*. The Hunger Games is the first of a series of four films (thus far) based on a series of YA SF-fantasy novels by Suzanne Collins. They (the novels and the films) are very much genre products of their time. For what I guess are pretty obvious reasons, SF&F in the twenty-first century started to take a turn to the bleak, being dominated by various dystopic visions. Environmental disaster, plague, and political slides into authoritarianism were everywhere. Dystopia Now, we might call it.
*. I don’t have anything against such dark forecastings and pessimistic mythologies, but after a while a lot of this stuff started to seem the same to me. Add to this the tendency of all genre fiction to want to stick pretty closely to formulas in order to hit as broad an audience as possible and you had works that soon seemed imaginatively tired. Then add to that the fact that YA fiction in particular likes to simplify adult ideas (coming up with the “kidult” phenomenon that I so despise) and you get a lot of stuff that I don’t find very interesting or enjoyable.
*. All of which is just to say that the odds were definitely not in favour of my liking this movie very much. So saying it was better than I expected might not be saying a lot. Still, despite running over some old ground in predictable ways it held my attention for 142 minutes, which is something I give it credit for.
*. It was met with a lot of criticism, not all of which was fair. Objection was made to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen not looking emaciated enough, given that the people in her district are presumably starving. In which case what I wondered was why they were still eating meat at all. But this is silly. If you want to wonder about things like that you should be questioning the well-fed cast of The Walking Dead, who by my reckoning should be walking skeletons themselves only a month or so after the zombie apocalypse. Yet they all seem pretty well preserved even in the later seasons of that show.
*. Another critique was leveled by David Thomson, who had this to say in his withering review: “the greatest shortcoming is in the matter of combat. Whether the filmmakers like it or not, this is a story about kids killing other kids with knives, bows and arrows, and anything else they can get their hands on. If you don’t like that violence, and if you fear it will jeopardize the box office, then don’t do the story. Instead, the woeful director Gary Ross has elected to present the combat as a mess of trembling hand-held close-ups, rapid cuts, and an overall blurring, so that in effect we don’t see the action. To my mind this is nearly un-American: From Ford and Hawks, through Sam Fuller and Anthony Mann, to Coppola and Scorsese, our cinema has reveled in what is called ‘action’ and made it something close to a philosophy. But in The Hunger Games you feel these scenes are like ink smudged in the rain. Perhaps it was calculated to get a PG-13 rating; perhaps Ross is a chump as a director (he made a similar hash of Seabiscuit); perhaps the script, by Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray (who wrote Shattered Glass) never settled on the level of terror or savagery it was trying for. $68.25 million in a day is not going to persuade them to try harder on three more films.”
*. I love Thomson, but this made no sense to me. He seems to not be taking into account the fact that this is a YA movie and that the PG-13 rating wasn’t really a choice. They weren’t trying for terror or savagery. I was quite impressed at the elision in the action scenes of the violence and gore, especially given how nasty the basic premise is. Despite the overstated claims of this being a Battle Royale rip-off, it’s not Battle Royale, which was a better movie, but also a very different one.
*. The politics are more problematic. You can tie yourself into knots about how ironic or postmodern it’s supposed to be taken, but the basic mythology in play here is an extreme caricature of the faux-populist rural-urban, red state-blue state divide. In the country we have resilient hill people who seem to have stepped out of a Walker Evans book. In the city are the decadent fops and dandies with Roman names who enjoy all the good things in life. Of course they control the media, and have an army of stormtroopers to keep the starving plebs in line. So it’s the people vs. the elites again. All of which might seem if not innocent than at least kind of obvious. But it’s still worth noting how deeply such a mythology had become ingrained into American culture at this time. The poisoned fruit it would bear was still a few years away.
*. The key to successful genre fiction and filmmaking is to give the audience exactly what it’s expecting and hope that slight variations and the introduction of a striking character or the presence of a charismatic star will work some magic and hit a sweet spot with audiences. All of which happened here.
*. I don’t think this movie would have been anything without Jennifer Lawrence. She’s the backwoods mud-honey who can still get glammed up and look great in eveningwear. Given her star power here — and the fact that she can do everything better than anyone else, including being empathetic and mothering when required — Josh Hutcherson’s Peeta turns into something less than a wallflower. Maybe a patch of forest moss.
*. The rest of the supporting cast do their part. Woody Harrelson is there to show that you can take the boy out of the country but not the country out of the boy. Elizabeth Banks has such a fun get-up, in a performance channeling the latter days of Glenn Close, that I wanted to see more of her and maybe find out who the hell she actually was. No such luck. Stanley Tucci is great as the talk-show host. Donald Sutherland mails it in as the president, but that was the part and plus he’s old.
*. So nothing new, and some of the clichés grate. I’ve written before about the manipulative business where you make the core of the movie a show, which then allows lots of cutaways to audience reactions that are used like a laugh track to prompt a response from us. Then there’s the po’ white trash of the hill country districts who not only have a diet rich in meat but also have big-screen TVs in their shotgun shacks and bayou cribs.
*. That said, it’s well enough turned out and Lawrence takes it up a notch, meaning to a level where it’s at least watchable. Though perhaps not enough to interest me in another three instalments. But we’ll see.