The Hunger Games

March 29, 2012

The difficulty in approaching any film, especially one based on a popular book, is that of knowing and understanding history and where it might fit in.  It’s almost impossible to watch John Carter and not think of all the similar elements it shares with a host of popular movies from the 20th century, and yet it was published far before those works and is clearly an influence on a number of them.  It is probably best to disregard the notion of ‘authenticity’ as being crucial to enjoyment when possible – though that gets tricky when you think of the number of films and TV shows that function almost entirely on the audience’s preconceived notions of a particular genre (think of everything Joss Whedon has done).  In a perfect world, pure originality shouldn’t matter.  After all, it’s the specific approach to an idea that pays dividends, or else you’re left with nothing but an idea.  In that spirit of generous critiquing, I can’t blame Suzanne Collins for writing a hugely popular book and then having it adapted into a successful film even though Battle Royale has existed for over a decade now.  That’s not to say it doesn’t matter, though.

I should note right here that I have never read the books.  In fact, I had only heard of them once the movie was in development, and even then I knew nothing about their content.  I came in remarkably fresh, having only seen a trailer, but I’m sucker for the zeitgeist and when it became a proper phenomenon last weekend, I had to see it.  I have no idea what is different between this version and the books, so please excuse my ignorance.  Had I never seen Battle Royale, then, this film would have earned a healthy dose of goodwill just for its central concept.  Essentially, teenagers from the various poor districts of a mythical, futuristic world are selected every year to fight in the Hunger Games, which involves the players being thrown into an artificial wilderness and forced to kill each other until only one survives.  This is all explained in about as painless a fashion as possible, and though its origins are clear (the poor districts rebelled some years ago, and this is their punishment), their continuing importance as a Reality TV version of the Roman Games is a little beyond me.  I’m not, I should admit, entirely sure how it functions to keep the proletariat in their place.  Still, we just roll with it.  When Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers in the place of her younger sister, she’s paired with a boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and sent to the Capitol where they are mentored by lousy drunk – and former winner – Haymitch (Woody Harrelson).   It’s a fascinating and utterly cruel central conceit, but that initial impact was certainly dampened by its closeness in general idea (if not in theme and execution) to Battle Royale.  Still, I contend that this would have been meaningless had The Hunger Games managed to do something a bit better with it than it did.  As we don’t live or view in a vacuum, I reserve the right to be a little tougher than I would have been.

I don’t think The Hunger Games is a bad film, mind.  It’s not nearly as (logically) brutal with its concept as Battle Royale was, nor is it as clever in its politics (or in its satire, as the case may be).  Again, this wouldn’t have been as disappointing had Battle not existed, especially as the “let’s force kids to kill each other” element is so disturbing.  However, The Hunger Games cops out in a number of ways that frustrated me, specifically in its gutsiness.  There seemed to be willingness on the part of the writer to really exploit the horrific nature of the Games.  Katniss is, time and time again, released from the dark necessity of having to kill anyone not painted as ‘deserving’.  There’s a clique of reprehensible killers roaming about, laughing maniacally as they mock the girl that was begging for her life.  They’re painted so cartoonishly that you’d wish Katniss would be more vicious in dispatching them.  Likewise, the decent, scared kids that Katniss comes across are generally likeable and, especially in the young and adorable Rue (Amanda Stenblerg), would cause incredible psychological damage to have to dispatch.  This is part of the central horror of the situation, and as Katniss doesn’t have to actually kill any one of the good ones, an honest approach to the situation set out is discarded for a more traditional “hero”.  This is not to say that there is anything wrong with building any series around a virtuous and Morally Good central character, especially as it is a Young Adult series, but the author set out the circumstance, and Collins (or the filmmakers, if this varies from the books) should be more willing to deal with what they created.

Not to say that all the seeming cop-outs are bad.  The twist that comes with possible-love interest Peeta was a letdown at first, but it works as a critique of the base desires of Reality TV (or any TV, really) for romance and ‘human interest’ when they should be violently angry and repulsed by what they’re witnessing.  Indeed, perhaps the biggest pleasure of the film is the baldly political world it sets itself in.  It’s dulled enough to, I’ll admit, to be read one of two ways.  For me, I chose to see it as a Marxist parable about the set-upon proletariat who are forced to live in abject poverty for the benefit of the outrageously gaudy bourgeoisie.  I can see how it could be viewed as a metaphor for the North’s treatment of the South after it rebelled in the Civil War, but for me there’s too much emphasis on the function of the 12 districts for it to be anything but a critique of the treatment of the workers in the modern world.  Doubling up on that is the gaudy, multi-coloured powdered wig aesthetic of the Capitol City elites, which looks almost designed to evoke the absurd pantomime villains of the French Aristocracy during the Revolution.  It’s hardly subtle, but it’s there, and that is worthy of praise on its own.  It is also the only reason I can see why Gary Ross might have been a good choice to helm the project.  His Pleasantville is still one of the best satires to come from Hollywood in the last twenty years, especially as it maintains a jovial, light entertainment feel about it.  This is where Ross works best in The Hunger Games.

Unfortunately, he has no concept of how to film an action scene.  The film clips along at a decent enough pace for a near 2 and a half hour running time, but the action scenes are absolutely dreadful.  He relies on the verite handheld too often in early in sequences, sure, but they’re absolutely horrendous in the action scenes, which tend to be more confusing than thrilling or, perhaps more pointedly, horrific.  I’m willing to admit that this is probably not entirely his fault.  This needed a PG-13 rating, and yet the material is so intrinsically dark that you have to toe a fine line to accomplish it.  Still, I’m not convinced there wasn’t a better way to accomplish either the thrills of the chase or the horror of the violence.  It severely defangs the emotional possibilities of the Games themselves, and this is unfortunate.

Still, the general world building is pretty good.  On top of that, there are some great scenes, particularly the three fingered salute to the cameras.  More than anything, this film works as well as it does because Jennifer Lawrence has incredible presence that suggests a myriad of insecurities about her decisions and just how to deal with everything, even as she puts on a brave face for her family.  No other character really registers, save Woody Harrelson’s Haymitch.  The Hunger Games is certainly not great, but it’s got half a brain, and if I’m going to be disappointed by the context of having seen Battle Royale, I have to give it points for being reasonably intelligent in the context of most teenage phenomenons.  Aside from a cack-handed ‘love triangle’, this is not even in the same universe as Twilight, and even though I’m not hugely impressed, I’m looking forward to see where the story goes.  Let’s just hope there’s a bit more gutsiness next time around.

-M

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