Thursday, November 15, 2012

"The Hunger Games": review

"The Hunger Games" is an excellent study in intertextuality: it refers to almost everything. First, the film is based on Suzanne Collins's novel of the same name-- the first novel of a dystopic trilogy whose sequels are Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Second, "The Hunger Games" makes deliberate or inadvertent reference to films and literature like the Japanese "Battle Royale" and Stephen King's The Running Man, all of which share the theme of bloodthirsty, thanatotic media and/or governments. The notion of children killing children recalls William Golding's Lord of the Flies. Third, the movie has a mythological resonance, calling to mind (as Suzanne Collins herself noted) such notable figures as Theseus, heroic survivor of multiple dangerous exploits and changer of the world order.

Directed by Gary Ross, the movie follows the plot of Collins's novel fairly faithfully. Plucky sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is the film's main point-of-view character. Katniss lives in the dystopic realm of Panem (an allusion to the Latin panem et circenses, i.e., bread and circuses to entertain the masses while the surrounding empire crumbles into decadence), where she is a citizen of District 12, a poor mining/industrial region that spans much of what used to be Appalachia. Katniss's sister, Primrose, is chosen to be a "tribute" at the Reaping, a yearly lottery to determine which two adolescents from each district will be chosen to fight in gladiatorial combat at the Hunger Games, a televised event from which only one youth may emerge the winner. Katniss offers herself up as a surrogate for her sister; meanwhile, baker's son Peeta Mellark (a fresh-faced Josh Hutcherson) is chosen as District 12's other tribute.

After the Reaping, the next chapter of the movie deals with the training of the tributes who, despite having effectively become lambs for the slaughter, are treated as celebrities while they undergo crash-course training in survival and combat. Tributes are given very public pre-Games interviews by the flamboyant Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci (pictured above). Peeta proves, as he does in the novel, able to manipulate public sentiment through his calculated wittiness and vulnerability; the brutally honest and unsentimental Katniss, meanwhile, is stiff in front of a crowd.

The rest of the film is devoted to the Games, and the desperate struggle for survival that ensues. Gary Ross's direction mirrors Suzanne Collins's no-nonsense style: the narrative is straightforward, and narrative technique takes a back seat to the themes that the story wishes to tackle: desensitization to violence, the disturbingly influential role that visual media play in our lives, and the cultural obsession with death. In the background churn political issues: Panem, as a dystopia, bears an uncomfortable resemblance to-- and can serve as a parable about-- North Korea. The Hunger Games are an exercise in control: purportedly initiated as punishment for a rebellion that had occurred over seventy-four years previously, the Games give the oppressed people of Panem an opportunity for cathartic distraction.

In all, I found "The Hunger Games" reasonably entertaining, though not great. Jennifer Lawrence is a stand-out as the deadly-serious Katniss; Woody Harrelson's Haymitch Abernathy is convincingly, chronically, hilariously inebriated; Liam Hemsworth barely registers as Katniss's hometown friend Gale. But for my money, the top acting prize goes to Stanley Tucci for his incredible turn as TV host Caesar Flickerman, a man whose job is to keep the masses entertained, and to smooth out the roughness caused by any balky guests on his glitzy talk show. Tucci's Flickerman is a damning commentary on modern American media: at times silly, at times solemn, and always self-aware, Flickerman passes so smoothly from one emotional extreme to another that we viewers barely notice how cartoonishly wide those emotional swings are. Flickerman, along with Donald Sutherland's nefarious President Snow, incarnates the fundamental sickness of the regime. Tucci manages the trick of masking deep cynicism with theatrical piety; his acting is easily the most interesting thing about this movie, and it's a shame he isn't given more screen time.

I'd say "The Hunger Games" is worth at least one viewing. The violence is disappointingly bloodless despite the bloody-minded concept behind the Games; the camera work is, at times, a bit too jittery, and the movie shies away from revealing the final horror of the novel: the mutant dogs that attack the surviving teens are genetically engineered echoes of the fallen children. But those faults aside, the movie stands up well on its own terms, and faithfully encapsulates all the same major themes with which the novel wished to grapple. See the film for Jennifer Lawrence's grit and Stanley Tucci's snake-in-the-garden charm. While not a classic, "The Hunger Games" is digestible entertainment.

ADDENDUM: My review of Suzanne Collins's trilogy is here.



Maqzito said...

Are you aware of the whole controversy about the Hunger Games novel being a rip-off of Battle Royale by Koshun Takami? I haven't read either so I can't personally attest to it, but apparently some of the similarities are very obvious. Collins claims, of course, that she never heard of Battle Royale before.

Maqzito said...

Ah never mind. It seems that you've already been made aware of this in your other post.

Kevin Kim said...

Yeah, and I do give "Battle Royale" a (very) quick mention in the above post. I'd like to see the Japanese movie, and maybe read the English translation of the novel it's based on.