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The Hunger Games by Director: Gary Ross; Writers: Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins, and Billy Ray.
Review by Ernest Lilley
Lionsgate Theatrical Release  ISBN/ITEM#: CM120324HUNGER
Date: 24 March 2012

Links: / The Hunger Games (Paperback) / The Hunger Games - Collector's Edition (Hardcover) / The Hunger Games: Movie Tie-in Edition /

On the one hand, The Hunger Games is a brilliant treatment of the kill-or-be-killed dilemma, acted out by good looking teens. On the other hand, it's another story about a good looking girl dressed in black who is going to throw a hammer into the works and change everything. Again.

I just got back from a screening of The Hunger Games, and I've got to give it a rating of "pretty good", though I've got plenty of issues with the film, which felt more like a teaser for the next two movies, in which we're sure the main character will lead a revolt of the 99% against the Utopia of the 1% who live in the Capital of what is left of the United States. Though the film comes in at 142 minutes, it seldom, if ever drags, driven by the central (if misleading) question: will coal miner's daughter Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) kill all twenty three other players in the bread and circus spectacle known to this dystopian future as The Hunger Games (May the odds be ever on your side)?

In this post-apocalyptic future, the Capital is a cool futuristic city in the Rockies with all the comforts of utopia: high speed trains, really huge TV screens, horrible fashion sense, and spectacular contests in which representatives of the twelve districts of oppressed 99%ers kill each other off in an annual no holds barred there-can-be-only-one trial called The Hunger Games, the Capital's revenge for a failed rebellion by the 13 districts, one of which was totally destroyed as punishment for their revolt. The 99% are kept under the thumb of the affluent by force, fear, and just a little bit of hope, doled out in measured doses according to the whim of the country of Panem's President, played to his strengths by the ever cynical Donald Sutherland.

Jennifer Laurence's character Katniss offers herself up as a volunteer to enter the games when her younger sister is picked by lottery, and she's whisked away from her Appalachian coal town poverty into a world of sweet smelling opulence... before being put out on the killing field with the 23 other contestants.

Katniss is, on the face of it, a pretty good choice for winning the games. She's motivated because her family needs her, as her mother is something of a wreck and the father is a flashback memory we see go down into the mines to get blown to coal dust. More importantly, she's a crack shot with a hunting bow, and a skilled poacher that keeps meat on the family table as a result. Ironically, though we're treated to scenes showing her woodcraft early in the film, she moves around the forest in the games without any notion of stealth at all. Nobody in the movie notices though, so we're probably not supposed to either.

Still, a word of caution: don't sit next to any hunters or special forces types, or their snickering will probably put you off.

The game itself isn't nearly as interesting as it should be. Katniss spends most of her time on the defensive, making friends with Rue, a sweet (read: doomed) Panem girl of African-American extraction, and the male tribute player from her own district, the hunky, affable, and ultimately forgettable Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the baker's son who once threw her a loaf of bread in the rain and has now professed his love for her on national TV. For all the hope her surprisingly sympathetic game coaches have for her, Katniss never sets out to kill much of anyone, except when she strikes out in anger or has no other choice. We don't get the feeling that she's protecting any moral high ground, just that for all her comments that she's determined to win, she's failed to accept the price of success.

Unfortunately for us, unlikeable characters make a habit of attacking the people Katniss cares about, sparing her any real moral dilemma confrontations. She nearly faces reality at the end of the game, but the author lets her off easy; you may not get to live, but if you pout hard enough, you'll get your way.

While the question of who will survive is context, the subtext is about who gets to win her affections, Peeta, the nice (and very strong) young man who periodically offers to die for her, or Gale Hawthorne, the dark haired rebel she left behind in the mining town, played by Liam Hemsworth, and periodically shown looking unhappy while watching the TV coverage of Katniss and Peeta. Beyond the romantic bit, there's the whole social upheaval plotline that she's destined to follow.

It's been 75 or so years since the uprisings of common folk had to be put down, and while things seem more or less stable, the economic disparity between the dwellers in the Capital and the outlying districts is exaggerated enough that nobody is going to cry for the rich folk when their game gets called on account of revolution several movies hence.

Given that The Hunger Games (2008) is only the first book in author Suzanne Collins' trilogy, followed by Catching Fire (2009), and Mockingjay (2010), and therefore allows the easy outs that the author provided to be only a temporary condition, we can reasonably expect the characters to grapple with the costs of their choices later on, possibly even growing up in the process.

Does The Hunger Games deserve the $200 million it's likely to earn over its first weekend? Not as an examination of a science fiction dystopia or as an especially good example of combat in the woods, but on the basis of emotional hooks into the teen dilemmas faced by Katniss and her friends, quite possibly.

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