Hunger Games, The

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 03/20/12 11:01:11

"More Than Just A Battle Royale With Cheese"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

In the wake of the mammoth success of the big-screen versions of "The Lord of the Rings" and the Harry Potter stories, it now seems as if hardly a month or so goes by without at least one new adaptation of a best-selling fantasy-related novel--often one in a series of books--attempting to make the crossover from the page to the screen with the help of a publicity campaign that all but assures viewers that more films will be forthcoming even before a single ticket is sold. Most of these attempts to make lightning strike twice have ended in dismal commercial failure--wither "Eragon," "Percy Jackson & the Lightning Thief" and the current bomb "John Carter," to name just a few--and even the ones that have been financial hits--the "Twilight" saga being the most notable example--have generally been subpar films that even their most dedicated fans would have trouble making the case for based solely on artistic standards. The reason why the Potter and "LOTR" films avoided the grisly fates of so many of the projects that attempted to ride on their coattails is a simple one that has nothing necessarily to do with the intrinsic qualities of their basic stories. The difference is that Peter Jackson and the various Hogwarts-related auteurs (especially the later episodes) were more concerned with quality movies first and multi-media juggernauts second while the reverse has often been the case with the other attempts.

Needless to say, I found myself approaching "The Hunger Games," the eagerly-awaited adaptation of the first third of author Suzanne Collins' enormously popular young adult novels, with equal parts skepticism and concern that I was setting foot into yet another cumbersome bore that had nothing more on its mind than replicating what was found on the page as closely as possible in order to avoid raising the ire of its loyal fan base even if doing so meant alienating those who hadn't actually read the book or who were hoping to see a movie that could stand on its own two feet without turning into just another walking, talking diorama. As it turns out, "The Hunger Games" has made a more or less successful transition from print to film and it is primarily because the people involved were clearly more interested in making a real movie that would attract and entertain fans and newcomers alike instead of simply slapping together anything on the theory that it would make for a gargantuan financial success regardless of its quality.

For those of you who have somehow not yet been exposed to the phenomenon as of yet, "The Hunger Games" is set in the not-too-distant future version of the United States that, following some sort of unknown apocalyptic event (my guess is a second season of "Whitney"), has been transformed into a country named Panem that consists of 12 separate districts of varying socio-economic means that are ruled by a mega-wealthy and excruciatingly garish Capitol. As a way of punishing the 12 districts for a past rebellion that led to the destruction of a 13th while placating them with the kind of violent, personality-driven entertainment that will apparently survive the apocalypse (unlike "Whitney," one hopes and prays), the Capitol has devised an annual event known as The Hunger Games. In it, each district selects a boy and a girl between the ages of 12-18 to represent them in the games. These tributes are then whisked to the Capitol, given a few days of training and then sent out into a nationally televised bloodbath in which the kids slaughter each other by any means available until there is only one left standing who is crowned champion and presumably anointed with riches and such. In the richest districts, the representatives have been training for the games since early childhood and are the odds-on favorites every year--they are essentially the New York Yankees of the Games. In the poorer districts, such as the Appalachian-based District 12, tributes are chosen at random from a fishbowl and tend to have a success rate more akin to the Chicago Cubs.

Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a resourceful lass from District 12 who has more or less been single-handedly caring for her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) and her near-catatonic mother following the death of her father in a mining disaster a few years earlier. Thanks to her survival skills and her ability with a bow and arrow, she is able to kill enough food to feed her family and sell on the black market but while hunky pal Gale (LIam Hemsworth) idly speculates about disappearing into the woods in an attempt to escape both their poverty-stricken existences and the clutches of the Games, Katniss is resigned to what little her life has to offer her. Needles to say, her life changes forever when all the young people in the area are rounded up for the tribute selection for the upcoming 74th edition of the Games and the female selected is. . .Primrose. Realizing that the delicate and innocent Primrose would not stand a chance in the Games, Katniss immediately volunteers to take her sister's place as the female tribute. She is accepted and along with male selection Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a boy with whom Katniss has a somewhat complicated past history (the type best depicted by a gradually expanding flashback motif), the two are whisked off to the Capitol by Games representative Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former Games winner from District 12 whose enthusiasm for the competition can be measured by the amount of booze he downs every day.

