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The Hunger Games (Lionsgate, PG-13)

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film hunger-games 75It’s hard to imagine the filmmakers finding a better choice for Katniss than Jennifer Lawrence.

 

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At the press screening of The Hunger Games, to my right were sitting two seventeen-ish-year-old girls who were super geeked about seeing it and to my left were a twentysomething couple, the male of which obviously did not want to be there and made snide comments throughout. That’s about what I expected to happen. It seems everyone in the world, from the film’s studio to audiences to critics, want to pigeonhole The Hunger Games as the new Twilight. And in terms of modern, hugely profitable cultural phenomena, that’s an awfully high standard to live up to. Honestly, though, I think that’s selling The Hunger Games short. Should a movie where teenagers are forced to fight to the death on TV for sport be targeted specifically at teenage girls?

Obligatory digression: In terms of plot, The Hunger Games bears a nearly plagiaristic comparison to the 1999 Japanese novel by Koushun Takami, Battle Royale, which was made into the film of the same name in 2000 directed by the late Kinji Fukasaku. While that film for years could not find an American distributor who would touch it (note its release’s proximity in time to the Columbine massacre), it found a huge audience worldwide, including here, where, last I checked, it was the most-imported DVD ever. It’s no coincidence that Anchor Bay is giving it what I think is its first official U.S. release on DVD and Blu-ray next week, and that it is making the midnight movie circuit in the coming month or so.

Okay, back to The Hunger Games. If you somehow don’t already know about the phenomenon, the deal here is that we’re in a dystopian futuristic society, where children between the ages of 12 and 18 are selected at random to do the aforementioned fight to the death on TV—the “Hunger Games” of the title. Two each, a boy and a girl, come from 12 vaguely defined districts (vaguely defined in the film, at least), and our hero is Katniss Everdeen (Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence) of District 12, who volunteers as a ‘Tribute,’ what the competitors are called, in order to save her randomly selected, weak little sister Primrose (Willow Shields). The boy of District 12 is Peeta Mellark (The Kids Are All Right’s Josh Hutcherson), and Katniss and Peeta form a shaky truce leading up to the events. Meanwhile, there are trained killers from Districts 1 and 2, there are the weak from other districts who have no real chance of winning, and of course there are those who put on the show. Wes Bentley plays Seneca Crane, who is analogous to Ed Harris’s character in The Truman Show in terms of directing the events (and he has a God-like power that makes them a lot less fun, in my opinion), and Stanley Tucci is Caesar Flickerman, a commentator on the Games who serves mostly to keep the audience up to speed with what’s happening.

That’s one of the good things about The Hunger Games. I feel like many recent film adaptations of popular books have leaned very heavily on assuming that their audience has already read the books, which resulted in often sloppy storytelling in, say, the Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings movies. That’s not an issue here, and I can’t imagine anyone going in having much trouble following who’s who or what’s happening and why at any given time. But that’s just one good thing, and there are many bad. It takes entirely too long to get into the Games themselves, and the movie notably picks up when they do (it can be pretty dopey up until then). It seems like all of the high-class spectators of the games are extras from Tim Burton’s shitty Alive in Wonderland remake. Apparently the reported $100-million budget couldn’t afford CGI fire that looks remotely realistic, which is a bummer, given that fire is something of a motif here. And, of, course it stretches its credibility, including, but not limited to, multiple scenes where the tributes are given deadly weapons and stuck in the same room with their unarmed oppressors, with nothing much happening on either side.

Still, there’s fun to be had. I feel like I have to say that there’s a lot more fun to be had in Battle Royale—that book/film treats the subject as pulp, where The Hunger Games treats it as melodrama. Perhaps it will come down to which type you prefer, but I feel it is fair to say that the subject matter is much better suited to pulp, anyway. But to get back on point, it’s hard to imagine the filmmakers finding a better choice for Katniss than Lawrence, who is young and a good actress and believably tough; the only thing she doesn’t have going for her is that she looks much older than Katniss’s supposed 16 (Lawrence is 21). Elizabeth Banks (though unrecognizable) turns up as Effie Trinket, who amusingly deals with the District 12 tributes in preparation for the games, and their mentor leading up to the games is Woody Harrelson as Haymitch Abernathy (here looking like a dead ringer for Klaus Kinski), who has fun chewing up the scenery, as usual.

So while I did more or less have fun at The Hunger Games, the real bottom line is that the movie didn’t make me care; honestly, at no point was I really rooting for Katniss or Peeta or much of anyone else. Still, if you’re a young girl geeked to see it, it should make you happy. And if you’re a boy being dragged to the theater by your significant other, open your damned mind—this is a film about people killing other people for sport, after all, and not a bad one at that. | Pete Timmermann

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