I finally saw The Hunger Games. I feel duped.
All the political controversy, hype (bolstered by some opinions I trust), and box office success–along with one of the better trailers for a mainstream movie this year–led me to believe that the blockbuster film adaptation would be worth the time.
Hell, I was looking forward to it.
The previews focused, to my pleasant surprise, on story elements rather than special effects and explosions. Little did I know, those same story elements would play out in the movie without any further development than the trailer. The characters are all contrived and manifest as either generic or ridiculous with nothing in-between. The world lacks detail and credulity. The dangers feel manufactured. Nothing is genuine. It’s a representational telling of an unoriginal idea.
Based on Suzanne Collins’ ‘tweener novel of the same name, The Hunger Games explores a dystopian future in the fictional nation of Panem whose rich and powerful leadership caste requires that the poor, starving masses submit 2 children from each of the 12 districts to compete in a fight to the death. Only 1 child can emerge victorious. The winner is bestowed with riches and notoriety. It is the only upward mobility available to the lower classes.
There is nothing in The Hunger Games that we haven’t seen or read in Lord of the Flies, The Running Man, the Mad Max series, The Truman Show, Gladiator, The Most Dangerous Game, or a dozen other books, t.v. shows, and movies–or that Kinji Fukusaku’s Battle Royale didn’t do better in every conceivable way.
Still, I don’t actually fault Hunger Games for its lack of originality; the idea has been explored so often because it’s a good one. It has inherent themes of self-reliance, hope, perseverance, and self-sacrifice. The Hunger Games is simply one of the more unremarkable examinations of the concept.
The film assumes that the audience will accept its premise…even though the premise is outlandish. Don’t get me wrong, I was ready to buy in, but I still needed at least some effort toward the suspension of my disbelief. Call me nit-picky, but I have to be convinced that a society would revel in the murder of children. Moreover, I have to be convinced that parents would allow this to happen. Every parent I know would have to be stone dead before their child could be subjected to such a ghastly fate. In the movie, the only parental outburst occurs after a father’s 12-year old daughter is killed. It’s just not believable.
Additionally, this is supposedly the 74th hunger games, yet there seems to be no active cultural impact. No one is secretly training their kids or openly embracing the games as the only viable way to escape poverty. The rich celebrate it; the poor bear it stoically. In fact, the “bad kids” are the ones honestly trying to win the games rather than just running and hiding. The nihilism that would inevitably firestorm out of such oppressive circumstances is ignored–apparently in the interest of convenience. I mean, you don’t have to show kids killing themselves or going postal on the rich (that would obviously be far too compelling), but at least show how these potential dangers are quelled. Conversely, a kind of cultural Stockholm Syndrome is not implausible either. Honestly, I’d have accepted anything demonstrating that someone wondered what a world like this might actually be like.
We are also introduced to a Twilight-style love triangle that will indefensibly be explored in the upcoming sequels. It makes me angry just thinking about it.
As for the cast, Jennifer Lawrence is given just enough material to mold a type, but clearly not enough to craft a 3-dimensional character out of our heroine, Katniss Everdeen. However, Lawrence’s portrayal of Ree Dolly–who comes from almost identical circumstances as Katniss–in the indie noir film Winter’s Bone proves the actress is fully capable both nuance and gravitas. So I will give her the benefit of the doubt that neither the script nor the book gave her what she needed to breathe life into Katniss. The character is dull and incomplete. She inexplicably sees the world from today’s perspective, with today’s values of life and death. Her only redeeming quality is that she volunteered to go to the games in her sister’s stead. It’s surely no small sacrifice, but that only makes her nominally more sympathetic than the other children being forced to murder each other on t.v.
Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks (both actors I find to be consistently good, even when their projects aren’t) play patently absurd characters that undermine the gravity of the story while simultaneously providing no levity to it.
Donald Sutherland, who is always either heavy-handed or brilliant, here finds himself in the former playing laughably asinine Panem president Coriolanus Snow, who gilds his trees while pontificating villainously about oppression via “a little hope.” Pure and utter tripe. He’d be satire if he wasn’t such a joke. Why not have him twirling his mustache and laughing maniacally? That would have been equally devastating to my evening’s enjoyment.
Stanley Tucci actually managed to not piss me off despite his character’s valiant and constant efforts. Tucci is known for his ability to grace a featured role and he works his mojo to the hilt here only to draw even–at best–with his wholly unlikeable Caesar Flickerman.
Wes Bentley, who has struggled to find challenging roles since American Beauty, neither is given nor offers anything whatsoever as Seneca Crane…except maybe to provide Adam Levine with grooming ideas for the next Maroon 5 outing.
I forgot Lenny Kravitz was in the movie until I saw his name on Wikipedia just now. He wears gold eyeliner in the film and gives out multiple hugs.
My biggest disappointment with this hot mess was that it was helmed/enabled by Gary Ross, writer and director of such dramedy classics as Big, Dave, Pleasantville, and Seabiscuit (he jokes that his entire career can be summed up in four words). Ross is one of my personal favorites. It’s doubly odd because where The Hunger Games is weakest is where Gary Ross is typically strongest. Of course, in those other films he’s resurrecting the spirit of Americana rather than trying to create a dystopian mood. I guess I just assumed that sci-fi world-building was within his wheelhouse. The Hunger Games is yet another reminder of what happens when we do that.