The Hunger Games (2012). Watching the swelling phenomenon of author Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games from a deliberate arm’s length has been a passively intriguing experience. It’s with some humility to admit when Gary Ross’ adaptation of the novel was released in March 2012, I passed up the opportunity to view the movie in wide release, perched high atop my Cool Stool, I declared rather haughtily, “but I have already seen Battle Royale.” Having just survived the highs and lows of Warner Bros’ 11-year Harry Potter saga not nine months prior, my rationale was to retain my enthusiasms for that summer’s superhero fare – and I was certainly under no obligation to sit through another YA sensation, something I felt I had outgrown (I actually said these things aloud to other living human beings). There was no DoomRocket then, no incentive to further my filmic experience or aesthetic worldview. But as I sat with my head firmly rested up my own ass, The Hunger Games grew into a massive worldwide box office smash: in its entire run, the film netted over 691 million dollars globally, effectively recouping the relatively meager 78 million dollar budget with which director Ross and studio Color Force (working in collusion with Lionsgate) began. Then came the critical fawning, from both film critics I respected and friends, all seeming to say, “we’ve seen it. It’s fantastic! What are you waiting for?” *sipping from their collector’s cups* But I still wasn’t having it. Star Jennifer Lawrence had already become one to watch – her performance in Winter’s Bone was more than just a buzz-worthy turn, it was an open declaration that a new, important talent was in our midst – so to pay to see the actress languish in one potential franchise when X-Men: First Class was but two months away… Well. I made my choices and have no regrets, but I have to admit that the growing anticipation for this week’s Games sequel Catching Fire had more than stoked my interest, it has legitimately piqued into a mired fascination. The trailers for Fire feature a scheming Donald Sutherland and smirking Philip Seymore Hoffman(!) plotting against the heroine Katniss Everdeen… What could she have possibly done to irk these villainous masters of conspiracy? How good could The Hunger Games actually be to involve the likes of Hoffman and Julianne Moore? Could there be more at play than the apparent studio pandering of a larger audience that are lulled by the sophistication and gravitas lent by such talent (and that Lionsgate can now apparently afford)? After the twenty months between the premiere of the film and me not watching it, the time had finally come for me to detach from my posterior and absorb The Hunger Games in its entirety. And it seems that I have played right into the studio’s hand.
Taking place during an undisclosed time following the events of a disastrous civil war, The Hunger Games begins at a rather confident and steady pace: director Gary Ross takes his time with his screenplay – co-written by series creator Suzanne Collins and screenwriter Billy Ray – establishing the wretched and grim lives lived by the common person after such a war. The “rebellion” – as it’s referred to – must have been a pretty damned vicious one, as the government of this land isolates the victors – the sleek and cartoonishly posh Haves – to The Capital, an ostentatious wonderland not too dissimilar from the dazzle of Oz, where everyone else – the destitute Have Nots – are segregated to surrounding Districts, left to serve the immediate needs of The Capital and its extravagant inhabitants. The film would succeed in selling this impoverished reality if it weren’t for that its own marquee residents – Jennifer Lawrence, Liam Hemsworth, Josh Hutcherson – looked so goddamned well-fed. Starvation is rampant in District 12 where these beautiful children live, but Lawrence’s natural curves and Hemsworth’s massive build stand out amid the sickened droves of the bereft. There’s an issue when it’s almost laughable to watch the two get pumped over a found bread roll and rip it to shreds, and that certainly detracts from the high drama that exists to separate the denizens of District 12 from the champagne-swilling locals of The Capital. But it is when representatives of the oppressors come for the annual “Reaping” to pluck one boy and one girl (called “Tributes”) for a televised battle to the death that such superficial cluckings take a powder, and the film begins to work its magic.
Adapting from a massively successful YA novel and working off the momentum of its successes, The Hunger Games has a lot of responsibilities to burden itself with: in keeping the PG-13 friendly audiences happy, the action of the Games is watered down to a palatable blur of chaos, instead of the deluge of blood the carnage actually suggests, and its heroine, though plucky and resourceful, is conveniently absent during the majority of the butchery. As distracting as keeping the main character from the (presumably) enticing action can be, it is here where Ross digs deeper into the burgeoning cunning instinct of Lawrence’s archer heroine. And while the film’s conceits more than recall Battle Royale or even The Running Man, it is all derivative of the gladiatorial bouts of the Roman Empire, and Games plays that intrigue respectably, considering such material: Katniss’ innate ability to survive, compounded with the wisdom of a former Games survivor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson, whose macho jaw juts out from an awkward golden wig), and personal stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz, which, who invited him) give her a new-found capacity to manipulate the audiences to her benefit. Watching Katniss Everdeen rise from a malnourished sprite picking off squirrels to high-level political pawn is the real reason to attach yourself to The Hunger Games, and the exasperation of knowing this is just the beginning of her journey is paramount. The canons and bombast of the Games is all window dressing. We’ve seen Katniss survive, but the need to see her persevere is the film’s real bullseye.