Upon arriving at the Capitol, Katniss is the darkest imaginable horse--a liability because the more popular players can attract "sponsors" who will provide them with much-needed survival supplies--but thanks to her compelling personality, her way with an arrow and the requisite fabulous makeover, her popularity soars. With little going for him besides his strength, Peeta tries to publicly attach himself to her rising star by suggesting during his pre-game interview with unctuous Games host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, looking like what one might result from a three-way involving a lawn gnome, Regis Philbin and Lady Miss Kier from the old pop group Dee-Lite) that he has had a long-standing crush on her. This understandably annoys Katniss (and leads to numerous crestfallen gazes from Gale back at home) but it serves to make her even more popular as a result, much to the delight of game director Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley) and the consternation of the imperious President Snow (Donald Sutherland), who sees in her a potentially rebellious spark that must be controlled at all costs. Finally, the Games begin and while nearly half of the players are killed during an opening bloodbath while fighting for weapons, Katniss takes to the hills and begins employing her survival skills to outwit her opponents, especially the loathsome and now-allied tributes from Districts 1 and 2, Marvel (Jack Quaid), Glimmer (Leven Rambin), Cato (Alexander Ludwig) and Clove (Isabelle Fuhrman), while befriending the sweet-but-sneaky young District 11 player Rue (Amandla Stenberg) along the way. As one might expect, the ensuing competition is filled with brutality, betrayal, heartbreak, shifting allegiances and, of course, rule changes a-plenty. IN other words, it is kind of like the NBA sans the dignity and restraint.

By now, some of you may have already begun composing grumpy e-mails to inform me that "The Hunger Games" is nothing more than a rip-off of the Japanese cult favorite "Battle Royale" and that I must be an idiot for not declaring it as such right at the top of this review. For those of you not in the know, "Battle Royale" was a 1999 Japanese novel, brought to the screen the next year in a notorious adaptation by the great Kinji Fukasaku, positing a near-future Japan so rocked by economic chaos and unrest involving the youth that an annual televised event is devised in which a class on 9th graders is picked at random, fitted with explosive collars to prevent escape and taken to a remote island and forced to fight to the death. Although the film was never commercially released in America for various reasons (no major studio would touch it in the wake of Columbine, no smaller studio wanted to release a film that would assuredly get the dreaded NC-17 rating and provoke controversy and the production company apparently wanted too much money for the rights to distribute what would have been a niche item at best), it became a cult favorite thanks to bootleg copies of the film and ever since "The Hunger Games" was first published in 2008, it has been dogged with accusations that Suzanne Collins essentially ripped off the entire story wholesale, despite her protestations to the contrary.

Whether or not "The Hunger Games" is a steal from "Battle Royale" is not as cut-and-dried as the fanboy contingent might lead one to believe. Yes, there are any number of similarities between the two projects but at the same time, the notion of people hunting down each other in the name of entertainment is not exactly the freshest conceit either. The Richard Connell short story "The Most Dangerous Game," for example, has inspired any number of adaptations, legitimate and otherwise, of its tale of a big-game hunter so bored with taking down regular animals that he sends off human beings to serve as his quarry. Decades later, the conceit received a multimedia makeover with the campy 1965 Italian effort "The 10th Victim," in which a group of top-level assassins, including Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, become part of a game show in which they are to bump each other off. (Andress bumps off her victims with the aid of a bullet-firing bra--should I go with the punchline about large-caliber weaponry or the one about her victims dying with smiles on their faces?). The gimmick of widespread murder as televised entertainment proscribed by the government to sate and distract the increasingly jaded masses would later turn up in films such as the classic 1975 Roger Corman production "Death Race 2000" and the 1987 Stephen King adaptation "The Running Man" (which, in a brilliant stroke of casting, deployed none other than game show staple Richard Dawson, in the role of his career, as the malevolent emcee). In other words, "The Hunger Games" may well have borrowed elements from "Battle Royale"--most obviously the notion of utilizing kids as the killers--but it has so many other predecessors that to dismiss it as simply a copycat is not as easy as one might think.

The key difference between "The Hunger Games" and its antecedents is one of approach. In those earlier versions, the premise was mined largely for satirical effect with the scenes involving mayhem were designed to inspire laughter more than horror and ironic casting such as the aforementioned Dawson in "The Running Man" or Takashi Kitano, himself the creator of numerous super-violent films in Japan, as the mentor in "Battle Royale." "The Hunger Games," on the other hand, takes the chance of handling the material in a more serious-minded manner Oh sure, there are moments of humor to be had here and there--especially involving the scenes set in the Capitol and the game commentary provided by Tucci and equally garish co-anchor Toby Jones--and the concept itself is a bit silly on the surface but for the most part, this material is handled in a surprisingly straightforward manner that comes as a refreshing change of pace from what might have otherwise been expected. Having never read the books before, I cannot say for sure if they maintain a similar tone but I suspect that when it came time to bring "The Hunger Games" to the screen, there may well have been some pressure from the studio to lighten the material up in order to make it more palatable to the masses. Happily, director Gary Ross--marking his return to filmmaking after a nearly decade-long hiatus following the 2003 release of "Seabiscuit"--has chosen to treat it in adult-minded manner and this decision not only helps the film as a whole but goes a long way to making it into something other than a "Battle Royale" with cheese.

