Friday, April 6, 2012

The Hunger Games

          “May the odds be ever in your favor” (because it’s damn
           unlikely that The Force will be with you in this galaxy,
           way too near and not long ago at all)
                                             Review by Ken Burke
Futuristic sci-fi comes again in this highly-anticipated tale of kids fighting to the death in a resource-ravaged society where our female archer shows off all of her skills.

            You’d think that something of the order of magnitude of The Hunger Games would have rated a review as soon as possible after it opened, but other considerations were on my radar last week and I also wanted to see if it really lived up to the hype by continuing to draw in the projected number of devotees.  It has, beyond any scattered negative assumptions that this film (and its upcoming follow-ups) might not be as impactful as predicted, building on its opening extended weekend gross of $155,000,000 to a second week of success that now has its domestic total up to about $263,000,000 as I’m writing this with surely much more to come as the Games go on.  Building on the formula that worked for James Cameron in Titanic (1997—also available for a short time for your big-screen pleasure again if you want to fully immerse yourself in the restructured 3-D version, partly in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the sinking and partly to keep the 3-D wagon rolling that entertainment executives in both the film and TV worlds want all of us to demand more of) by combining the disaster and romance genres so as to generate a cross-gender appeal to a much larger audience than would likely have responded to either of those aspects if they had been the only focus of Cameron’s conception of the worst maiden seafaring voyage ever, the creative team behind Gary Ross’ production of The Hunger Games adds a nice helping of romance to the savage action story to produce a result that seems to be appealing to Titanic’s full-on enticement to all ages, genders, and story enthusiasts.

            Certainly it doesn’t hurt drawing young men in (the foundational Hollywood target audience for about half a century now) by having the protagonist be not only an attractive young woman (Best Actress Oscar-nominated [Winter’s Bone, Debra Granik, 2010] Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen) but also one skilled in archery, hunting, and survival skills (and truly masterful in such, not an emerging “woodsman” as with the re-imagined Snow White [Lily Collins] in the current Mirror Mirror [Tarsem Singh] where our sheltered princess begins to develop some swordplay skills thanks to her bandit mentors, the equally re-imagined seven dwarfs, but still needs help from them and hunky Prince Pecs Alcott [Armie Hammer] to save herself from doom), which allows the more macho of audience guys for The Hunger Games to buy into its well-staged action scenes but still allows the more girly of the audience gals to empathize with her growing attraction for her fellow Games-man, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), while the rougher grrly types in the theatre can join in with the guys who are more interested in Katniss’ toughness than her tenderness (not that anyone couldn’t appreciate any combination of these aspects, but it all just helps contribute to the “big tent” appeal of this movie, the cinematic experience which I seem to be seeing a lot more of lately than aesthetically demanding films, such as Being Flynn [Paul Weitz] or Napoleon [Abel Gance, 1927—which you’ll just have to read about, possibly in my March 30, 2012 posting, because you’re no longer going to find it playing anywhere]).  Anyway, back to “the girl on fire,” Katniss (Note to book author and co-screenplay writer Suzanne Collins: For a female hero that you want to be taken seriously as a strong young woman role model, could you have come up with a name that isn’t quite so close to “catnip”?  Just a thought.), as well as my caveats about The Hunger Games.  While I find her fascinating as the lead in this story and ever so much more appealing than what I was essentially forced to experience with the other recent teenage media firestorm, the passive girl on the pedestal for all of the local teen boy monsters, Bella Swan (Kristin Stewart), in Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight films (just the first one actually, because I had a student who analyzed so many scenes from Twilight [Catherine Hardwicke, 2008] for several essays that I had to watch virtually the whole DVD to understand her commentary), I must admit up front that I haven’t read any of the Collins novels nor was I even aware of the huge buzz building up about this film until I started seeing all the media coverage a few weeks before it opened (I had watched the previews, but they reminded me of a good many other futuristic sci-fi films so I wasn’t particularly drawn in—but that’s a topic that needs more exploration).

          Maybe it’s good that I didn’t go in expecting too much because that would likely have distracted me even more than the many references to other similar presentations that kept cropping up, especially Rollerball (Norman Jewison, 1975), Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson Sr., 1976), The Truman Show (Peter Weir, 1998—truth disclosure: it was actually my wife, Nina, who first mentioned this film but I’m quick to steal whatever I can from her follow up on the good leads that she provides), and the CBS quasi-reality TV show “Survivor” (producer Mark Burnett, since 2000 in the U.S. as well as similar versions in recent years from other originations such as several European countries, Israel, and the Philippines)Rollerball features a similar situation of “commoners” being used in a televised deadly game for the amusement of social overlords and a rebellion against this tyranny by the protagonist; Logan’s Run has a related twist in that instead of being a possible victim in your 12-18 age range you live a hedonistic lifestyle until you’re 30 but then you’re scheduled for death unless you can escape into the wilderness; The Truman Show takes place in an artificial domed environment where the real outside society watches the daily activities of an unsuspecting “reality” TV star (Jim Carrey) whose every move of his scripted life with actors is chronicled by ubiquitous hidden cameras; and “Survivor” pits contestants against each other in difficult or disgusting tasks with all but the winner eventually eliminated—at least they don’t have to kill each other to continue but they do get despicably duplicitous at times.

