The Hunger Games: Don't Fall for the Fluff of the Season's Most-hyped Film

Today’s burning moral question: Is it bad to enjoy watching a big-screen entertainment featuring teenagers hunting each other for sport?

Answer: Oh, I dunno. Points to be made on both sides. How big is the screen? Bigger ain’t necessarily better when it comes to image quality, y’know!

Certain critics have noticed an alarming “hypocrisy” about Hunger Games: it’s an elaborate showbiz entertainment featuring kids hunting kids to the death that’s all about a dystopian American future in which there’s an elaborate showbiz entertainment featuring kids hunting kids to the death. Scott Mendelson of The Huffington Post is in a real sweat about it:

As a direct result of this conundrum, the picture not only fails as a social/political commentary but becomes an ugly celebration of the very narrative that it should be condemning. By refusing to look directly at its own story and by instead fashioning a convenient morality out of its murderous sporting event, it lets the audience off the hook and even encourages them to enjoy the blood-sport as ‘entertainment’….The Hunger Games is worse than a bad movie. It’s an immoral movie, possibly even an evil one.

We must try to be very gentle with young Scott, as it appears he was actually born yesterday on another planet and only just arrived here. It’s okay, Scotty! We watch this kind of stuff all the time here, and everybody who isn’t already batshit crazy manages to keep movie-killing separate from real-life-killing! Just don’t cheer on the murders of any actual teens out here in the cruel world of five senses, okay? Not the meaty awkward ones who take up space and yammer, just the flat ones up on the screen who all have perfect skin and teeth and are always standing in flattering light! You’ll get the hang of it in no time, son!

Now that’s taken care of, let’s consider this fat sloppy hit film The Hunger Games. Frankly, as a film, it’s nothing to tweet about. It’s one of these Hollywood adaptations of bestselling books written for the young, and you know what that means by now: plush budget, goofy young leads, elaborate production design that still manages to look like the most expensive herd of overdressed extras ever assembled, slavish attempts to please the fans by sticking to the book like glue, lumbering pace, strict lack of imagination all around. Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) is the director and he’s perfect for the job, a real studio plodder. No worries that he might try to put some sort of individual mark on the film, or interpret the material or anything! He couldn’t if he tried!

The plot’s okay if you like well-worn dystopian scenarios, and I do. I find it relaxing, watching movies about people-hunting. Something peaceful about it. There’s always so much care taken in these narratives to make sure it’s all structured as a test of mettle for a lead character or two who are going to survive, and everybody else is an abstraction, a hurdle, just there to help the lead(s) prove themselves or satisfy a convention. They might as well wear signs: “I’m the Test of Compassion, I die fifth,” “I’m the Black Guy, I die after saving the white lead, same as always,” etc.

Here’s the rundown, in case you’ve managed to avoid getting force-fed this plot summary already: dystopian future rulers of America run the annual Hunger Games featuring representative teens from each district in the nation who hunt and kill each other in a televised bloodsport contest till a lone survivor is crowned. Our heroine is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) from the impoverished Ozark-ish District 12, where she cuts a swath locally by hunting squirrels with bow and arrow and hitting ‘em all right in their beady little eyes every time. She volunteers to participate in the games to save her younger sister Primrose, who was chosen as a Hunger Games “tribute” in the televised “Reaping.” (Yeah, that’s right, their names are Katniss and Primrose Everdeen. Novelist Suzanne Collins sez, “You wanna make somethin’ of it?”)

There are two local guys who are rival Love Interests, one a steroidal hunk named Gale (Liam Hemsworth) who looks like Li’l Abner from the old comics, and the other a self-pitying lunk named Peeta (Josh Hutchinson) who also gets chosen in “The Reaping.” They are both unintentionally funny.

This is one of those movies in which there’s always time for the dampest possible teen-love scenes with long silly talks and big staring contests, as if other homicidal teens weren’t supposedly lurking behind every bush, armed with machetes.

Since the movie is designed for the youngsters, it’s the old pro actors I feel sorry for. They have to play the stupidest parts and say the stupidest lines and wear the stupidest costumes, and that kind of thing doesn’t come so naturally once you’re out of your teens and twenties. After that, you KNOW how stupid you look. As TV host Caesar Flickerman, a name so embarrassing I had trouble typing it, poor Stanley Tucci has to sport a blue pompadour and matching eyebrows and big grinning choppers that are supposed to look threatening because he represents the Evils of Media. Everybody knows media is evil, that’s an easy one. The fact that humans enjoy media just goes to prove how sinister it is. (See: most academic discourse.)

