This is the B-list movie everyone wants to see. It might be shallow, derivative and cheap-looking, but none of that matters: the fan-base is ravenous. For millions of teenage girls across America, The Hunger Games is the new Twilight. When the audience is hungry for a film, you’ve got a hit. Forget vampires and abstinence; fiction for
Young Adults Young Women is all about dystopias now. It’s all set in ruined futures where teenage girls have to fend for themselves… against their hormones. The only hangover from Twilight is that cute boys still out-number the girls, by a libidinous margin of two-to-one. Really, what you’re looking at is Sex and the City, if Carrie Bradshaw had a bow and arrow, and two Mr. Bigs.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12 of Panem, a country which used to be called the United States. Every year, the cruel and badly dressed rulers of Panem hold a contest, called the Hunger Games, where two teenagers are selected from each District, to fight to the death for the entertainment of the rich. Katniss volunteers for the Hunger Games when her less kick-ass sibling is chosen to represent District 12. Her fellow gladiator from her home town is a cute boy with a crush on Katniss. There’s also another, taller hunk in the background, who I guess we’ll see more of in the sequel. For Katniss, the Hunger Games poses as much of a challenge to her love-life as it does her life-span. In this dystopia, it’s literally murder being single.
The costume department have had a field day with this movie. Everyone from District 12 dresses like an Okie from Depression-era America; all the bad guys dress like aristocrats from pre-Revolutionary France. Lenny Kravitz shows up to give Katniss a make-over after she leaves District 12, and you have to credit the movie for knowing its audience: the make-over scenes last as long as the big fight. It’s fascinating (as a man) to watch an action movie aimed at teenage girls. Yes, there is homicidal mayhem once the Games begin, but you sense it’s nothing compared to the terror of wearing the wrong dress, or choosing the wrong boyfriend. I know I sound like a male chauvinist for drawing attention to this stuff, but I honestly think it’s interesting to flip the sci-fi/action genre on its head. I should point out; Katniss does also kill a few people, as well as wearing nice outfits. The Hunger Games isn’t only a fashion contest.
In any case, the problem isn’t who the film is aimed at. The problem is the quality of the film. To be frank, The Hunger Games looks like the pilot for a (fairly cheap) TV series. Writer/director Gary (Seabiscuit) Ross stages the action with a distinct lack of thrills. Long periods of the film are spent painstakingly recreating minor events from the book. And the story could have been better told in half the time, with space for a few jokes. I know it’s the Great Depression all over again in District 12, but it wouldn’t hurt for Katniss to lighten up a little occasionally. Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci have fun in frisky supporting roles, but for the teenagers in the cast, it’s Twilight-time: Heart-ache! Agony! The torment of who to kiss!
It’s lucky they picked Jennifer Lawrence as the lead. She almost single-handedly saves the movie from disgrace. No matter how silly the costume, or how cheap the “special” effects, Lawrence retains her dignity. Her face wouldn’t look out of place in a Depression-era photo by Dorothea Lange. You can picture her, staring into the distance, stoically, as the bank forecloses on her family farm. She has an abiding strength. I still wouldn’t have minded if the film had let her loosen up a bit, or be a bit more human. But there isn’t a young actress working today who makes “earnest” so watchable, and I’m grateful that J-Law isn’t a one-note stick-insect, like the star of Twilight, Kirsten (could I be any more mannered?) Stewart.
When they made The Hunger Games in 1987, it was called The Running Man, and it starred Arnold Schwarzenegger. When they made The Hunger Games in Japan, it was called Battle Royale. The idea of a dystopian gladiator contest is a pretty careworn trope in science-fiction. All (Hunger Games author) Suzanne Collins did was to give it a make-over. She got rid of the muscle-bound male protagonist from The Running Man, and did away with the moral ambivalence of Battle Royale. In place of these, she put in Katniss Everdeen and two good-looking boys. It isn’t a nuanced appeal to the target audience, but the new formula obviously works. Future America might be short of food, but it doesn’t starve for man candy.