            I’m not saying that The Hunger Games is consciously based on any of this other stuff because there’s a great deal of similarity in many of these “big brother” futuristic sci-fi tales about oppressive micro-managed societies (which seem to take consistent literary inspiration from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World [1932] and George Orwell’s 1984 [1949] along with cinematic inspiration from the German Expressionism classic Metropolis (Fritz Lang, 1927—considerably better than any of the cited films above as long as you get the most recent Blu-Ray version [see but, sadly, I get no commission on your purchases] which, in a manner akin to the recent reconstruction of Napoleon, incorporates all of the known footage along with the Gottfried Huppertz score written for the original Berlin premiere); however, the problem for me is not that there are similarities in The Hunger Games to related themes in the genre but that, to paraphrase Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) when he starts ticking off the evidence against Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) in The Maltese Falcon (John Huston, 1941), there are so many of them.  After awhile I felt like I was playing Trivial Pursuit more than I was able to fully appreciate the perils of Katniss and Peeta (not to mention the 22 others who had to die in order for these 2 to survive).  But, if I’m going to complain about rampant similarities to other works then I should acknowledge that Collins’ books are also swimming in a sea of young adult novels about unsettling dystopian futures, as noted by Lev Grossman in “Love Among the Ruins.  How our awful future became the next big thing” in Time March 12, 2012, pp. 100-102 (or if you’re a subscriber to you can also find it at,9171,2108049,00.html).

The Rock and John Cena, Wrestlemania 2012
            Trying to stand strong against an unwanted destiny is truly a hot topic today, likely because so many young entrants into the work force are finding that even with education and preparation there are few decent jobs, let alone fulfilling careers, awaiting them, all of which may be a harbinger of even more awful things to come in an increasingly competitive, 1%-dominated, globally-focused megasociety.  We may all be fighting for our food in the near future or at least our sense of human decency as we better realize that we’re living in a world where our current sporting events are already turning into blood sports as witnessed by the uproar over Gregg Williams, former defensive coordinator for the New Orleans “Saints,” who we now know through direct evidence encouraged his team to do physical harm to their opponents (,  just as audiences cheer for the various staged and real brutalities going on in World Wrestling Entertainment and Extreme Fighting Championship “athletic contests.”  No wonder The Hunger Games doesn’t have to look very far for an attuned audience.

            So, here’s the part where I should fill in some plot details if you’re among the maybe 20 or so people on the planet who don’t yet know the premise of this movie (which would assume that those same 20 are so disconnected from the important events of the world that they have to get their news from this blog—and further assumes that there are even 20 people reading this blog; so, if there are, our great gratitude to those who signed up as members and to others who just read when you feel like it, because we really do appreciate anyone out there in cyberspace who pays any attention to what we’re doing here).  Set in an unspecified future time after continually deteriorating social conditions led to a revolt against the entrenched Establishment (One per-centers take note: Are you stocked up on neo-Nazis?  You can’t afford to run short.), the social elite housed in the luxurious high-tech Capitol district of Panem (seemingly a reconfigured North America) fortify their control over the deprived citizenry of the outlying, specialized Districts (1 Luxury, 2 Masonry, 3 Technology, 4 Fishing, 5 Power [utilities], 6 transportation, 7 lumber, 8 textiles, 9 grain, 10 livestock, 11 agriculture [this is where all the black folks seem to live but it’s unclear from what we see on screen if any others of non-Caucasian ancestry have survived in Panem], and 12 mining [with scenes here gaining credibility by being shot in North Carolina’s abandoned Henry River Mill Village, which can be yours for a measly $1.4 million because the current owner is tired of the tourists swarming to the place]) by demanding an annual Hunger Games competition (this is the 74th so the thought of rejection of this cruel ritual has obviously been beaten out of the citizens of Panem by now) where 2 randomly-chosen 12 to 18 year-olds must fight to televised death so that the elite may be entertained, the winner’s district can get a little more sustenance than usual, and the downtrodden can cultivate just enough hope to prevent them from organizing into another rebellion (as effectively explained at various points in the story via an orientation video and the backroom revelations of harsh President Snow [Donald Sutherland]).  Peeta is chosen by luck of the draw in District 12 (here’s a case where bad luck isn’t better than no luck at all, as an old song says) but Katniss volunteers to replace her young, fragile sister, Prim, and soon the contestant combatants are off to their version of Oz for training, exploitative audience building for the pleasure of the Capital swells, and strategy sessions with absurd aristocrats like Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, pictured above with Lawrence) who is desperate to bask in the glory of a hometown win (unlikely, given the better conditioning available in the more dominant Districts 1 and 2).

