Friday, March 23, 2012

Reel To Reel: The Hunger Games

An appetite for blood.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission for deep thinkers and fans of the book
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Stanley Tucci, Donald Sutherland
Rated: PG-13
Red Flags: Graphic violence involving teenagers

A co-worker describes The Hunger Games as "Survivor to the death." Actually, this first in what will likely be a series of movie adaptations from the Suzanne Collins trilogy plays more like a hybrid of Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, Survivor, 1984 and The Truman Show.

It also reminds me of a conversation I had with a young lady at work who was fixated on an episode of The Bachelor. A spurned suitor wept in the back of a limousine for all of televisionland to see. While she and other ladies grinned and gawked, I felt repulsed.

"How can you watch this show?" I asked. "You wouldn't want to be on that show, would you?"

"No," the lady co-worker replied with an oh-come-on air.

"You wouldn't want any of your friends to be on that show, would you?"


Still, they watch. We watch. So the setting of The Hunger Games does not require much personal suspension of disbelief. It's a nation whose 12 "districts" each give up two of their young for a yearly televised fight to the death.

The land of Panem is North America in a post-war morass. We aren't told in the film what started this war, what it was about, or who we should've been rooting for, leaving us to conclude it was won by a technologically-savvy faction who have really crummy taste in make-up and fashion. This ruling class chirpily anticipates each year's fight to the finish -- "Happy Hunger Games!" -- with twisted totalitarian logic. What once started as penance has become for them a unifying tradition, something to bring the nation together as a common people. Yeah, I think Hitler's final solution was supposed to do that, too.

As you might expect, the inhabitants of the Capitol don't have to give up their young, but you can see the dread on the faces as teenage boys and girls are summoned for a lottery -- called "the Reaping" -- in the industrial area of District 12 to determine which boy and girl will be drafted as gladiators-- er, "tributes." I get the feeling they're too weary to rebel any more at this game forced upon them.

Katniss Everdeen (Lawrence) bravely volunteers to take the place of her drafted kid sister. But pity Peeta Mellark (Hutcherson). He's a baker, not a fighter, and no warrior types will step up. I can hear Meryl Streep in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate: "Where are all the men anymore?"

The two are whisked off to The Capitol for a bit of training and a bit of mentoring from a soused former champ, Haymitch Abernathy (Harrelson). Largely, it's all showbiz. The competitors go through a parade and celebrity interviews like they're competing for Miss America. The citizens of the Capitol watch it all and place bets like it's March Madness. The other districts of Panem can just watch and hope their sons or their daughters make it out as the last one standing. Maybe they pray. I don't know. GOD is not a part of this land. Judges 17:6 comes to mind: "In those days there was no king in Israel, but every man did that which was right in his own eyes."

The games take place in a giant forest battle dome where every action is televised live, and every element -- including the weather, sunlight, and the presence of wild animals -- is manipulated by a team who points, click and drag on holographic workstations like they're building the next version of "Age of Empires." Katniss becomes an early favorite in the competition largely because of her thinly-veiled moxy. She's not good at building alliances, but she can shoot a deadly arrow or two. Peeta is the opposite, more friend than fighter. Going into the death match, they have a storyline: the public sees them as "star-crossed lovers." That wasn't Kat's idea, but it makes it easier to get "sponsors," people behind the scenes who pay to send medicine and aid to the competitors. They soon find out that winning will take each other, whether they're lovers, friends, or neither.

Having not read the source material, I can't tell you whether The Hunger Games stays true to its novelization, although having the author as one of the screenwriters is a huge sign. I will tell you it stays true to a nightmare we have about our governments: that they will eventually grow to enslave and hate us, setting apart a privileged class who enjoy the liberty and prosperity we once enjoyed. That's not supposed to happen in America, is it? You're going to hear a lot of people trying to convince you otherwise as the election season revs up. And separating truth from fiction and heartfelt concerns from a sheer lust for power is no game.

No comments: