By Ron David

Published March 23, 2012

Full disclosure:  I have never read any of the books in the enormously popular “Hunger Games” series.  Going into a film adaptation of a popular novel not having the slightest familiarity with the source material can be a blessing or a curse.  On the one hand, you are free of any expectations and can view the film as an original creation, not constantly noticing what has been added or omitted, or finding fault and frustration with liberties the film makers took with the original author’s work.  On the other hand, many of these adaptations tend to focus so intently on pleasing the core fan base that they fail to properly fill in certain blanks for novices.

“The Hunger Games” is one such offender.

Despite a few sentences of exposition at the top of the film, very little is explained about the games themselves.  We are told that North America suffered some sort of near-apocalypse (though what exactly happened is never explained) and out of the ashes rose Panem, a nation divided into 12 impoverished districts.  The totalitarian government of Panem holds a lottery each year in which they select 12 boys and 12 girls from each district and force them to compete in a kill-or-be-killed televised competition known as The Hunger Games (so named because the victor will win, among other things, food for their starving district).

Despite the fact that we are told the games exist as both something of a punishment for some past rebel uprising, as well as a reminder of the government’s unchallenged power, the games have become nothing short of a national pastime which the people anxiously await with baited breath each year.  Think the build-up to The Super Bowl and you’ll have a good idea of how hotly anticipated the Hunger Games are in Panem.  There are parties, parades, a televised draft of sorts, and the contestants sit for the equivalent of a Barbara Walters pre-Academy Awards interview show.

Again, I have not read the novel, nor have I looked into any quotes from author Suzanne Collins regarding where her head was at when she wrote it, but one doesn’t have to think very far outside of any box to see “The Hunger Games” as a pretty obvious metaphor for – and stinging indictment of – our reality TV competition-obsessed culture; and perhaps, on a greater level, certain national policies and the challenges faced by those American citizens who have found themselves abandoned in the face of economical woes and injustices by their own country.  That’s a pretty big nut for any 2 and a half hour film to crack, nevermind one that also needs to be a rousing action adventure for the masses in order to ensure its franchise opportunities.  So what we are left with is a film without the courage of it’s convictions, both in terms of dealing with the larger issues that make up its subtext, or tackling the grisly nature of its central idea.

“The Hunger Games” series is very popular with teens, despite the fact that the subject matter isn’t really appropriate for anyone under at least the age you’d have to be to see a rated R movie (children hunting and killing each other for sport and entertainment doesn’t sound like something many adults would want to see, nevermind teenagers and pre-teens).  But this film is not rated R.  It is rated PG-13 because that will ensure the most amount of butts will be able to fill theater seats, as if because a bunch of blood doesn’t accompany the slaughter of children, said slaughtering of children by itself is ok for adults and kids alike.  The film is not being marketed to adults, its subject matter notwithstanding, but rather the teen fanbase that makes up the core of the novel’s rabid fanbase.

It is amazing, really, the way certain works of literature catch on and the demographics they appeal to.  Again, I know nothing of Collins’ intentions in writing these books, but my guess would be she didn’t write them with the pre-teen market in mind.  However, despite the series’ graphic content and grisly titular event, it’s not hard to see why young readers – girls in particular – have gravitated toward it.  The novel’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, beautifully brought to life on screen by Jennifer Lawrence, is not only an obvious model of young, female empowerment, but morally she is also a fine role model for pre-teen girls dealing with all conflicts that come with growing into an adult.

Katniss is strong, both in stature and her in her convictions.  She is the sort uncompromising model of humanity that boys have in countless superheros, but are often lacking in pop culture entertainment for young girls.  But Katniss is also still a girl becoming a woman, so she butts heads with authority, crushes on cute boys and can be momentarily distracted and tempted by pretty things.  But like any good hero, rather than succumbing to her more childish whims, she is always able to cast them aside when it comes to doing what is right, fighting for what she believes in or to protect her family and friends.  As the film opens she is thrust into The Hunger Games not because she was chosen, but because she would rather her life be put at risk than her terrified younger sister.  Voluntarily taking her sister’s place makes Katniss something of an instant celebrity in Panem; “the one to watch,” as it were.  She is whisked away with the other 23 contestants to District 1 where she is mentored by Haymitch, a former Hunger Games winner (equally well played by Woody Harrelson), who apparently has turned to booze to ease the pain of watching children kill each other year after year.

This is one of many ideas that is brought up, but never explored as fully as one would like.  Haymitch also apparently is disgusted with himself for being a party to the games and hates the totalitarian government as much as any of the rebels, but these are things you pretty much have to infer from Harrelson’s performance because they are barely touched on in the script.  To that end, Donald Sutherland as the President is , I guess, supposed to be some suave overlord that the audience is supposed to know is to be greatly feared.  But the characters bounds in and out the film, showing up for a few minutes at a time to do quietly menacing overlordy things without any explanation of his motivations or who exactly his character is.  He’s like the wizard in the “Wizard of Oz”.  He’s the guy pulling all the strings, but the one we learn the least about.  Perhaps there is more about him in the following books, but as far as this adaptation is concerned, he was one of a slew of characters that feels underwritten and unexplored.

It’s a testament to Collins and the central idea she has come up with that the film works as well as it does because frankly, the movie is kind of a mess and awash in missed opportunities.  Not only does the idea feel sanitized here, as I’ve already lamented, but the screenplay throws out scenes and ideas from the book as if running down a checklist of things that must be included just so fans don’t riot, with little regard for things like explanation or continuity.  And so, few of these ideas stick to anything on the screen or (more importantly) with the audience long after they leave the theater.  Supposedly, the book is a riveting page turner that many can’t get out of their head once finished and are compelled to discuss with other fans in great detail.  But the film feels like any other high concept Hollywood action flick.  They have the gimmick, so why bother with complicated things like backstory, motivation and what this all says about society and the nature of man on any deeper level?  It’s enough, apparently, to just present the idea and let us take it from there.  This simply makes the film complicit in the very thing the subject matter seems to be decrying, which is ignoring issues of morality and humanity in the name of entertainment and maintaining a franchise business model.  And when the film does remember it is supposed to be making a serious point about larger issues, it just tosses in a moment of teary drama before getting back to the nasty business at hand.

Gary Ross’ fidgety direction doesn’t help.  Every director wants to put some sort of visual stamp on their film, especially in a big-budget event movie like this.  But Ross (“Pleasantville”), not typically an action director, confuses going the shaky-cam route and showing scenes from three different angles for style and energy.  These tricks are already oldhat and even when they were somewhat novel they were never exactly anyone’s idea of great filmmaking techniques.  He’s going for a visceral, in-you-face aesthetic, but the effect simply adds to the overall jumbled feel of the script.

As frustrating as ‘The Hunger Games” is on these levels though, it is undeniably entertaining. Again, credit Collins for coming up with such a compelling thesis, because apparently no amount of softballing by the writers or director is enough to take away from the fact that audiences will want to see what happens next.  The concept is inherently captivating, and the performers are riveting enough to pull you through.  Underwritten as some of them are, you care about the outcome for almost all the major players here, especially Katniss.  Of course, that should be the case, but it is not simply by design that we are rooting for Katniss.  Jennifer Lawrence makes her every bit the strong willed, humane, accessible, vulnerable and contemplative character she is supposed to be.  She is easy to root for and it is easy to believe that she is as strong and resourceful as any of her competition.  The film bogs down in some teenage love triangle nonsense here and there, but even this doesn’t feel too far off the mark given the central characters’ ages.

“The Hunger Games” is one of those movies that has so much going for it – from the performances to the captivating central story – that it would be easy to ignore its flaws and simply enjoy it on a visceral level.  But one can’t help but turn their nose up at the exploitative nature of pitting children against each other as entertainment (this may be a cautionary tale, but the film fetishizes the very thing it is decrying), and as far as storytelling goes, the script is a minefield of  missteps.  I’m anxious for the sequel to discover if this first film was purposely obtuse in the way it seems to ignore backstory and character development because these things are being saved for future installments, or if it was simply shoddy filmmaking.

2 stars out of 4.