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Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) breaks the fourth wall in The Hunger Games

BY NATHANIEL ROGERS

GuestbloggerYOUR FEATURE PRESENTATION

"The Hunger Games," now in their 74th year, began as a way to punish an uprising against the government. The totalitarian regime of Panem (in what remains of the former United States) maintains total control over the outlying districts. Each of the 12 districts is required to send forth two "tributes" annually, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 to 18 chosen by lottery. They are shipped to the Capital where they are paraded about and then shipped off to die for the amusement of the masses. Everyone in the nation watches. There are no alternatives in this dystopia. Only one adolescent will live bringing supposed honor (and maybe food?) to their starving district... or so claims the capital. What honor there is in forcing teenagers to kill each other is not a question the Capitol asks itself.

Any similarities that THE HUNGER GAMES has to the Japanese classic Battle Royale (2000), which also features schoolchildren forced to kill each other by a totalitarian regime -- only one survivor allowed -- are, according to The Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins, entirely coincidental. Another film in this subgenre, the little seen Series 7: The Contenders (2001) also features mandatory lotteried killing for televised amusement. In short, the ideas are nothing new, just the treatment; these are topics we're obviously grappling with in popular culture in this era of televised "reality" and winner takes all capitalistic vice. The gap between the haves and have nots grows and this dystopia gives it steroids.

When 12 year old Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is named as tribute in "The Reaping" ceremony, her protective sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place. The district also sends Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) a sweet strong baker's son who Katniss knows a little. Will they kill or be killed? 

They're off and running... AFTER THE JUMP...

  Hunger-tv

The first hour plus of Hunger Games is touching and quite visually intriguing, "The Reaping" sequence is especially memorable with Effie (Elizabeth Banks) a flamboyant disconcerting fuschia in a sea of grayed out zombie teenagers fearing their name read aloud. The last hour, the actual games, paradoxically thrills less.

Hunger-effieI have not read the novels so the world building was fascinating and even semi-plausible. For the most part director Gary Ross (Seabiscuit) delivers an artful scifi drama. Particularly impressive are the sound and scoring, both less bombastic than this type of film usually receives and more affecting for it. When a contestant dies there is a low "boom" that's surely intended for the combatants to keep count (since the Panem audience will already know who has died) but it adds to the dread. Consider it an artistic reminder that less can be more since the offscreen deaths are just as unsettling as those we witness. 

Once the tributes reach the arena, basically a forest with clearings, the slaughter begins. The initial bloodbath is filmed mostly in blurry handheld camera and incoherent quick edits (as are most subsequent action sequences), either because Ross has little feel for action, because coherent editing is out of style or because the R rated material wanted a PG-13 for a bigger box office reach; I'm guessing all three. He's also overly fond of foreshadowing and controlling where you're looking on the screen even when several people are in frame. Even if you haven't read the books it's easy to sense who will live longest based merely on who the camera asks you to look at. And one thing above all else becomes clear - this movie belongs solely to Jennifer Lawrence and cares possibly more about how wonderful Jennifer Lawrence is to look at than the sorry plight of teenage tributes as cruel pawns in a snuff film.

Here's a basic shot list during the games: clearing, blurry slaughter, Katniss, Katniss, Katniss thinking, confused running, Katniss, tree, a report on who has died, Katniss thinking, Katniss sleeping, trees, Katniss waking, closeup of weapon, Katniss, nature, Katniss sleeping, Katniss, control room, Katniss thinking, Katniss, other contestants, Katniss, control room, Katniss walking, fireballs!, Katniss running, Katniss falling, Katniss running, Katniss, Katniss, Ohmygod it's Peeta, Cato and his gang, Katniss running, Katniss hiding, Katniss climbing, disgruntled teenage assassins, Katniss, Katniss sleeping, everyone sleeping, Katniss waking up, Katniss & Rue, something deadly, Katniss thinking, weapon, a particularly gross death, Katniss, Peeta, Katniss hallucinating, people watching the games, Katniss, Katniss walking, Katniss, Katniss, control room, Katniss & Peeta, Katniss sleeping, fire, Katniss running, Katniss, Katniss singing, Katniss making a friend, Katniss, Katniss crying, Katniss looking at the camera, nature, Katniss, Katniss, control room, Katnis suddenly thinking of Peeta, Peeta, a parachute, Katniss pretending to sleep, Katniss, Katniss strategizing, Katniss, grass, something threatening, another contestant, blurry fighting, Katniss running, Katniss hurting, Katniss, and so on... and some more Katniss.

There are 24 tributes but you wouldn't know it to look at her.

