Death by a thousand cuts
The Hunger Games 2012
Dir. Gary Ross
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Stanley Tucci, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Donald Sutherland
By Peter Hulm
I can't help wondering how much of The Hunger Games ended up on the cutting room floor, or perhaps in these digital times I should say Recycle Bin.
Despite the enlistment of the original trilogy writer Suzanne Collins, the first in the series (number two is already in the can) lacks most of the essential backstory.
As one fan of the fiction complained: "No one seems to be going hungry!"
Forget that. But we still need to know that the whole district gets food if their champion wins. The heroine doesn't just step forward to save her young sister.
What happened to the sponsors element in the film? After all the brouhaha about the need to appeal to sponsors, all they did was make a minimal contribution of medicine to the popular favourite. Not what we had been led to expect.
Forget that. But did we need an underlining of obvious points from Stanley Tucci and Toby Jones?
Only if there had been a lot more confusing action in between their commentary.
But shouldn't the modern-day Diana and Adonis have left us in doubt all along about their sexual attraction?
As I read the script, they were definitely performing their romance for the cameras, just as in reality TV shows.
Suzanne Collins herself was putting across a better message for teenagers: Katnis Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) helps the boy from home (Josh Hutcherson) out of compassion.
When betrayed by the show organizers, she proposes dying together not as lovers but to strike back at the system. What's love got to do with it?
Perhaps it was all too revolutionary for Hollywood. At each step a social argument is replaced by a romantic/emotional scene.
Even the boyfriend back home (Wes Bentley), who makes a revolutionary rather than romantic argument for their sticking together at the start of the film, is portrayed as suffering as he watches the romantic performance of the couple from District 12.
Check the goofs section of imdb for a fuller rundown of mistakes in continuity and narrative.
Director Gary Ross has pointed out that the film cost a fraction of similar blockbusters, which may account for a number of boo-boos.
But it hardly justifies the weak storytelling.
A more plausible explanation is the speed with which the distributors needed a film for the teeny (13+) market.
The last Harry Potter had passed over from the cinemas into BluRayLand. The Hobbit wasn't due until December (it eventually took $302m by the end of March 2013). There was a hole to fill.
The Hunger Games opened in March 2012 and earned $407m by the end of August. The gamble, if that is what it was, paid off.
The estimated budget, by the way, was $78m against The Hobbit's $180m.
The teeny film machine
What we got for the $78m was an extremely targeted feel-good machine for pre-adolescents, even at the price of leaving behind those old enough to read the books.
For example, though the adult actors carried the film, even imdb just mentions the boring teens as stars.
No adult except for the campy character played by Lennie Kravitz was anything more than creepy, dorky or weird or simply anonymous.
And the children all live lives of oppression and exploitation, with freedom just a dream.
Adults might have been disturbed by the mishmash of Gladiator meets Survivor meets The Truman Show meets American Idol, without any inspirational twist.
But for teeny teens, these are films and shows they can relate to. Some of the more visually literate might pick up on The Fifth Element or TV's Project Runway.
The cultural references here are likely to have as much meaning as the hints to Roman governing practices.
The country may be called Panem in reference to the bread and circuses tactic of later Roman emperors. But it's the sort of reference for teachers to explain to junior high school students. Asking the pupils to discuss how much the comparison makes sense, however, opens up a can of worms.
Jennifer Lawrence is requisitely enigmatic, while her co-stars are simply blanks: good casting from a producer's point of view.
Even the hint that the boy from District 12 is actually a lot smarter than he seems (maybe thinking up the romance ploy purely for them to survive on the show) gets scrubbed out of recognition.
We are given no explanation why he hangs around with the most violent crowd. Presumably it is to keep tracks on them rather than suddenly, and against character, believing he can run with the tough gang.
But we never find out, or why he is wounded and covered in camouflage.
On the basis of this film, I certainly can't be bothered to read the book to see what the author's explanation is.
In keeping with the teen culture references, the film makes a lot of getting people to remember you, largely through dress and self presentation, in order to gain status and support from sponsors.
This may remind you of high school and every contest show on TV these days.
A cheesy Battle Royale
Some reviewers consider the film, rather than the books, a remake of the 2001 Japanese chop-em-up Battle Royale. One wag who remembers Pulp Fiction described as a Battle Royale with Cheese. But most pre-teens would not get that, so maybe a remake does not matter.
Even accepting the references to Roman and Greek mythology, would you believe that television audiences would so eagerly watch the killing of young people?
Maybe Suzanne Collins wanted us to recognize how barbaric the much-lauded foundations of our civilization in fact are, but it doesn't make a present-day version of such practices any more credible, even given the trappings of television contests.
Setting up for failure?
So is that all we can get from the film? Unfortunately, yes, it seems. Despite the huge box-office takings, imdb does not indicate much satisfaction among its viewers. The top review is headed "BIG Disappoitment" [sic] and viewer ratings gave it 7.2 out of 10. Top of the frequently asked questions is "What is Hunger Games about?"
It is never spelled out that Panem is the rump United States, that is left after sea-level rise from global warming (perhaps because to the radical Right who approve school textbooks in places like Texas, global warming is scientifically 'unproven').
Viewers seemed particularly bothered by the foggy camera work in the violent scenes, a deliberate choice to get a PG-13 certificate.
Apart from playing down the violence of the books, it also dulled the anti-violence message of the story. The deaths and suffering never looked real, either in terms of filming or emotional involvement.
The plausibility that a controlling society could keep unrest and hunger at bay by staging gladiatorial contests, certainly over 74 years, was also questioned.
Perhaps the links with U.S. adventures in Afghanistan and Iraq were not drawn strongly enough. The film would then have been really subversive.