            A few other important characters that deserve mentioning are pictured here, from left, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss’ costume designer and confidant who is responsible for making her appealing to audiences and potential sponsors (who can parachute in life-saving supplies for the combatants if they so choose, which does result in a rescue for Katniss at one traumatic point) including with her initial fiery introduction to the crowd and her flammable dress during her interview with smarmy host Caesar Flickerman (slimy Stanley Tucci and his “mahvalus” blue pony-tail hair) in which she overcomes her shyness and distain for the entire atrocity that she’s mired in; Haymitch Abernathy (a wonderfully comic Woody Harrelson), Katniss’ literal life coach who is a rare District 12 winner himself but is not so taken with his safe life in the Capital as to care about much of anything except his next drink, although he does do his best for Katniss and Peeta; and, finally, Katniss’ co-contestant, the strong but battle-inept Peeta who shows a much better flair than her for playing to the crowd and for teaming up temporarily with the brutal pairs from Districts 1 and 2 as a means of prolonging a life which would likely have ended soon if he were left solely to his own devices.  Surely you must know by now that he also uses his TV time to admit his long-smoldering love for Katniss so when she decides to not only save his life but return the love it makes for great drama on the home screen (exactly what the Capital organizers want from this bloodfest where 5 of the contestants are killed right at the opening siren) and ultimately a challenge to their rigid rules as the newly romantic pair decide to simultaneously commit suicide rather than kill each other, leading to a rules suspension that lets them both live on for the upcoming sequels and conflict back in District 12 where earlier loverboy Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) awaits their return (a quicker fate awaited Games organizer Seneca Crane [Wes Bentley], he of the meticulously-trimmed beard, who is commanded to suicide by President Snow for allowing the hope quotient to rise a bit too far with the breach of time-honored protocol, even though Seneca used a wealth of devious controls of the battleground so that the pace would never slacken and the deaths would not come too easily, even to younger children such as sweet little Rue [Amanda Stenberg] from District 11, whom Katniss protects as long as possible and whose death sets off a heartfelt but unproductive rebellion back home [I guess that no one was willing to step in for her as Katniss did to protect her little sister—a situation I’m sure that further adds to Katniss’ comradeship with Rue—or maybe things are just so dismal in District 11 that no other family was in a position to protect this kid]).

            A good number of commentators on The Hunger Games have shown concern that the social guardians who give out film ratings (both in the U.S. and across the wide Atlantic in Great Britain as noted at should be considered for some punishment—not as final as Seneca’s, given how self-defeating that would be—for allowing this film to go forward with such a relatively mild rating when so many young viewers are now going to be able to see it unaccompanied by a parent or guardian despite all of the cynical messages that are being presented about the reduced worth of human life and the cruel depictions on screen of youngsters such as themselves brutally slaughtering each other (as if urban teenage gangs needed any more encouragement than they already have to keep wracking vengeance on each other for control of their troubled territories and illicit drug trades).  None of the deaths is presented in the graphic manner of the killing and maiming shown in Iraq War movies, but the conditions of the story are very disturbing and death to anyone this young, especially thorough a socially-sanctioned gladiatorial event intended for nothing but idle pleasure of the idle rich, is bound to cause alarm for many parents—who are well advised to walk the reality of the talk of their concerns and attend this movie with their kids (despite the aversion that many older children and teens have to being seen anywhere in public with their parents, especially at the!).  Hopefully, more worthwhile events will emerge in the sequels for family conversations as this trilogy continues, but with my geriatric isolation from the books I’ll just have to wait over the next few years to see how it all works out in terms of narrative significance.

          For now, I’ll just say that I found the premise to be nauseating—which is not a negative comment because I hope that Collins intends such a response as a warning to our younger generations to never let society deteriorate to the point that it has in her story—but the enactment of the enforced brutality to be well staged and shot, the cynical humor about this lost society in the earlier parts of the film to be effectively satirical, and the presentation of a young woman actively in charge of her life even in the worst of circumstances to be a refreshing screen image, especially as she doesn’t depend on men to rescue her or on revealing her body through conveniently torn battle clothes as a means of enticing men in her story or in the audience to find a reason to want to rescue her.  There’s a lot about this movie that I find derivative (perhaps, unavoidably so given the ongoing saturation of this topic over the last century) of other futuristic sci-fi tales, but better to have another one produced in a visually impactful and serious manner that continues to carry the needed warnings about taking better command of the direction of our social contract in times of increasingly disproportionate resource acquisition and allocation than to ignore the needed message here just because it’s so familiar.  If anything, the familiarity should make us nervous about why that has come to be so, as we settle back to tranquilize ourselves with another dose of someone being hooted off a stage or voted off an island because they’re considered unworthy of our acceptance.  Katniss, who successfully completes the ancient process of the hero’s call to adventure and triumphant return to society usually reserved for move males, didn’t put up with that crap and neither should we, so let The Games continue.

            If you’d like to know more about The Hunger Games here are some suggested links: (interview with Jennifer Lawrence)

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