Silver Screen: The Hunger Games ***
The Hunger Games is accompanied by a strange kind of cultural burden, one that bears on both the film and its audience. Not only has the heavy marketing campaign positioned it as an event film and an adaptation of a beloved series of young-adult novels, it’s also pitched as the first installment in a series of movies and trumpeted as the successor to the Harry Potter and Twilight series. It’s not just a film, it’s alternately the center ring of a media circus, a kind of cinematic transcription for the books’ devotees to scrutinize, and the cornerstone of a studio’s distribution schedule for the next several years.
To the audience, it’s not just a two-hour-and-twenty-minute movie, it’s both the payoff of months of hype and just the beginning of a protracted experience you have little choice of avoiding. Like it or not (buy a ticket or not), you’re going to be living with The Hunger Games for a few years… so you’d better like it.
The uninitiated are brought quickly up to speed with title cards that lay out the story’s basic premise: In the aftermath of a second civil war, the ruins of America (now called Panem) are reconstructed by the Capitol, located in the fortified stronghold of the Rocky Mountains. The country has been divided into twelve districts, and every year as punishment for the failed uprising, two children from each district are chosen by lottery to compete in the nationally televised Hunger Games, a brutal battle to the death in which only one of the twenty-four contestants will survive. The Hunger Games provide both spectacle to the leisure class who live in the Capitol and a method of psychological oppression for the impoverished people of the twelve districts who supply all of the nation’s resources and labor.
The film opens on the day of the Reaping, when one male and one female from each district are selected. In District Twelve, an Appalachian coal-mining outpost, the first of the so-called tributes is selected, a tiny girl barely of school age. Her sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place.
The next hour is a long, sometimes rambling buildup to the games themselves. Katniss is thrown together with fellow unlucky tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who has long harbored a crush on the flinty, unsociable heroine. They’re matched up with a mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), a former game winner now lapsed into alcoholism, and sent to a two-week training session. The film starts to drag here, especially since most of the characters we’re introduced to in this section are never fleshed out beyond a name and a single identifying detail (this one girl can throw knives! This other guy is real strong!).
The movie gains real momentum when the games begin. Heretofore the notion of these children doing battle has been an odd but abstract thing, but director Gary Ross smartly captures the brutality of the situation in the movie’s most visceral scene, an opening battle sequence in which several of the kids are slain trying to gather weapons and supplies from a centrally located depot. It’s a rapidly edited and mostly silent blitz of disturbing images that conveys the bloody tumult without stylizing it. The majority of the movie’s remaining kills are off camera, but this sequence is a reminder of the terrible reality of the situation.
The film version of The Hunger Games faces a significant problem the books did not: Namely, the movie is pitched as exactly the kind of violent spectacle the novels decry. It’s near impossible to make a summer action blockbuster that frowns on violence, and so the movie is constantly wavering between condemning brutality and producing some adrenaline. The fundamental discord is never reconciled, although the material is handled relatively tastefully.
Series author Suzanne Collins isn’t particularly deft with action and sci-fi tropes. Despite their sensationalistic premise, the novels are driven far more by character and theme than pyrotechnics, and as such many of her attempts at generating thrills come off like weak imitations of videogame setpieces-- random shooting fireballs and out-of-nowhere mutant dogs, et cetera. These scenes are even dumber onscreen than on the page.
A movie like The Hunger Games is unlikely to ever be great-- there are too many forces at work and too many masters to serve, the most demanding of which is the preexisting fanbase. As with the Harry Potter and Twilight movies, The Hunger Games film is fan service, slavishly devoted to the source material at the expense of any cinematic singularity or innovation. That’s even more damning in this case than with the wizards and the vampires, as The Hunger Games is a book about a TV show. There’s real opportunity in the film adaptation to try to imagine just what the Hunger Games might look like as a futuristic reality show, but the glimpses we get of the television program have essentially the same production values as the sadistic game show of 1987’s The Running Man. Can a movie about a TV show have even a little verisimilitude when the program itself looks entirely slapdash and implausible?
It’s absurd to adapt the book about a TV show into a movie and not take into consideration the aesthetic of reality TV itself, and yet that’s what the movie does. To do otherwise would deviate from the source material and piss off the very established fanbase that makes The Hunger Games a guaranteed pocket-liner for the studio, because any production of this scope is not about making the best movie possible but the most money.
But there is hope for The Hunger Games. The remainder of the story (to be divided into three more films) is less focused on the reality-TV spectacle than the larger world of the Capitol and the political implications of Katniss’s increasing rebelliousness. And while the inaugural installment was little more than passably entertaining, it features a strong cast-- Lawrence (who did a star turn in the indie film Winter’s Bone) is a talented young actress, and she’s aided by great supporting players like Stanley Tucci as the TV show’s host and Donald Sutherland in the role of Panem’s menacing President Snow. This bodes well for the franchise, even if the very notion of a franchise bodes poorly for the movies themselves.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.