First, let’s get these elephants out of the room. Their trunks are so disconcertingly long that I’m feeling inadequate and they’re shitting all over the shag carpet. Yes, Battle Royale, the 1999 novel and 2000 Kinji Fukasaku film (only just now, at the time of The Hunger Games’ theatrical release, officially issued on U.S. disc) is the originator of the idea of the games. Battle Royale’s far more graphic depiction of teen-on-teen violence seems almost absurdly the same as that depicted in Suzanne Collins’ best-selling trilogy and this film adaptation of the first book. If Harlan Ellison had written the Battle Royale source story, he’d be buying a hot air balloon with the profits from his lawsuit so he could flip the Cordwainer T. Bird to Collins while laughing like a jolly gremlin. Another elephant bugles that the very concept of a Hunger Games needs to be taken by the reader/viewer with enough salt to give Lot’s wife heart disease. It’s undeniably silly that teenage members of various formerly rebellious districts in a dystopian future would be subjected to a reality TV show in which they are all compelled to kill each other in while being watched in real time on TV cameras that can capture shots anywhere within miles of forested land (or wherever the Powers That Be elect to host each respective year’s games). Now that the elephants are back to Africa and poised to impale poachers on their tusks, let’s have a brief look at the movie at hand.
The world of the future — outside the districts populated by begrimed proles just happy to eat a bit of squirrel meat for their Sunday supper — is a world that looks like it’s populated by Andy Warhol’s Day-Glo sperms that have risen off the Factory floor and grown increasingly more effeminate (read: corrupt) off their own singularly fabulous natures. Affluent future people are like extras in fuchsia-highlighted New Romantic costumes from ‘80s music videos or the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party. While this is the aesthetic present in the source novel, it comes over as even more ridiculous when brought to the screen. We don’t spend much time in the society of this future world, but we surely will in the two inevitable sequels. Our entire focus is on Jennifer Lawrence (who was wonderful as the unstoppable protagonist of Winter’s Bone, one of 2010’s best movies) as Katniss Everdine, the girl half of the two youths chosen from the coal mining District 12. Fans of the book will find that Lawrence truly is Katniss. She was perfectly cast in the role and carries the film by providing the sense of gravity and pensive intensity that the role demands. She truly is the “Girl on Fire” and personifies the most compelling reason to see The Hunger Games. It is no surprise then that she shines in the movie’s most lyrical and affecting moments: Katniss draws back her bow string to hold it to her trembling lips before letting fly a critical shot. Katniss covers the body of the tiny and clever Rue with flowers as a tribute to her fallen friend. Katniss sits crying on the forest floor in absolute despair over the horrific situation she’s been compelled to take part in.
Violence is present in The Hunger Games but it doesn’t carry the weight of impact that it did in the novel. The sight of teenagers killing each other (either with reluctance or glee) can not be given full expression in a PG-13 rated film targeted to the young adults who made up a good portion of the novel’s initial reading public. Not working to the film’s advantage is the often claustrophobic and ADD-ized cinematography. The camera shakes (it’s the rather tired “you are there” pseudo-cinéma vérité effect) and cuts in to tight shots of faces, rarely allowing for the opportunity to catch a breath with a master shot or to see more than parts of a character’s anatomy and the action those parts are engaging in. This is understandable in the scenes of slaughter that flair up from the start of the games, but work to the detriment of scenes like the riots in District 11 that follow the death of Rue. These scenes of rebellion and chaos would have had greater visceral and emotional impact if we could just see more of them and have a feel for the size of the rebellion and the number of its participants. In the past, major studios made up for the limitations of special effects with vast numbers of costumed extras. Today, the illusion of CGI crowds does a poor job of showing recognizable humans engaging in activities that aren’t a blurry and confusing jumble.
Fans of the source novel — and they are legion — should connect with its filmed version and I doubt they could have received a better cinematic rendition of it. The aforementioned elephants may be too enormous for some prospective viewers to see around. Those very vocal folks should probably stay home and gibber on about Battle Royale’s inherent superiority in fat-fingered blog postings. For those who love the novels and accept their source concept as independently realized (as the author adamantly claims) and perhaps more metaphorical and satirical than literal, The Hunger Games makes for an entertaining film. Most crucially, Jennifer Lawrence projects an image of heroism and integrity worthy of her adored literary incarnation.
The Hunger Games opens today in Philly-area theaters.