Playing the Hunger Games show-runner Seneca Crane (yeah, the whole Greco-Roman thing, it gets really tiresome), Wes Bentley is making his comeback (and speaking of drug policies, he’s broken ‘em all, that’s why he’s making a comeback). He looks manifestly uncomfortable in a cartoonishly curly devil-beard that appears to be stenciled-on.

Elizabeth Banks, playing some other kind of fashionable freak named Effie Trinket, made the rounds of all the talk shows giggling nervously about her own performance: Well, hee-hee, I just hope everyone likes it, I just kinda went for it, ha-ha-ha!

Donald Sutherland, too old to care, gets off lightly in these humiliating follies: he plays the despotic ruler President Snow, the fascist head honcho, the Big Cheese of Baditude, but he doesn’t have to wear anything moronic. He displays his permanent accessories, a mane of noble lion-in-winter white hair and matching beard. In fact, at this point in his career, Sutherland just lets his hair play all his parts. His scenes are shot in a rose garden (Get it? The Rose Garden? Like at the White House? Y’know? Anybody?), with him snipping roses. It’s the old trick of having the most scary character act the least scary by speaking very softly and doing something gentle, thus making him perversely scarier. I guess they figured cat-petting had been done too many times.

Woody Harrelson does his usual refreshing job, here playing a former winner of the Hunger Games TV show who is now forced to coach new tributes, and drinking his way through the ordeal. (His name is Haymitch Abernathy! Yeah! It really is!) Harrelson is just interesting to watch, period, because he seems genuinely free from all the rules that bind the rest of us, and moves around loose and wild-eyed, ready to pop off in any direction. Not that he does much popping in this case. Instead, he becomes steadily graver and more concerned about his charge, Katniss, which looks good on him.

Which brings us to Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss, and I guess she’s okay. She’s distractingly statuesque for a hardscrabble Ozarks-type kid, but maybe that’s the way fatheaded Gary Ross keeps shooting her. There’s a hilarious early scene showing Katniss squirrel-hunting, and she’s togged out in sumptuous brown leather coat and knee-high lace-up boots, looking fresh off the catwalk, running through the woods striking Diana-the-Huntress poses. 

New York Times critic Manohla Dargis falls for this nonsense completely:

When she runs through that forest, and even when she falls, there’s something of the American frontiersman in her, as if she were Natty Bumppo reborn and resexed. For as long as this brief scene lasts, it seems possible that Gary Ross, the unlikely and at times frustratingly ill-matched director for this brutal, unnerving story, has caught the heart-skipping pulse of Michael Mann’s “Last of the Mohicans” if not that film’s ravishing technique and propulsive energy.

No: not for one second is that scene anything like the gorgeous early stuff in Last of the Mohicans, so put it out of your mind. Michael Mann is a huge horse’s ass in a lot of ways, by all accounts, but he can really shoot, and cut, and he actually seemed to SEE the the beauty of the deep-forested Eastern landscape. Ross can’t see it at all. He’s in Anyforest, USA; might as well have shot in LA’s Griffith Park, like everybody else, and saved the expense of trucking all the way out to North Carolina.

Just to show you how dim Gary Ross is, he seems to think he had an “idea” about how to portray the poor oppressed people of District 12. He has them all dressed up like 1930s characters. Yup. That’s his idea. That in the future, the poverty-stricken will say to themselves, “You know who REALLY knew how to look poor? Those sad old Okies in the 1930s photos, you can’t look poorer than that. Let’s go with the pros and dress up just like ‘em. Us women’ll wear those limp pathetic cap-sleeve dresses and pin up our hair in plaintive coils at the napes of our necks. Tear everybody’s heart out!”

Ross worked on the script with Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, and you can just imagine how excited they probably were when they realized that the 1930s featured not only the Great Depression but the international rise of fascism as well. You can almost hear them yelling Sha-ZAM! More pointless historical referencing!

Anyway, the movie’s making a squillion dollars and there will be sequels. Gary Ross is on board for the second one. By the third one, Lionsgate will probably get brave Harry Potter-style and let a real director have a shot at it, see if he can goose up the look of the franchise. And so on until the next dopey kid-lit phenomenon comes along.

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