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Saturday
Mar242012

The Hunger Games (2012)

The Interests of Conflict

Novel adaptations are often the hardest movies to write about. If I haven't read the source material and dislike the film,* I'm accused of not having done my homework. If I've read the book, it stays with me through the movie: a split screen plays in my head, displaying what I already know versus what the director and screenwriter have omitted, added, changed, etc.--making the subsequent critique half book report and half film review. In these cases, I'm accused of not giving the movie a fair shake as its own thing.

But how do you un-know something? Isn't the point of an adaptation to not only create new fans but also to help existing ones visualize the worlds they'd painted in their minds? My litmus test for judging an adaptation's success has always hinged on whether or not the movie made me want to read the book. It's easier to think in reverse terms: many people can't wait to see their favorite characters and far-away places realized on the big screen because, frankly, many of these folks lack imagination.

Wait, that was a bit harsh--and probably not entirely correct. I should say that they lack an ability to be satisfied with their imagination's rendering of events. How else to describe the puzzling truckloads of cash gobbled up by the Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter franchises? I doubt the stories are any better on screen than they were in readers' heads the first time they encountered them on the page. So there must be something to the notion of stories not being valid or good enough until the "real" version--the "definitive" movie version--makes its way to the multiplex.

This disturbing, Shiny Objects Syndrome runs rampant in pop culture, and is the reason I find it harder and harder to enjoy insanely popular movies. If the key to "getting" Avatar is ignoring the fact that I've seen less-pretty versions of it a hundred times before, then what chance do I have against The Hunger Games--a film that, despite author Suzanne Collins' protestations, is too similar to Battle Royale to be given the benefit of having a unique identity?

Yes, kids, I'm finally going to review this movie. I'll begin by saying that I was more engaged by The Hunger Games than I was any of the Lord of the Rings films or the entire Harry Potter franchise. The Twilight saga gets a slight leg up in the entertainment department because of how awful those movies are. But for the first time in more than a decade, I found hope in a movie targeted at teens, which adults are supposed to take seriously. Granted, much of this enjoyment was thanks to elements directly or indirectly lifted from Battle Royale.

Jennifer Lawrence stars as Katniss Everdeen, a teenager living in a post-war America that has been renamed "Panem". She hunts for food with best friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), and raises her kid sister, Prim (Willow Shields); the girls' mother has been emotionally unavailable since the death of their father in a coal mining accident years earlier.** The movie opens on Reaping Day, when representatives from The Capitol descend on Katniss' village to randomly select one boy and one girl to participate in The Hunger Games.

Prim is chosen, and Katniss immediately offers herself up as a replacement. Representing the boys is Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a more privileged local who's long hidden a crush for his new competitor. The teens are shuttled off to The Capitol and mentored by a drunken former Games champion named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). He reluctantly teaches them strategy, while state-appointed stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) gives them outrageous makeovers (via an illusion that makes their wardrobes appear to burst into flame). Presiding over this crew is Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), the cheery, plastic face of the government's iron-fisted glam regime.

About half the movie is eaten up by prologue and extended training montages, with Katniss and Peeta steeling themselves for battle against twenty-two other kids--one pair from each of the eleven other Districts of Panem. They test weapons, get into scraps, and appear on a popular television show to talk about their journeys. This portion, while interesting, is like the slower parts of the X-Men franchise, crossed with Access Hollywood's coverage of Jersey Shore set drama.

When the game begins, however, the brightly colored world of The Capitol is replaced by a gray, savage wilderness, where the twenty-four contestants must first race to a giant, metal cornucopia to select their weapons and then make for the woods. Several children die in the first five minutes, and I was surprised at the brutality of the attacks. Soon, though, the movie settles in for a prolonged and only intermittently interesting chase through the woods. Members of the more elite Districts form an alliance to hunt and kill the weaker kids, and the manner in which they're picked off becomes the main reason to stay tuned in--kind of like a Friday the 13th movie.

If you've never seen Battle Royale (or The Running Man, for that matter) or read the Hunger Games books, this might all seem very novel and exciting. Or maybe not. I was pleasantly surprised at how grim the material was allowed to get, seeing as this is a shameless ploy for mall money.

On the other hand, I couldn't help but think how much stronger the movie would have been as an R-rated picture. It's not that I needed to see all the blood and guts that are merely implied--though the shaky-cam and cut-aways give much of the action an edited-for-TV feel. No, the real reason I would've appreciated an adult Hunger Games is because--despite strong social and political themes--director Gary Ross and co-writers Collins and Billy Ray sideline many of their great ideas by either not seeing them through or getting caught up in the conventions of teen-fantasy story structure.

They're also handicapped by the fact that the audience knows The Hunger Games is the first of a trilogy. We have zero doubt as to who will be left standing at the end, and I have no idea how the filmmakers will pad out this story for another three installments.*** Frankly, I don't care what happens. Unless the creators have some mind-bending new direction in which to take these characters, I have little interest in seeing a third, fourth, or fifth kiddie Xerox of Battle Royale.

That's not to say that I didn't enjoy my time with Katniss. Jennifer Lawrence is a solid actor, and a welcome change from this generation's other puzzling feminist-of-fantasy, Kristen Stewart. In fact, the whole cast is pretty good, though I quickly grew impatient with all the Big Stars in the adult roles. It smacks vaguely of stunt casting, but more so of several savvy agents going "beep beep beep" as they promise armies of money trucks backing up to their clients' gated communities.

Only Stanley Tucci manages to do more with his part than simply show up; as the wacky TV personality Caesar Flickerman, he brings a sinister energy to the film that the actual bad guys can't muster.

This is all to say that I thought The Hunger Games was okay. It kept my interest and occasionally excited me, but the truth remains that it is, at best, a less-focused and wimpier version of Battle Royale. I hate to keep coming back to this, but those of you who've seen both films will get what I'm talking about right away. 

As for Ms. Collins' claims that she hadn't heard of Battle Royale until after she'd handed in her manuscript, I'm going to go on record as saying that I don't believe her. Even if I accept the premise that she was inspired by reality television and the Iraq War, she wrote The Hunger Games in the age of Google. I would think that one of the first steps in writing a novel today is research--not the library kind, but a few simple keystrokes that will help an author determine whether or not their bold, original idea has already been taken.

In Collins' case, a query such as "teens killing each other on an island" would have brought up a reference to either Lord of the Flies or Battle Royale. Add keywords like "contest" and "random weapons", and there's no way to avoid Kinji Fukasaku's movie.

There's also the sticky little matter of Collins' editor at Penguin Books telling her that he didn't "want that world in her head" when she asked him if she should look into the Battle Royale novel, books, or comics after they were brought to her attention. She insists to this day that she never peeked; I guess multi-million-dollar publishing contracts and film residuals are enough to buy willful ignorance these days--or at least to claim it.

You don't have to be a fan of her books to recognize this as Capitol thinking.

Note: I started reading the first Hunger Games book a few days ago, and am intrigued enough to keep going. Judging from the few pages I've read, the novel is far superior (if for no other reason that it actually explains why the contest is called "The Hunger Games"), and I think the best way to experience this story is to read the book, skip the film, and rent Battle Royale.

*This happens eight times out of ten.

**In case you're wondering: no, I didn't mistakenly cut-and-paste a portion of my Winter's Bone review.

***Yes, I know there are only three books in the series, but given this genre's track record, the third will likely be split into two installments.

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