Also helping in that regard are the generally high level of performances from the sprawling cast of actors. The standout, of course, is Jennifer Lawrence, who burst on the screen only a couple of years ago and has been the highlight of movies good "X-Men: First Class"), bad (the wildly overrated "Winter's Bone") and unspeakable (the unwatchable "Like Crazy"). Here, in a role that some may find similar to her work in "Winter's Bone," she is pretty spectacular in the way that she takes what might have a cartoonish killer babe in the hands of a lesser actress and finds the heart and humanity underneath. Sure, the ridiculous level of hype that the film has attracted means that Lawrence is almost assuredly going to be a huge star as a result but her performance is so strong and sure and sincere that it suggests that she will continue to have an interesting career long after the series has come to its conclusion. Although none of the younger actors get the chance to shine to the extent that Lawrence does, they all acquit themselves reasonably well, though I wish that someone slightly more charismatic and interesting than Hutcherson could have been cast as Peeta. (Then again, since the character is meant to be a bit of a dullard, perhaps the casting is a little more inspired than I think.) As for the veteran performers, Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones are appropriately slimy as the commentators, Woody Harrelson steals every scene with his turn as the disillusioned mentor who recognizes both the appeal and danger posed by Katniss and as the debauched advisor, Elizabeth Banks is so amusingly over-the-top with her Kabuki-like makeup and bizarre manner that, were he alive today, the late Ken Russell might have looked upon her with wonder and admiration. And if the film does nothing else, it proves once again that if a screenplay requires someone to deliver yards and yards of expository dialogue that are fraught with sinister overtones and at a rapid clip, there is no better actor to deliver all of it than Donald Sutherland.

As good as "The Hunger Games" gets at certain points, it is far from a perfect film and there are any number of rough spots here and there. Some of them are minor quibbles such as the silliness of the attire favored by the people of the Colony, all of whom look like refugees from the infamous Grade-Z musical mess "The Apple," and the increasingly goofball names given to all of the character, a collection of monickers so bizarre that they may inspire mass suicides among computer spell-checkers. A bigger and more serious problem is that the film never quite manages to establish the Games as a whole as a convincing entity. I never quite got a sense why this was decided upon as a means of controlling the various districts, why it continued to be accepted by the populace or quite understood any of the various details regarding sponsors, rule changes or virtual reality creations that are thrown into the game by the director at random that appear to generate genuine (and genuinely lethal) matter out of nothing. My guess is that all of these items are explained in detail in the book but while they may seem perfectly understandable to the fans, newcomers like myself are likely to be confused at certain points.

The biggest stumble is that the scenes depicting the actual gameplay are a bit disappointing at times. Gary Ross is a fine filmmaker but even his most ardent supporters would have to admit that prior efforts like "Pleasantville" and "Seabiscuit" were not exactly jam-packed with thrilling action set-pieces. Here, the battle scenes are competently done at best but lack the finesse and excitement that a master of the genre like Walter Hill or Luc Besson might have brought to the proceedings. Along these lines, Ross also fails to address the questionable morality of a world in which children are slaughtered for entertainment for a public that seems to have no objection to such a concept. Although it might not have been the most original idea, one approach that Ross could have taken might have been to show the kids killing each other in as savage a manner as possible for us to behold and then show how that same material is massaged for mass consumption via clever directorial tricks designed to raise the easy emotional stakes while muting the very real pain and blood. Instead, Ross does that muting for himself and instead of wondering about what the Games are meant to say about humanity as a whole, most viewers will find themselves wondering just how much stuff was re-edited, glossed over or cut completely in order to achieve the all-important PG-13 rating that would ensure that its teenaged fan base would be able to go see it.

Like I said, I didn't exactly go into "The Hunger Games" with the lightest of hearts and while I figured that the combination of Jennifer Lawrence and Gary Ross would inspire something that was, at the very least, better than the "Twilight" boondoggles, I wasn't sure that it would be anything more than the cinematic iteration of a fad that had done nothing for me up until now. However, when I am wrong, I am wrong and I am happy to admit that, with a few key reservations, that it is an effective film that proves that just because something is a pre-ordained blockbuster commercial behemoth does not mean that it cannot be a good movie at the same time. Am I inspired enough to want to go out and eagerly devour all the books? Not so much, I suppose, but it does mean that when the next film comes out, I will be approaching the saga with more of a sense of genuine optimism the second time around. At a time when I find myself actively dreading large numbers of the most heavily hyped films, that alone constitutes at least a minor miracle.

© Copyright HBS Entertainment, Inc.