The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games is a movie adapted from a super-popular trilogy of books for teenage girls, and it threatens to displace the waning Twilight. The Hunger Games is entertaining, pretty exciting, and engaging -- it, like Twilight, is a star-crossed romance. Jennifer Lawrence, of Winter's Bone, has stepped up to become a star for millions in the lead role. But the story, about a violent gladiatorial contest to-the-death among two dozen 12-18-year-old youths, has been defanged. To insure a PG Rating, so the target audience could come to see it, most of the blood and the violence have been clipped out, and the attacks and fights make no visual sense. The romance, the humor, and the pomp survived. The movie is impressive in its initial setup if overlong (142 minutes). But for all its flash and originality as a story, there's something mediocre around the edges of the filmmaking, a lack of real flair.

The whole construct is a weird combination of the natural and touching and the campy and artificial. Imagine a future world in which all the "haves" are fops (with names from ancient Rome in some cases) who live in a glittering high-tech metropolis. The rest are distributed into twelve subject "districts," each of which has a specialization. For instance District Twelve, home of the protagonists, Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the poorest of the dozen, is made up of Thirties coal miners and their families. We don't learn much about the other districts, though one contains appealing black people, including little Games contestant Rue (Amandla Stenberg), whom Katnis befriends at one stage of the struggle.

Readers will know and viewers will learn the rest. This artifice is as entertaining as any "survivor" reality show pumped up to ancient Roman extreme would be expected to be. The source novel by Suzanne Collins is a conceit. It is also even more artificial than you might expect from the initial givens. Each pair of "tributes" (a boy and a girl) chosen by lot from each district gets primed and groomed and displayed to the public and interviewed on TV and trained. Peeta and Katniss get Haymitch Abernathy, a former winner, as a sort of coach. Even Woody Harrelson (as Haymitch) is turned into a fop-- which has the effect of de-fanging him, too. It's all done for TV, and the (foppish) interviewer, announcer, and general mater of revels for the Games is Caesar Flickerman, played by an even more theatrical than usual Stanley Tucci in blue hair. There's another guy in charge of the show called Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, with a baroquely razor-cut beard). Standing by, the ruler of the whole kingdom -- though his gravitas is unimpressive -- is a bushy-bearded Donald Sutherland. Maybe he pleaded seniority and refused to have his beard razor-trimmed.

The District 12 lottery is as scary as any Nazi ghetto sweep, and the situation the twenty-four "tributes" are subsequently thrown into when the pomp and show is over and the Games begin is horrifying. But in time our horror is dampened when we realize the rulers and the TV people can manipulate everything, in particular save the "tributes" they like best for the end. One can only imagine what a director of the caliber of Steven Spielberg might have done with the subjugation and oppression, the fear and courage inherent in the story, but muted in this colorful but neutered version.

Everywhere, even in the poorest District Twelve, there are big TV monitors showing intimate shots of Katniss and Peeta, who emerge as the stars, and, inevitably, bond and kiss (on monitor). Their "star-crossed" status is that they're supposed to kill each other. But the fact that everything is seen makes it, curiously, seem unreal even for the participants and the story audience. How real can it be for us? And since any wound can be fixed by a magic balm delivered on site, how serious is the danger? Yet all these other kids die. It just doesn't matter, because we don't know who they are and there's no mess. Except for Rue hardly any besides the romantic couple develop identities.

There are plenty of other characters. You might want to make a chart. There's lots more -- two other films -- to come, and it's already evident Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) is being held in reserve for greater things in subsequent episodes. Denby of The New Yorker -- whose dislike of the fighting where you can't tell what's going on I share -- noted Hemsworth is like "a larger Taylor Lautner," and the resemblance may have been a factor in the casting. Arch-marksperson Katniss, in the person of Jennifer Lawrence, clearly shows herself to be "a spunky protagonist who can hold her own alongside Bella Swan and Lisbeth Salander in the pantheon of pop-lit heroines" (Justin Chang, Variety), and this Hunger Games franchise already shows itself to be as reliably trashy, airheaded -- but compulsively entertaining (at least for its target audiences) -- as those other creations.

The Hunger Games was released March 23, 2012.

©2012 Chris Knipp
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