‘The Hunger Games’ hits the mark

Grim futuristic tale serves as metaphor for modern teen life
by Willie Krischke

I went and saw “The Hunger Games” on Friday night and was surprised by the diversity of the sold-out crowd. There weren’t many “young adults,” even though this is a movie based on a young adult novel. This was the 10 p.m. show, so most of them had already seen it and were home in bed, I suppose. But there were plenty of married couples, middle-aged folks, and a surprising number of bearded, trucker-hat adorned twentysomethings. The kind who make fun of the “Twilight” trailer.  Which they did, with great wit. And I thought, “Is Hunger Games really all that different from the Twilight series?”

Apparently it is. For the first half hour, I felt like I was watching “Schindler’s List.” Our heroine, Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a grimy, grey coal town straight out of a Shelby Lee Adams photograph. Apparently the future doesn’t look much different from the past, at least not for the poor. We are in District 12, and we learn pretty quickly that each District is required to send two of its young people to the Capitol to participate in a televised fight to the death with the young people from the other 11 districts. These are the Hunger Games.

Katniss and Peta (Josh Hutcherson) are the two “tributes” from District 12, and they’re groomed at the Capitol for a while prior to the Games. Everyone at the Capitol wears extravagant and ridiculous clothes and hairstyles; they look like a cross between characters from “The Fifth Element” and the upper crust of Elizabethan England. The tributes are required to curry favor with the rich and powerful, who are able to send them potentially life-saving gifts in the midst of the Games. Woody Harrelson plays an alcoholic winner of some long-past version of the games who serves as the two youngsters’ mentor. A barely recognizable Elizabeth Banks and a strangely subdued Lenny Kravitz are also on their side, training them, prepping them, grooming them. There are a lot of hazards in the Hunger Games and not everyone is killed by the opposition: some die of infection, some of exposure and some are hunted down by giant holographic Rottweilers that appear out of nowhere. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

About half of “Hunger Games” is spent setting up the Hunger Games, and once the Games actually begin, I couldn’t help but feel that some of the air went out of this balloon. It’s a difficult position for a director; a lot of time and energy has been spent driving home for us just how terrible these games are, and how even more terrible it is that they’re viewed as entertainment. But here we are, in a movie theater, being entertained by the Games. Are we supposed to root for our favorite contestants?  Wouldn’t it make more sense to walk out in protest?

Director Gary Ross (or possibly his screenwriters, who include Suzanne Collins, author of the book) handles this in two ways: 1) By making some of the opposing teens clear cut villains, bloodthirsty and gleeful in their violence – that way it’s easier to cheer for their demise. 2) By keeping our heroine’s killings to a minimum. She does kill a few, but it’s mostly indirectly; at one point she causes a beehive to fall on some bad guys, killing one of them, and later, she makes an apple fall on a landmine to kill some others. It’s death by proxy. Nothing’s bloody and direct, until the climax, and well, that guy just completely deserves what he gets.

I love that Lawrence was cast for this movie and is a rising star. To my eye, she is not all that pretty, and she’s not all skin and bones.  Instead, she has true acting chops: she can play tough and angry as well as tender and vulnerable. I thought she was remarkable last year in “Winter’s Bone;”  it’s great to see her get this much exposure and I hope she continues to show up in movies I want to see.

“The Hunger Games” shares a lot of elements with plenty of other dystopian stories; there are callouts to both “Lord of the Flies” and “Brave New World.” Chances are, English students will be reading the book 20 years from now. But I don’t think this is supposed to be a vision of the possible future so much as a metaphor about what teens go through right now. It’s so much about reality TV, a culture of violence as entertainment, oppressive governments, or the rich vs. the poor. But I think the defining allegory is adolescence and high school. For many, if not most, teens, high school feels exactly like the Hunger Games – a cutthroat and complicated world where the stakes are life and death. The adults look on from the outside and keep telling you what a privilege it is to be you, to be going through what you’re going through. Alliances form and dissolve in the blink of an eye, and if you don’t watch your back and learn to think on your feet, you’re toast.

If you loved “The Hunger Games” and are hungry for more, or alternately, if you thought Hollywood’s take on teens out to cut out each other’s throats while adults watch with glee was too sanitized and sentimentalized, let me recommend another movie to you. “Battle Royale” was made 10 years ago and in Japan, but it’s almost exactly the same storyline, only minimal setup. It’s both much darker and, because it’s a full-on satire with no bones about being an action flick, generally funnier than “The Hunger Games.” I’m not going to say it’s a better flick, but it will be better for some, and enjoyable for others. You might want to keep the 14-year-olds away from it, however.