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MOVIE REVIEW
The Hunger Games (2012)

The-hunger-games-jennifer-lawrence
Murray Close/Lionsgate

“The Hunger Games” takes place in a future comprised of disparate historical influences. The grand spectacle of the ancients sits in company with totalitarian oppression and the deprivations of recession-hit America. It is as if the apocalyptic conflict that created this dystopia had shattered time itself only for the remnants to be hastily glued back together by a deity on a busy schedule. Similarly, “The Hunger Games” is born from a myriad of cultural sources so that nothing in it can be classed as wholly original.

There has been much online debate about the similarities between “The Hunger Games” and the Japanese gore fest “Battle Royale.” The link has been strenuously denied by Suzanne Collins, who wrote the teen-lit on which “The Hunger Games” is based as well as sharing writing duties on the screenplay with director Gary Ross. If anything, “The Hunger Games” is “Battle Royale” lite, a watered-down version both in terms of violence and achievement — although that is not to say that this new film does not possess the power to shock. “Logan’s Run,” “The Running Man” and “Lord of the Flies” could all be cited as obvious forerunners of “The Hunger Games,” but there is no shame in covering old ground as long as the results are worthwhile.

“The Hunger Games” is set in Panem, the new name for a postwar North America. The ruling class — who dress as if they shop at the House of Lady Gaga — laud it over the poor and huddled masses from Capitol, the administrative center amidst the chaos — plus ça change. Following a failed revolution by the dispossessed, a brutal punishment was imposed upon them: Every year, two teenagers are randomly selected from each of Panem’s 12 districts. These chosen “tributes” are fed, feted and finally dumped in a forest and forced to fight to the death. All this is televised to what is left of the watching world. Imagine an episode of “American Idol” where the contestants stop warbling and instead start to bludgeon each other with their microphones.

Chosen for District 12 is 16-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), a strong-willed and resourceful girl with few friends, certainly none among the squirrel population whom she offs with her bow and arrow to provide food for her family. Katniss volunteers to take part in the games in place of her younger sister; and she finds herself paired with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s boy with a secret crush on her. Peeta and Katniss are mentored by Haymitch — played brilliantly by Woody Harrelson — a survivor from previous games now trying to erase his horrific memories through heavy drinking. The two, along with 22 fellow entrants, are trained in how to present themselves and how to kill others before being flown to the battleground and left to fend for themselves.

“The Hunger Games” has several salient points to make. From one aspect, it feels like a brutal pastiche of the rites of passage that every teenager goes through when finding his or her feet in the world with the need for popularity coupled with the victimization of the weak. The story is also a dig at the media’s fetishized exploitation of the young and vulnerable. In the preamble to the games the contestants demonstrate their skills to would-be sponsors who might well offer assistance during the tournament. The sight of Ms. Lawrence in a skin-tight tracksuit showing off her archery skills to a gaggle of old and strangely disinterested men is decidedly creepy.

“The Hunger Games” also reminds us that the established powers have often survived by instilling terror in those they rule. From the gladiatorial arenas to the hanging tree at Tyburn, a spot of state-sponsored terrorism is a handy tool in quelling thoughts of revolt among the general populace. In Panem, there are also the baton-wielding “peacemakers” in their lovely 1970s sci-fi throwback uniforms (“THX 1138” springs to mind here) to ensure that the will of the government is enforced. The president of Panem is played by Donald Sutherland, and though one assumes that he has a streak of ruthlessness within him his physical resemblance to Santa Claus seems to suggest otherwise.

All this is fine, but there is another more perturbing angle to “The Hunger Games”: The film is clearly the newest hope in the race to find the next “Twilight”/“Harry Potter” to save the American box office. Yet, what sort of a dish is this to set before the target demographic? Essentially, Lionsgate has taken a story about teenagers being forced to kill one another for the entertainment of the masses and produced a film that they hope will be watched by millions which contains a series of nasty teenage murders. Oh, cruel irony.

This slaughter with its stabbing, neck snapping and other more inventive methods of dispatch soon becomes dispiriting and arguably tasteless. With this being the first in a proposed trilogy, there is not even the relief of proper closure. One abhors censorship but consider this: In Britain, several minor cuts have been made to the film in order for it to be available to the widest audience possible in a society where knife crime and gang culture are a genuine problem. The difference between this and the fantasy of “Harry Potter” and “Twilight” is that these are not vampires or wizards wielding the blades and bows — but young human beings. Let us hope that everyone in the audience, whatever their age, sees this film as a warning rather than an inspiration.

If this novel had been adapted into a low-budget indie that nobody saw rather than a hoped-for box-office giant, then it might have been more palatable. The cast might even have remained the same consisting as it does of the likes of Stanley Tucci (sporting the most wonderful blue rinse) and Toby Jones. “The Hunger Games” is a reasonably well-made film with enjoyable performances and an arresting lead in Ms. Lawrence. However, it did leave one asking how far mainstream cinema is willing to go in order to ensure its own survival.

THE HUNGER GAMES

Opens on March 23 in the United States and Britain.

Directed by Gary Ross; written by Mr. Ross, Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray, based on the novel by Ms. Collins; director of photography, Tom Stern; edited by Stephen Mirrione and Juliette Welfling; music by James Newton Howard; production design by Philip Messina; costumes by Judianna Makovsky; produced by Nina Jacobson and Jon Kilik; released by Lionsgate. Running time: 2 hours 22 minutes. This film is rated PG-13 by M.P.A.A. and 12A by B.B.F.C.

WITH: Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove), Amandla Stenberg (Rue) and Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen).

Comments

Agree with this, and preferred 'Battle Royale'. This is too muddled and too sentimental.

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