THE HUNGER GAMES
***1/2 (out of 5)
March 23, 2012
Jennifer Lawrence as KATNISS EVERDEEN
Josh Hutcherson as PEETA MELLARK
Elizabeth Banks as EFFIE TRINKET
Wes Bentley as SENECA CRANE
Stanley Tucci as CAESAR FLICKERMAN
Liam Hemsworth as GALE HAWTHORNE
Woody Harrelson as HAYMITCH ABERNATHY
Donald Sutherland as PRESIDENT SNOW
Directed by: Gary Ross
BY KEVIN CARR
Listen to Kevin’s radio review…
Not being a teenager, a tween or someone who regularly works with these age groups, I’ve sat on the sidelines and watched certain literary properties either blow up or fizzle as cinematic epics. The obvious popular franchises include “Harry Potter” and “Twilight.” In the fizzle column, you have movies like “Eragon,” “The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising” and “I Am Number Four.” Somewhere in the middle, you have “Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief.”
With more fizzles than hits in Hollywood’s eternal quest to find the next billion-dollar franchise from teen literature, it was about time for another hit. And it seems that “The Hunger Games” is on its way to becoming exactly that.
Based on the best-selling books by Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games” takes place in a dystopian future after an uprising was squelched and the North American country of Panem was then divided into twelve districts. To keep the people living in fear and to perpetuate the class structure of society, the government picks at random two teenagers (one boy and one girl) from each district to participate in an annual survival contest: They fight to the death in the popular televised Hunger Games.
When this book was first being developed by Lionsgate, there were the inevitable comparisons to the Japanese film “Battle Royale,” which features a very similar scenario in which an entire class of school children is pitted against one another, fighting to the death on a remote island. Those complaining about Collins ripping off the story do have a point, but “The Hunger Games” does have some key differences.
“The Hunger Games” has as much to say about oppressive politics and the bloodthirsty, heartless media as it does about the internal struggle among the combatants. On the surface, it is a story of a girl named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) who volunteers to compete to save her twelve-year-old sister whose name is drawn in a lottery. However, beyond that very basic hero’s journey is a scathing indictment of reality television and the shaming of elitist society. (The irony is not lost on me that this message is being lofted at us by the very industry that shamelessly perpetuates reality TV and is filled with snobby elitists. But that’s a discussion for another day.)
Unlike the “Twilight” franchise which has a painfully simple (and wildly immature and irresponsible) message, “The Hunger Games” has a richer backstory to mine. It also makes allusions to some fantastic books and films about dystopian society, like “1984,” “THX-1138” and even the biting satire “Death Race 2000.”
Of course, this film takes itself more seriously. At times, it’s deadly serious. The initial shock of children killing children is extremely hard to swallow when that actually starts happening, more so if you’re a parent. It’s also disturbing to experience it in our media-drenched framework of school shootings and teen violence. Yet the film is not done in an exploitative way, but rather with taste and regret.
Still, the PG-13 rating – especially for one scene in particular where blood is first spilled – is deserved and possibly even a little soft. (Personally, I doubt this movie would have had such an easy skate to PG-13 if it weren’t a major studio release with all the eyes of Hollywood on it.) So don’t just drag your kids to this film because you hear it’s based on a teen book. Honor the rating on this film, and know your kids before you take them.
But I don’t want to dwell on the violence inherent in the film’s premise. “The Hunger Games” rises above a standard genre piece with some very powerful performances and a story that, in spite of it being a bit predictable, keeps the audience’s attention.
Is this the greatest movie ever made? Hardly. But it’s a solid film that is worthy of the attention it’s getting.
In the end, “The Hunger Games” is a gripping movie that doesn’t race by but also doesn’t crawl, in spite of its 142-minute running time. It’s a complete story, so there’s not annoying “Yet their greatest challenge was still to come” type ending you see in movies like “The Lord of the Rings.” Still, the stage has been set for a larger story to be told in subsequent films. Considering how the fans of the books attest to the second and third installment being as good as the first, this could be one killer franchise for several years to come.