“May the odds be ever in your favor.”
Perpetually uttered by gargoyles in power throughout Hunger Games, the catchphrase must strike the books’ legion of fans as the ultimate fulfilled promise as it makes its leap to the big screen.
Only those words are supposed to be taken as a cheery side-step masking the fact that 23 children die each year during a grim death match. In full view of a ravenous public, who tune in every year to watch the newest season of Teenage Olympics of Pain.
Fans needn’t worry. The kids die, but the movie is basically alive.
I say basically because — though I’m an undying fan of extreme horror movies, and I can’t pretend the basic premise of Hunger Games offends my tender sensibilities — I can’t help but marvel. This is the scenario that’s got millions reading and rereading Suzanne Collins’ trilogy with Harry Potter levels of devotedness? The state-sanctioned slaughter of children?
No matter how much this PG-13 adaptation of the book pulls punches in depicting some of the most horrible fates that befall the under-18 set, it’s still a bitter pill. So why do people like this so much?
Freely adapting elements from The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man and even recent cult items like Suicide Club, Hunger Games‘ most cunning deviation is to set its central bloodsport into a just-barely-futuristic milieu that allows it to resonate in two key ways.
First, the notion of young people being drafted into this gruesome service as atonement for a psychologically divided nation’s warmongering past is automatically rich with allegorical implications.
Add to that the fact that the 12 districts that make up the nation of Panem are depicted as painfully unequal in wealth, and the idea that the rich districts almost always win against the poorer ones, and you’d be hard-pressed to even use the word “allegory.”
The two protagonists of Hunger Games are Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, in a committed performance that stands favorably against her Oscar-nominated work in Winter’s Bone) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, memorably sullen as the son in The Kids Are All Right).
Katniss is, as MST3K used to joke, “poor but clean,” a testament to the resilience of downtrodden but proud middle Americans. The only reason she ends up in the Hunger Games at all is because she has offered herself up as a contestant so that her younger sister (whose name is drawn at a morbid public lottery) doesn’t have to go and, presumably, die.
Peeta is the teen boy who has been, since childhood, watching her from afar, in love but afraid to approach her. Built like a heartthrob bulldog, he can toss a medicine ball across the room with one arm. Because apparently that comes in handy when you’re tasked to kill your peers, some of whom come on like Muppet Baby Ninjas.
Neither Katniss nor Peeta seem particularly capable of running the gauntlet. Katniss may have wicked, squirrel-decimating skills with her bow and arrow, but one of the most important parts of the competition is to make sure the public likes you. After all, a gift from a wealthy sponsor (i.e. medicine, rations, various other trinkets of REI porn) could make all the difference between life and death in that terrarium-arena.
The second way that Hunger Games resonates with modern audiences, in droves, is that it also makes light of current pop culture’s version of the Coliseum: American Idol and its ilk.
Director Gary Ross (of Seabiscuit “fame”) is no great stylist, and lacks the visual panache of all but the least of the directors who brought the Potter series to the screen, but he sticks the landing when it comes to depicting the officious spectacle that puts a dazzling face on the murderous games, creating a blockbuster diversion.
The staging of the contestants’ entrance, the montages of their training exercises, the fabrication of their backstories, the staged interviews meant to seem off-the-cuff … they should all feel familiar to anyone who has heard “Seacrest, out” more than once.
There’s a lot on the movie’s plate as it attempts to juggle its satirical elements (all those Gaga fashions!) against its earnest, emotional core. And, in its eagerness to please, it ends up distressingly uneven by the end, which is obviously meant to leave the audience panting for more, but left me just kind of, well, hungry for a solid, standalone entry.
Still, if it’s a battle to the death between this series and the bloody romantic misadventures of Bella, Edward and Jacob, I’m sponsoring Team Peeta.