Hunger-fireball

I didn't know where to begin in reviewing The Hunger Games which is specific enough as a concept to excite immediate feeling but vague enough as a metaphor to invite all sorts of projections. Like many pop culture phenomenons, what you bring in to the theater is half of the experience. The Hunger Games will surely spark a lot of conversation as the angles are endless: man's inhumanity to man as entertainment -- with us since the days of the Gladiators; Television as the opiate of the masses; The politics of wealth distribution; Our complicity in the perpetuation of our own misery; Etcetera. 

The Hunger Games flexibility with metaphor even extends to mass market entertainment and actors as celebrities. Katniss and Peeta are styled and primped before public apperances preceeding the games and they're repeatedly encouraged to be "likeable" so that they'll win sponsors. The movie hedges its bets this way too, employing the reliable trustworthy Disney tactic of not really making the heroes kill people unless its indirectly. (It might make them more likeable but it also kills some of the psychological horror the concept promises.)

The showbiz doesn't end there. Katniss's mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) even encourages her to amp up the drama during the games and she complies. The best thing about Jennifer Lawrence's work here might be the occasional beats of ambiguity -- you're not entirely sure how much her feelings for Peeta are real or amplified for survival, and when she acknowledges the audience on occassion, how much is she really feeling? The Hunger Games will surely make Jennifer Lawrence, who came to fame with an Oscar nominated turn in the poverty-stricken drama Winter's Bone, a huge star. 

Curiously in both films she plays a destitute but resourceful Appalachian girl who kills squirrels and who happens to be her sister's proxy mother since the real one is terrible at the job. It may be the tiniest niche an actress has ever inhabited but Lawrence is a very big deal.

Nathaniel Rogers would live in the movie theater but for the poor internet reception. He blogs daily at the Film Experience. Follow him on Twitter @nathanielr.

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Comments

  1. In other words: the movie is all style and no substance; "The Hunger Games" left me starving for a lot more. Were Roger Ebert and the other respected critics who praised it body snatched by 10-yr.olds? Even the 4:25 showing I went to was packed. But TWO HOURS & TWENTY –TWO MINUTES later I left not with transcendent movie images imprinted forever in my film addict’s head, but with Miss Peggy Lee singing, “Is that all there is? Is that all there is?”—and $14.25 poorer. Yes, there are flavorful morsels here and there, but what could have been alternately chilling, gripping, thrilling, and heartbreaking finally tasted like day-old, reheated French fries. One feels bad for the couple of hardworking actors among a computer-generated cast of thousands, all dressed in so many colors and over-the-top styles that I kept thinking, “Katniss has landed in Munchkinland mit Storm Troopers!” And that brings me to its real life sociopolitical reverberation. This film is most guilty of a choice one often sees on screen when the plot involves a future controlled by evil dictators—men dressed in “feminine” clothes. While Stanley Tucci isn’t as consciously nelly here as in several previous productions in which he seems to have agreed to be our century’s Franklin Pangborn, his hairstyle [wig] makes him look like one of Marie Antoinette’s fey fops—AND it’s dayglow blue. Rick Santorum and Kirk Cameron will probably see it all as PROOF gender nonconformity WILL destroy Civilization even though one of the few good guys in Munchkinstein is played by a sizzling hot Lenny Kravits sporting gold eyeliner [while his clothes remain “gender appropriate”]. Bottom line: I think it ultimately fails because they were afraid making it too realistic [you can see more bloody deaths in five minutes of TV’s “Vampire Diaries” than all of Games], and, most crucially, too sinister to get the PG-13 rating necessary to rack up megamillions. And without creating that visceral chill of what it would be like to have one’s life—and death—so controlled by others [at least in adults in the audience] it feels more like 1954 than “1984” [the director was behind “Pleasantville” which I enjoyed, but...]. Daring to go against the herd, TIME’s Richard Corliss hits the bullseye better than Katniss: “If they made books out of movies, this Hunger Games would never see print.”

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | Mar 24, 2012 9:34:33 PM


  2. Survivor: The Movie. Not really interested, but to those who are, enjoy.

    Posted by: Max | Mar 24, 2012 10:25:20 PM


  3. Fascism is Big Business.

    Posted by: David Ehrenstein | Mar 24, 2012 10:29:25 PM


  4. It was awesome. Bring on Catching Fire.

    Posted by: Gaylib | Mar 24, 2012 10:39:25 PM


  5. i could not be more underwhelmed or ambivalent.

    Posted by: deedrdo | Mar 24, 2012 10:51:59 PM


  6. First of all, the reviewer (and previous commentor, MD) should swear off attempting to review (comment on) films based on novels when he hasn't bothered to read the aforementioned novel. Had the reviewer bothered to actually READ said novel, he might have avoided showing total ignorance of the plot of the book the film was portraying.

    As an adaptation of a novel, "The Hunger Games" was a very successful film. The omissions in plot and characters were ones that could be lost without losing the essence of the story. The actors and actresses portraying the key roles did a remarkable job, eliciting the appropriate emotional responses in spite of the fact that I have read "The Hunger Games" twice through and therefore there were no surprises.

    I suppose we are meant to be wowed by the reviewer's knowledge of films with similar plot elements, and overlook his ability to judge a film on the merit of how well it tells the story it is meant to portray. Frankly, both the reviewer and previous commentor have me questioning the color of the sky in their respective worlds.

    Posted by: Stacy McCurdy | Mar 24, 2012 10:52:29 PM


  7. I've recently read the books and enjoyed them for what they are. The film does a satisfactory adaption and the focus on Katniss is totally appropriate. In the books the story is told solely from her point of view and much of it internal. In the film we were at least able to see a little of what happens that she doesn't or couldn't know unless told later. Katniss' interaction with Peeta as conveyed by actors was pitch perfect to their relationship in the books. It is intended to be extremely and ambiguously calculating and emotionally manipulative.

    Posted by: jrex | Mar 24, 2012 11:29:02 PM


  8. I'm interested in seeing Hunger Games. I haven't read the books but, as much as I hate to admit it, the subtly building online marketing campaign caught my interest. There, I said it! ;-)

    However, there's something I want to point out. A film built around the entire premise of children killing children, a film in which once the games start children DO die, was given an MPAA rating of PG-13.

    Contrast that with the documentary "Bully," which was given an R-rating by the MPAA because the actual children in it use "curse words." They say "f*ck" and "fagg*t," and all those awful words the dear, precious American schoolchildren have apparently never heard in their own schools.

    But apparently it's OK to see 12-18 year old kids kill each other.

    Think about that. What usually happens when school-aged children actually DO kill each other? There's much hand-wringing and plenty of blame to go around. Blame for the kids, blame for the parents, blame for the school. The 24-hour news-media goes into OVERDRIVE "How did we FAIL?" "Why does this keep happening?" "What's WRONG with US?!"

    What happens when one kid calls another kid a "F*ggot" or says "f*ck"? Nothing. Even the 24 hour news channels don't have enough time to devote to something so mundane as that. We may not like kids saying "dirty words" but we have bigger things to worry about. Who cares?

    The MPAA, apparently. I'm not saying The Hunger Games should be an R-rated film, I'm saying it highlights the hypocrisy of the MPAA about "Bully." Now, right in the MIDST of the near-unavoidable marketing campaign for The Hunger Games, is the PERFECT time to lobby for the R-rating of Bully to be changed.

    A movie about children killing children to illustrate some obscure message about reality TV or something is fine. A documentary that shows what is ACTUALLY happening in public schools is so "shocking" that no one who is actually school age can see it IN school. Thank about that. Please.

    Posted by: Caliban | Mar 24, 2012 11:30:37 PM


  9. D'oh!

    THINK about that, I mean!

    Posted by: Caliban | Mar 24, 2012 11:32:36 PM


  10. "The Long Walk", a short story or possibly a novelette by Stephen King who may have been masquerading as Richard Bachmann, has a very similar plot. Only thing is, the lottery-chosen teens merely walk along a planned route until there is only one survivor. If they stop for any reason longer than a few seconds or more than several times, they are shot dead. Of course, there is some lethal cheating too among the walkers.

    Some things are better as written stories, but I can't comment on The Hunger Game having not yet seen it, sounds interesting though.

    Posted by: Johnson | Mar 24, 2012 11:50:53 PM


  11. @ Caliban: That hypocrisy in the ratings of these two films is not lost on many of us (fortunately!).

    Posted by: Fat Queer | Mar 24, 2012 11:54:09 PM


  12. @ Caliban: Point taken. Thanks for taking the time to write that. That is some real food for thought, and I think it illustrates quite well that the MPAA rating system is, indeed, broken.

    Like so many things now days, it's according to some fixed formula, and fixed formulas don't really work very well for actual humanity. We need more thought and more discernment about so many things.
    The MPAA should occasionally put ACTUAL HUMANITY ahead of their precious, precious formulas.

    Posted by: Johnson | Mar 25, 2012 12:05:31 AM


  13. Great books do not AUTOMATICALLY mean great films [even when, in this case, the author was involved in the screenplay]. But some people are just too goddamn childish that they equate condemnation of the film with condemnation of the book. "Fidelity" to storyline and characters is NOT the issue. The movie simply STANK as the person in front of me and another down the row from me were probably texting IN THE MIDDLE OF THE FILM.

    Posted by: Michael Bedwell | Mar 25, 2012 1:45:39 AM


  14. The book was a compelling young fiction book. I could not put it down, in fact. It had a strong compelling female character and no princess to be found. Yes, it was written as "Young Adult" - but it was a plot-driven story and very compelling. Here is the other thing.. In our own actual distopian times, it doesn't have a political agenda.It remains a story. No one on the left or the right can really claim it. We have all watched Fear Factor, Survivor or ___Idol, and that resonates, and that is why it works.

