The Hunger Games: A Good Meal That Doesn’t Quite Satiate Your Appetite
A two-and-a-half-hour midnight screening sounds tough on paper to get through, but The Hunger Games, the film adaptation of the wildly popular Suzanne Collins book, is so lightning fast that even the least interested audience member will find themselves engaged. It will be unfairly compared to Twilight, due to the sci-fi twist on the love triangle between a female protagonist and two interested hunks, but Twilight has very little narrative, whereas The Hunger Games has too much if anything. Massive events unfold in the span of mere minutes, and few precious minute are spent dwelling on things like complex emotion or social commentary. While it’s destined to be a massive hit (and its leading lady destined to be a huge star), The Hunger Games proves immensely watchable but unfortunately moderately disposable.
In a world with a past so complicated that its multiple title cards and many explanatory speeches never really helped me fully understand it, two young people from each “district” are chosen by the government to participate in the wildly popular “Hunger Games,” an Olympic-like ceremony in which you represent your people by attempting to survive and be the last teen standing in a 24-way fight to the death. Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) comes from the poorest region, District 12, and when her little sister Primrose is chosen, she decides to volunteer to take her place. Along with a local boy Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), they enter the Capitol and prepare for the games during the media frenzy. Elites played by Elizabeth Banks, Woody Harrelson, and Lenny Kravitz give Katniss and Peeta advice for how to win the hearts of the viewing audience, and thus, the games. When the games begin and the body count stacks, you wonder– will Katniss or Peeta be the last one standing?
There is very little social commentary, outside of a poor district rioting when their representative is killed at one point. One would think with such incendiary topics such as overpopulation, oppression of the lower class, and our sick obsession with reality television in play, it’d be ripe for satire. Unfortunately, there’s really none to be found in the film, save for the depiction of the TV hosts of the Hunger Games, played by Toby Jones and Stanley Tucci. With outlandish hair and the best capped teeth this side of Matt Dillon in There’s Something About Mary, Tucci in particular waltzes away with every scene he’s in, balancing darkness with hilarity– the role of the host expressing false sympathy even as he sends children to their doom plays beautifully in suggesting how our world’s future Ryan Seacrests will make a living. Though we don’t see as much of the interesting behind-the-scenes work as I would have liked, Donald Sutherland as the president in this dystopian future and Wes Bentley as the director of these games have fun chewing the scenery.
Jennifer Lawrence is terrific in the lead, showing glimpses of her Oscar-nominated Winter’s Bone performance– it’s easy to tie the two roles together. She has to be tough yet likable, a feat most young actresses really struggle with. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are given little to do other than boast strong jawlines and swoon over Katniss, but neither are as wooden as their Twilight counterparts. While many of the events in the Hunger Games left me scratching my head, largely due to an abundance of incomprehensibly framed shots sprinkled liberally throughout the film, it was never boring, and it was earnest and likable enough in its proceedings to engage me. While it’s obvious the movie would be far better served as an R-rated picture, and nearly none of the violence has any sort of impact since the gruesome reality is nearly all kept off-camera, it does its best with its PG-13 restrictions, I suppose. One wonders how a movie that is about children getting murdered gets a PG-13, yet a couple of swear words in an upcoming documentary about teen bullies gets the film an R. I digress.
Wide awake leaving the theater, the story was churning through my brain, yet I didn’t *feel* anything. In an ideal world, I have an emotional response to Katniss’s plight, I root for either Peeta or Gale, I cheer at moments and cry at others. In the film, when Katniss is whisked away after volunteering, she sits on the train stone-faced: she hasn’t had time to process the fact that odds are strong she will die, because the world around her has swept her into this fast-paced chain of events. I understood how Katniss felt. The Hunger Games does a grand job introducing the basic premise and characters, and the tempo of the film makes it a perfectly pleasant diversion. However, with no emotional attachment, no satire, and so much narrative to cram in that there’s no time to absorb all of the information thrown at you, it could never elevate past the plane of diversion. Individual scenes, such as Tucci’s TV program and the poor district riot, resonate, but the whole will likely only really wow fans of the book. Hopefully Gary Ross can bring some of the satire he brought to Pleasantville and Dave to the next Hunger Games installment… but I somehow doubt the odds are in our favor.