entertainment was simply too taboo to tackle in the wake of the Columbine massacre. It was a film that was only sought out by the most open-minded fans of Asain genre cinema with few qualms about copyright infringement. Now, just a decade later, this concept is not only not taboo, its children’s entertainment and really successful children’s entertainment. Bear in mind, I’m not complaining about this, I just find it interesting. Have we just become numb to the concept of youth on youth violence? Or maybe there was only a very narrow window of time when that would have been seen as inappropriate in the first place. After all, the idea of children getting into sometimes highly dangerous adventure scenarios was common until recently (“Lord of the Flies,” anyone?). I’m not sure, but it did make me pretty curious about what this book/film was all about. Of course I was pretty hesitant to do so because every media outlet and marketer couldn’t seem to say “The Hunger Games” without also saying “Twilight” in the same sentence, and that kind of gave the whole thing a rather unappealing aura. At the end of the day though a desire to see what all the buzz was about combined with the fact that I’d normally be down for a movie about teenagers murdering each other for sport drove me to give the movie a chance.
This is at its heart a fantasy story. That’s not fantasy in the sense that there are castles and dragons and such, but in the sense that it appears to be set in an alternate world with different countries and a different history but modern if not futuristic technology (imagine Westeros from “Game of Thrones” but a thousand years and an industrial revolution later). At least that’s what I gathered from the film. Wikipedia tells me that the film is supposed to be set in a post-apocalyptic earth, but as far as I’m concerned it’s a fantasy universe. The film begins seventy four years after a rebellion against the capital city of Panem by the outer-lying districts has been suppressed and since then the society has taken part in a ritual in which two children between 12 and 18 are chosen at random from each of the twelve rebelling districts and forced to compete in the titular games where they fight to the death across a large swath of land on live TV. The film follows the oddly named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a girl of about sixteen from District 12 who volunteers to participate in this year’s Hunger Games in order to protect her younger sister who would have otherwise been chosen. She is shipped to the capital city, given rudimentary training from an assigned mentor named Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) who had won one of the previous competitions. She shows some promise in her training, but some of the other teenagers in the competition are from districts that raise their champions from a young age and these competitors are highly favored.
Firstly, this may well be a star-making performance for the perfectly casted Jennifer Lawrence. In retrospect this seemed like easy casting given that Lawrence had already been nominated for an Oscar for playing a malnourished rural teenager with inner strength in Winter’s Bone and had also shown that her talents could translate into more commercial fare with X-Men: First Class, but still, kudos for going with a genuine rising talent instead of the inexpensive alternatives. Lawrence also had a lot to work with because in spite of her bizarre name, Katniss turns out to be a pretty good character. She’s not some swooning damsel to her male counterparts, nor does she come off like some kind of under-developed action hero either. She’s an underdog certainly, but not an incapable one. There’s some genuine sympathy to be found for her and she’s likable enough that you really do root for her. That said, I did find it sort of hypocritical that the film goes to such great lengths to make sure that Katniss only kills in self-defense and in the heat of the moment during the games rather than hunting down the other competitors. There was more moral ambiguity that could have been mined in the situation that the film sort of ignores.
I was also pretty interested in the world that the film built up as well. There seems to have been some real thought put into the history and social structure of greater Panem and they actually did a pretty good job of setting up a society in which these games could actually occur and be embraced by much of the populace. I couldn’t help but look at Panem and see a sort of allegory to the brutal capitalistic extremes of our modern society. Almost all Panem’s wealth is concentrated its capital city which houses, oh, I’m going to guess 1% of the population (get it, the one percent!) resides and thrives. Their modern luxuries are only made possible because of the hard work of the people in the outer districts who live in abject poverty. The only reason these outer districts put up with this situation is because of a vague promise that they can attain some social mobility by engaging in these brutal games where the odds are stacked against them to begin with and even harder to succeed in because the strongest contestants are begin actively aided through these clearly rigged and unfair contests. Add to that some of the more obvious parallels to the media and violence and you do have a lot of food for thought, at least by the standards of young adult entertainment.
In short this is a good story with a good character and some interesting ideas behind it. That all speaks well for Suzanne Collins’ book, which I haven’t read but which I suspect was the source for all of the above. It’s when you start to look at what director Gary Ross has added to the equation that much of the shine quickly manages to disappear. Gary Ross has made some fairly decent movies over the course of his career like Pleasentville and Seabiscuit, but there’s nothing in his resume to suggest that he was an ideal candidate to make a large scale action/fantasy movie and it shows in the final product. As an adaptation, The Hunger Games feels cheap, rushed, and unworthy of its source material.
First of all, as interested as I was with the idea of the society in the film, I thought that visually it was horribly brought to life, particularly once it gets to the capital city where much of the film’s middle section is set. This is a strange looking city brought to life with some rather dodgy looking CGI establishing shots which seems generally disconnected from its cold interiors. Worse though are the garish costumes worn by the cities wealthy inhabitants which often involve strange Victorian-like garb and bizarre multicolored hairstyles that no rational person would find appealing. I know that the filmmakers were trying to establish a sort of disturbing decadence with these design choices, but I don’t think they really pull it off at all. It just comes off feeling rather second rate and for a movie that’s so dependent upon building a fantasy universe this is no minor thing, it’s a serious failing.
It doesn’t help that the whole middle section that’s set in the capitol was way too long and could have benefited greatly from some diligent cuts. The film is of course called “The Hunger Games” and yet it seems to take forever to finally get to said Hunger Games, and it doesn’t help that this middle section where Katniss is supposedly gathering sponsors seems to have only minimal effect on the actual games when they finally start. All in all it gives the film an odd, sort of lop-sided structure, where it’s a dystopian drama for its first three fifths and then a survival/action film in the final two fifths. Were I to recut the film I’d start the film right when the titular games are starting and then would have handled the material leading up to it with flashbacks.
Gary Ross’ biggest crime against this film however is his general ineptitude when it comes to the action scenes. The action scenes in this film are blurry, not particularly well cut, and are filmed with some very poorly executed handheld camera work. The excuse for this, I suppose, is that Ross wanted the violence to seem disturbing rather than exciting and that this is why he shot the film the way he did. This is bullshit. First of all, when handheld camera work is employed by someone that knows what they’re doing it has an effect that’s exactly the opposite of that, it puts the viewer right into the thick of the excitement and gives them a visual thrill. That’s not what Ross is doing here, he’s just staging his scenes overly fast and deliberately disorienting when he should be heightening the tension and putting you into the protagonists’ shoes. What’s more if your goal really is to make the film’s violence disturbing, making all the killings rather bloodless and matter of fact probably isn’t the way to do it. Also the finale, which involved a pack of CGI dogs, was really lame and unbecoming of a movie with this kind of hype and budget.
As I write this, The Hunger Games has made upwards of a half a billion dollars at the box office and I suspect that the film’s producers could have predicted as much regardless of what they delivered, so why did they go the cheap second rate route in making the film. Well, I suppose it had more to do with time than money. Look at what happened to the recent adaptation of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, a production that took a bit longer to get off the ground but which was made impeccably by an eminently qualified A-list director. The results was a film that was about the best adaptation one could ask for from the source material, but it also hit theaters a bit late to fully benefit from the phenomenon that Stieg Larsson’s had generated and it suffered somewhat at the box office because of it. The Hunger Games on the other hand was right on schedule to benefit from the success of Suzanne Collins’ books, but at what cost? I’m not saying that Gary Ross is an incompetent director by any means, his previous films are perfectly functional, and so is this one. The film is able to coast by on the merits of its source material, but it could have been a whole lot better as a film.
*** out of Four