|Jennifer Lawrence and Liam Hemsworth in The Hunger Games|
If there’s a more cynical slab of emotional manipulation at the movies these days than The Hunger Games, I haven’t seen it. Gary Ross’s movie version of the Suzanne Collins book, the first in a phenomenally successful series of young adult novels, centers on an enforced competition in the wild among teenagers in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian America (called Panem) in which the participants, chosen by lottery and called tributes, one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts outside the Capitol (where all power resides), fight natural and genetically engineered adversaries and each other, while the country watches on TV, until all but one have been killed off. (Ross, Collins and Billy Ray co-authored the adaptation.) The Hunger Games pretends to be a social commentary. Its targets are not only the aristocrats who live off the commodities produced by the hard-working poor in the other districts and are immune to the process that eliminates twenty-three of twenty-four of their young annually – the tributes are a form of tribute paid to the Capitol three-quarters of a century after it put down a rebellion of the twelve districts – but also the voyeuristic mentality that makes Survivor and other reality shows such cash cows. In truth, though, the movie trades on that mentality, turning us into the kind of gladiatorial-combat-style voyeurs whose base instincts we’re supposed to disapprove of. And it’s a queasy argument anyway, since those who get voted off the island in Survivor don’t wind up dead.
The movie is melodrama from the set-up. When Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields), a frail, terrified twelve-year-old, gets chosen for the Hunger Games at her first “reaping” – the eligible group is everyone between the ages of twelve and eighteen – her sixteen-year-old sister Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), the family food gatherer since the death of their father in a mine explosion (District 12, where they live like many others in dire poverty, is the mining area), volunteers to take her place. The other tribute from District 12 is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son whom Katniss knows only slightly (they’re in the same year at school) but who once did her an unacknowledged service by throwing her a burned loaf of bread when she was starving. At first Katniss is wary of Peeta’s friendly overtures since the rules of the game require them to kill one another unless someone or something else does the job first, and she’s suspicious of his motives when, in the pre-games televised interviews, he tells the salivating Master of Ceremonies (Stanley Tucci, under a blue wig tied back in a ponytail) that he has a crush on Katniss. This feisty backwoods teen doesn’t consider that he’s doing her a good turn by making her look lovable: she might win the favor of a sponsor whose intervention at a crucial moment, with food or medicine or other supplies, could mean the difference between life and death. (If you’re counting up the steals in the material, so far you may have found They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” and, most glaring of all, the 2000 Japanese exploitation picture Battle Royale.)
|Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson|
The movie is heartless but it plays on our emotions, most despicably in the scene where Rue dies and Katniss gathers flowers to shroud her small body, then makes a gesture to the cameras (they’re hidden but they’re everywhere), a three-finger blown kiss asking for solidarity, that earns a moved cheer from viewers. Katniss’s act of homage to her fallen comrade, offered up in place of triumph over another dead enemy, makes her a revolutionary hero (she’s fighting against the mindset the games are supposed to inculcate) and her behavior incites a riot that’s as implausible as it is inconsequential: the riot is quickly put down and there’s no aftermath. Of course, there may be in one of the sequels; the only one of the Collins books I tried to read was The Hunger Games. I put it down before the halfway point because the writing had no style, no substance and no imagination. It was so limp that I could barely turn the pages. The movie isn't dull, but it’s badly directed: Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) obscures all of the action sequences by shooting them too close in with shaky hand-held cameras and editing them so obsessively that you literally can’t tell what’s going on. (When the only three remaining tribunes take shelter from the wild animals on top of some kind of structure, you have to get halfway through the episode before you can make out who the third one is.) I assume that Ross thinks he’s being discreet by not focusing on the violent deaths of most of the kids, but ineptitude isn't much of a substitute for tact, and in any case The Hunger Games isn't in a position to gain points for sensitivity. The only moments when the film suggests any kind of real emotion outside Jennifer Lawrence’s performance (she’s very good) are right at the beginning, where we see images of District 12 poverty – including Dorothea Lange faces that are lined with deprivation – and, in a hushed, tense sequence, Katniss tracks a deer.
|Woody Harrelson and Jennifer Lawrence|
The movie includes a love story but the scenes between Lawrence and Hutcherson don’t exactly fan the flames of adolescent desire. The kids could hardly have sex with cameras all around them to catch every inch of their struggle for survival, but their interaction doesn’t smack of repressed sexual energy either; it’s strictly G-rated. That’s because the movie, while chronicling how the media (and Haymitch, on their behalf) whips up a narrative of tragic young love to enhance the appeal of the games, does precisely the same thing: it reduces them to a platitude. Anyway Hutcherson, the boy from The Kids Are All Right and the Journey to the Center of the Earth pictures, is too insipid to spark much sexual tension. He seems to be a better actor than Liam Hemsworth as Katniss’s not-quite-boyfriend back home, who watches their televised smooching with discomfort; Hemsworth has the muscled anonymity of a model and far too contemporary a look for the futurist setting. But in terms of personality there isn’t much to choose from between the two young men.
Why do teenagers swoon for The Hunger Games? Like the first Twilight movie (the only one I’ve seen), it’s neutered and its action-thriller narrative doesn’t provide the kind of metaphors for the way kids live their real lives that the supernatural encounters in the TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer did or the Harry Potter series or, much earlier, Brian De Palma’s great Carrie. It’s possible that kids see their lives as so pressured and competitive that they might as well be fighting to the death for a nation-wide audience but that idea sounds too pat and unconvincing. The Suzanne Collins material is so sentimental and rigged that it makes you sad to think that even smart kids don’t seem to see through it; in my freshman film seminar the day before the movie opened there wasn’t a single young woman (the girls, not the boys, are Collins’s demographic) who wasn’t either planning to make the midnight showing or bemoaning the fact that she’d have to wait until the weekend to check it out. Of course the media hype has been relentless but what lies at the end of it is so synthetic that you can’t imagine what audiences are getting out of it. Perhaps the franchise will become self-marginalizing, which is what appears to have occurred with the Twilight movies. That’s what it deserves.