Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Strong-Arming: Gary Ross' The Hunger Games

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’ 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
A film that revolves around two dozen adolescents stalking each other or trying to outrun the bonus dangers provided by the director of the games (Wes Bentley) – flash fires, ravenous wild animals that look like a cross between lions and wild dogs, wasps known as “tracker jackers” whose bites produce hallucinations and occasionally death – doesn’t sound like a picnic. A filmmaker would have to have a damn good reason to put us through the slaughter of teenagers; the loathsome Battle Royale sure didn’t. The Hunger Games doesn’t either but it makes it easy for us by dividing the kids – the handful we get to see at close quarters before they’re offed – into two categories: those who show some compassion and fellow feeling and refuse to act like heartless aggressors and those who succumb to their basest impulses from the outset, traveling in a pack and swooping down on their victims with sadistic glee. The first group includes Katniss, Peeta and a sweet-faced, resourceful twelve-year-old named Rue (Amandla Stenberg) who saves Katniss from the pack, which waits below the tree she’s hoisted herself up, by getting her to loose a tracker jacker hive on them, and then tends to the wounds she receives from the wasps in the process. From that point Katniss and Rue bond like sisters; it’s clear that Katniss sees Prim in her. We have nothing but disgust for the girl in the pack who dies from the wasp stings, or for the girl from District 2 who shoots an arrow into Rue’s heart as she lies in Katniss’ arms, or for Cato (Alexander Ludwig), the ripped leader of the pack, who knows how to kill other, weaker youths by twisting their necks. The Capitol (whose evil-hearted, paranoic president is played by the unfortunate Donald Sutherland) has placed all twenty-four of the kids in a pitiable, kill-or-be-killed position, and yet the movie has no sympathy for anyone except the three sweeties – and, ever so briefly, for the older boy from Rue’s district who eliminates her killer when she’s got her hands around Katniss’ throat.

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’ 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
This is also the only time in the movie when Ross conveys anything like wonder. The glimpses we get of the Capitol before the games begin, with quirkily dressed representatives of the privileged metropolis, are reminiscent of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil but lack the comic bite. (Elizabeth Banks, as the official assigned to the District 12 tributes, arrives swathed in pink with a head full of cunning white curls and an overload of make-up, and she seems baffled about which tone to go for.) The cinematographer, Tom Stern, does nothing special with the wide, wooded exteriors during the games. After those initial moments, the movie seems to have been stripped down visually for maximum efficiency. The only personality is supplied by Tucci and Woody Harrelson – in shoulder-length blonde hair that makes him look like a Confederate soldier out of a Civil War picture – as Katniss and Peeta’s “mentor,” Haymitch, a one-time Hunger Games winner from District 12 whose drunken crassness turns out (unsurprisingly) to mask both savvy and affection. The character is nothing but clich├ęs but Harrelson is a clever enough actor to circumvent them. Tucci does something odd with his teeth that seems designed to make him look weird – to go along with the blue hair, I guess – but he gets at the kind of fake sincerity of TV interviewers, that Barbara Walters tone of affected empathy that’s meant to disarm the subject and invite confidence.

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’ 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’ 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.

Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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