The Hunger Games is so perfectly marketable that the press screening I attended had an almost clandestine atmosphere — secrecy contracts, confiscated cell phones, strict limits on guests — that made it seem like the studio was petrified a few sentences about their newest brand, which is supposed to be Lionsgate’s answer to Twilight, might leak before the movie goes large.
Do teenage girls read movie reviews? If so, do they scan the internet for cheaters, reviewers who leak important info? Or do they have their parents do it for them, so that when their daughter has a minute to talk, Dad can report that some critic from some popular website thought that the handheld camerawork during the big chase sequence between Katniss, Peeta, and a bunch of virtual-reality devil dogs undercut whatever emotional weight the climax of the titular games was supposed to carry? Seems unlikely, given the superficiality of the thought put into The Hunger Games and the commensurate success the series has had with teens, but who really knows?
Such a teenage girl would hear from me that even though this tentpole kickstart to a moderately successful studio’s wildly successful literary property was intended for her demographic, and not for mine, I still found Games to be an efficient, enjoyable dystopian thriller.
I would use the word “dystopian” on the movie’s tween fans only to nudge their sense of the seriousness of the Suzanne Collins books, and not because “dystopian” is the proper word to describe the story’s futuristic world. This world, for the uninitiated, is really North America aged 75 years, where members of the underclasses — who at some point in the past staged a massive rebellion and were put down — are relegated to one of twelve outlying districts, each of which is tasked with providing one major resource to the ruling classes, including coal, textiles, “technology,” etc. Everyone from these districts appears to be a lower-class citizen. The upper class all seem to live in one gargantuan, gleaming city where, at least as the art director and costume designer have imagined them, they dress and decorate like Elton John (who seems to be these people’s patron saint of fashion).
I can’t say how accurately this world is preserved from the books, only that the way the movies have done everything up doesn’t do justice to the word “dystopia,” even though that’s often the way it’s all described. It’s true that the folks living in the outlying districts appear to be unwilling servants of the folks in the gleaming city, but the bits we see of the outlying District 12, where the story’s heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), hails from, make it look rather pleasant, if not totally innocuous. If Katniss’ slave life is rendered more darkly in the book, then props are in order for Suzanne Collins, because in the movie, everything in District 12 (and everywhere else the movie travels) has been drawn nice and safe, presumably to make it more palatable to the movie’s target audience. It wouldn’t be too nice to be a slave in a distant region of an authoritarian society, but it probably wouldn’t be too bad to live in a teenager’s fantasy of what such a place would be like.
The same fantasy applies to the Capital, where Katniss is taken after she volunteers for the Hunger Games, a woodland battle between teenagers from outlying districts that is staged once a year to keep the masses in check and to entertain the upper-crusters. The Capital looks like a rather nice place to visit, crime-free and done up in postmodern furniture and layer upon layer of gaudy color. Aside from the whole enslaving-the-proletariats thing (it’s never made clear in the movie why the rebellion took place), it doesn’t look like humanity’s done too badly for itself. True, it’s brutal to pit kids against one another in a publicized battle to the death (to be fair, it’s also hackneyed and thematically unexplored), but even the Games themselves are a PG-13 vision of murder and survival.
Nothing in the movie version of the story can support the weight of the concept — the brutality, the moral abyss, the will to survive, what-have-you — except for one particular 60-second period. Director Gary Ross (Pleasantville) is smarter in the execution of this one scene than in any other single part of the movie (all in all, though, he has to be given credit for making this two-and-a-half-hour movie fly by). The 60 seconds are the countdown to the beginning of the Hunger Games. Each of the 24 contestants (two from each district) are poised on metal pedestals, ready to make a mad dash for a load of survival supplies and weapons laying in wait for them a few hundred yards away. There is a giant digital clock that counts down from 60 — in the case of the weaker children, this is the last 60 seconds they will ever see; in the case of the stronger, it’s the last time they’ll ever be alive without having killed someone. Ross’s directorial grace comes (and goes) when he allows this scene to play out in real time, over an actual 60 seconds, ramping up the rhythm of his editing as the seconds count down. For me, this was the only truly effective sequence in the movie — I was tense and maybe even felt something of the terror that such a situation would convey.
Then the Games start, and we’re treated to First Blood for tweens, complete with censorial cuts away from any hint of blood and a gleeful over-reliance on deus ex machina. If the demographic wants to know the winner of this franchise’s battle with Twilight, they’ll have to look elsewhere, but for me, The Hunger Games was just outside the realm of annoying, which is about as much as I could have asked for.