    Posted by: Trey | Mar 25, 2012 2:32:34 AM


  15. Battle Royale > Hunger games

    I'm not in the mood to fall for an attempt at creating a new tween superstar.

    Posted by: Alexx | Mar 25, 2012 2:39:37 AM


  16. Nathaniel Rogers, you are so amazingly non-meta you should be retired.

    Posted by: Trey | Mar 25, 2012 2:42:16 AM


  17. I would have thought this could have been a good idea for a TV series, rather than a movie.

    Posted by: chris255 | Mar 25, 2012 6:20:39 AM


  18. Thank you so much for this valuable one :)

    Posted by: samedayessay | Mar 25, 2012 7:03:11 AM


  19. I know I have become old. My idea of Hunger Games is trying to kick out the trick before I have to give him breakfast. :-)

    Posted by: Angela Channing | Mar 25, 2012 7:08:52 AM


  20. The Lottery, by Shirley Jackson, was written in 1948 and dealt with these very themes of retribution and human devastation as entertainment. It is still a chilling read after all these years, so maybe all of these shows and movies should be paying tribute? I'm just sayin'

    Posted by: Brian | Mar 25, 2012 10:13:47 AM


  21. I had not read the book until I saw the movie on Friday with my 18-year old sister. I was intrigued enough to go read it over the weekend and finished an hour ago. Much of what the review criticizes the film for is actually essential to the book (a good half the book is Katniss alone in the woods and 100% of of the action is essentially with her as the focus). Who kills who and whether it is done directly or indirectly is also from the source material. While it would have bettered the film in some ways to have deeper explorations of some of the adults and other tributes, it would have been a scriptwriter taking tremendous liberties with a well known and beloved source, adding scenes and backstories and plot developments that don't exist in a remarkably simple (it is a book for children after all, not an adult novel) but incredibly effective book. I certainly think the book could have been stronger, but it is not weaker for its choice to focus on a single protagonist and not to as the children who have identified with her to go along with things that, while profound, would neither serve nor entertain them (remember, Lord of the Flies was an adult book about children, not a children's book about children). If it means anything, my sister tells me the backstories deepen in the future books (particularly Haymitch's) and Katniss testers on the edge of madness as the fighting and killing expands. But I am not sure that an adaptation is the same as anybothe film. An adaptation also has a certain responsibility to its source and existing fans. So I am not sure it is a fault in a director or scriptwriter (the way it would be in an original work) for not adapting the characters and story to make it even more thematic than it already is. In fact, fans tend to hate it when major twists, endings, and characters are changed in service of the very fact that it is a film version. Especially films that are already guaranteed to be huge hits like this one...at what point does it become artistic vanity to change a story, character, plot to make something "better" when there was no fan desire or economic necessity to do so? There's no real single "right" answer since not everyone who reads the books will see the film or care what a review says, and not everyone who is deciding whether to just see the film will care units a faithful adaptation or not. But I do think in the case of an adaptation of a well known work, the balance should ultimately tip in the favor of the source work

    Posted by: LuckyLinden | Mar 25, 2012 12:33:34 PM


  22. ...
    Stop being so USA-centric ...
    Panem is the left-overs of North America, not just the United States...

    Posted by: mmike1969 | Mar 25, 2012 4:23:33 PM


  23. The movie felt a little stiff, something I attribute to not having read the book, but I still thought it was okay.

    What I really liked about it, though, was that it had some heft and complexity, with interesting themes... I think that's saying a lot after the last 'big' franchise, Twilight.

    I'd much rather any daughter I had read about or watch Katniss than Bella, for one. Bella had no redeeming qualities, whereas Katniss sacrificed herself for the benefit of others and always felt compassion and empathy, no matter what happened.

    For another, there was a real cultural critique going on, which is also completely lacking in Twilight.

    In fact, Twilight in many ways glorified one of the themes Hunger Games railed against, in their takes of the privileged elite. Bella and the Cullens were all about $100,000 cars and private islands, whereas Katniss was a little bit more concerned about how people in the "Capitol" were making it rather hard for her people to eat.

    So, if this is what kids are interest in now, more power to them. There's a lot here to like, even if a lot of adults and/or people who haven't read the books may not quite like it as much as the die-hard fans.

    Posted by: R | Mar 26, 2012 1:04:03 AM


  24. I saw this film today and I couldn't agree more with DEEDRDO's comment. I was completely underwhelmed by the film.

    Posted by: James | Mar 26, 2012 1:50:52 AM


  25. Hi,
    This is great. The Hunger Games has been my summer reading for two years now. I am truly hoping theHunger Games movie will be as good as the books. I am most interested in seeing the costumes designed by Cinna. Thanks for sharing this post.

    Posted by: Hunger Games movie | May 17, 2012 6:20:17 AM


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