Hunger Games is the third great Young Adult book series phenomenon that has made it into big leagues with a big budget movie adaptation. Arriving at the tail of Harry Potter and Twilight it seems to posses the most balanced formula for success. Hunger Games avoids the pitfalls of the former by being made in Hollywood and casting actors without scary British accents and avoid topics that could scare away religious fundamentalist audiences: stuff like wizardry and black magic are nowhere to be found. The book series and movie adaptation is about wholesome ideas that right-wing, Bible Belt audiences are perfectly comfortable with: kids killing each other in a Battle Royale styled, televised blood sport event.
Similarly it avoids the mistakes of Twilight by having a resolute, strong female protagonist (instead of the helpless but supposedly adorable author insertion Marry Sue and a poster child for anti-feminism and misogyny from Twilight) and focusing on character drama and action rather than on romanticizing relationship between brain dead ditz and her undead stalker. By carefully taking cues from the two previous Young Adult phenomenons, Hunger Games seems to have found a good balance – it seems to appeal to most people, and offends the least. At least the movie – which has been breaking all kinds of box office records this week. I can’t really comment about the book, because I have not read it.
I did watch the movie though, and it was not horrible. Compared to the trash Hollywood has been churning out lately, it was surprisingly un-awful. I wouldn’t say good – good is a strong word. It probably rates on the same scale as Thor in terms of overall plot quality. It’s simplistic and infantile, but not offensively stupid. Which is a good thing. It’s the kind of movie you will watch, shrug and realize you didn’t hate it at all.
There is a lot of hype surrounding this film and fan girls will likely tell you it’s the best thing since sliced bread. Don’t believe them – sliced bread is pretty awesome in comparison. Here is what you have to keep in mind if you decide to brave this movie: it has been rated PG-13. The creators worked really, really hard to make sure this was the rating they got. Considering the topic matter, it probably should have been an R-rated feature. But Hunger Games is an adaptation of a YA novel – the core audience for this thing is teenagers (soon to be, and teens proper). Slapping a big letter R on the poster would prevent most of them from seeing it without parental supervision. As a result film feels like a network TV show – it gracefully cuts away from violent scenes, it avoids the 7 words from George Carlin’s infamous list, and shows virtually no blood. The violence and struggle of the characters is softened (Nerfed if you will) to make it more palatable for younger viewers.
Despite all the violent premise, there is a degree of innocence and naivety to this film. It promises bloodbath, carnage and hopeless struggle for survival but never delivers. It has a dull, non-threatening edge that softens the blows it could otherwise inflict on your psyche. And I always say that a mark of a good movie is that it either shatters your brain into a thousand tiny pieces (like Primer for example) or rips apart your soul leaving scars you carry with you for weeks (like Super did, at least for me). This one does neither. It lacks that harrowing ending that would make it worth while. It doesn’t even go for a bittersweet one. It ends on a somewhat uplifting note. But perhaps this is the fault of the source material which I am completely ignorant about.
I guess this is the main difference between Hunger Games and Battle Royale to which it is often compared. The later was not concerned with a rating system. It was a movie about the ugliness of violence that was supposed to shock and disturb the viewers. The movie trades in pointlessness, hopelessness and existential dread. Hunger Games is more about audience rooting for the alluring Katniss Everdeen, and watching her stick it to the man in the action packed but anti-climactic finale.
And alluring she is, that Katniss. Played by Jennifer Lawrence, who you might know as the Young Mystique from X-Men: First Class, she will shoot an arrow straight through your heart – both literally and figuratively. She really does a great job selling us on this hardened, capable, brave girl fighting for her life in an unfair game rigged for the entertainment of the rich and famous. The movie wisely avoids sexualizing her character by putting her in tight leather or miniskirts. Katniss is often tired, dirty, sweaty – but still a joy to watch because Lawrence has some sort of super-human grace and charm that can’t be obscured by dirt and grime. The movie is probably worth watching for her performance alone (because frankly, there is not much else there to watch).
There were only two ways this movie could end: an R-rated finale would pit the protagonist against her friend/semi-love interest in a battle to the death. It’s that kind of a game after all – there can be only one champion, and everyone else must die. It would set up an interesting moral quagmire: could you kill a friend in order to survive? What if you were the only breadwinner in your family and they would perish without you? Could you do it for them? And if could, how would it change you? How much would it cost you? Filming something like that is a tall order though.
It is much easier to weasel out of this setup via a technicality. The PG-13 ending of the movie has the industrious Katniss figure out a clever rouse to trick the Hunger Games organizers into bending the rules”just this once”. Instead of one champion, there are now two. Happy ending for everyone involved, save for the bad guys who are royally pissed off at being tricked. I guess it is a legitimate way to close the story, but also a hell of a cop-out.
The story builds up to this heavy moral conflict from scene one, and then ends on an anti-climactic ass pull. Its disappointing. But maybe it’s just me. People tell me I’m a weirdo who hates happy endings. I like my katharsis served Greek tragedy style – with maximum pain and misery for all. This is not it.
Is the movie good? Meh… It helps if you think of it as a high-budget made-for-TV production paid for by a major network. It pretends to be edgy, but plays it very, very safe.
If a Hunger Games obsessed significant other insists on dragging you to this one, you might possibly enjoy it as long as you don’t buy into the hype or set your expectations high. It certainly won’t put you in as much pain as Twilight did. This one actually has plot, likable protagonist and a decent amount of drama, even if it’s softened to maintain the rating.