Let the Games Begin— Hunger Games that Is

In the midst of the movie wasteland that is February and March comes a movie that has already set a weekend box office record– the Hunger Games. Based (reasonably faithfully) on the novel of the same name you can see that Gary Ross and his team were thinking big from the start as there are various A listers playing smaller roles in this movie (Donald Sutherland as the President,  Woody Harrelson as the guide for the tributes from District 12).   But the real star of this movie is indie film favorite Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss Everdeen, a sort of female last of the Mohicans.

I must tell you that I was predisposed to like this film from the start as it was entirely filmed in my favorite part of my home state— N.C. namely the beautiful mountains and foothills of the state, and also in Charlotte my second home town.   Here is what can be said about the venues—
“It was filmed entirely in North Carolina, from the mountains, where fake trees were planted, filled with propane and blown up, to Charlotte, which served as the Capitol from the story — the seat of power where the teens are sent for training. Also prominently featured in the movie is the Henry River Mill Village near Hildebran, about 70 miles from Asheville, which was the setting for District 12, home of the three main characters, Katniss, Peeta and Gale.”

So what should we think of this post-World War, totalitarian vision of the future where games are used to keep the masses under control, and youth are sacrificed in contests that are rather like a mixture of ‘the Amazing Race’ ‘the Most Dangerous Game’ and bits and pieces of the movie ‘Gladiator’?

Firstly, the scenery is grand :) (You knew I was going to say that). Secondly the A list actors in the movie are very good (especially Woody Harrelson). I wish I could say as much for the younger batch. I am afraid Mr. Ross decided to try to tap into the appeal of the Twilight schlock instead of choosing some young A list actors and actresses (see for example the young lady who played Skeeter in The Help if you want someone with actual spunk). Mostly what we get is eye candy, though Jennifer Lawrence isn’t terrible. She is just rather bland and monotone.

Secondly, the movie is too long, at 2 hours and 22 minutes it drags in places, particularly during the ‘little girl lost in the woods’ segment which goes on and on and on. Katniss looks at times like she needs some catnip to make her more lively at times (too much sleeping in trees will do that to you). The movie is entirely too predictable. We saw the romance angle coming a mile away, and no one doubted from the outset that Katniss would come out well in the end. This movie was about as suspenseful as watching U.K. play Berea College in basketball (no, mercifully they don’t actually play).

Thirdly, the garish costumes of the city dwellers in contrast to the drab attire of those from District 12, the coal mining region, seems way over the top. The city dwellers look like something out of the Beatle’s Yellow Submarine movie, and it’s entirely pointless. It does however give the whole movie a sort of ‘theater of the absurd’ flavor, which may be intended.

If you noticed some allusions to ancient Rome during its Empire and bread and circuses days, you were being attentive. Panem is of course the Latin word for bread, only here its the name of the place, even though the bread theme comes up in several places in the film.

On the positive side of things there is one significant and telling speech in the movie and fortunately it is delivered by Sutherland. He says “the only thing that motivates people more than fear is hope. But too much hope is a dangerous thing. A little hope provides a spark that keeps people going, striving.”

(Spoiler alert– skip the next paragraph if you don’t want to know how things turn out).

He’s right about that– hope springs eternal in the human breast. But this movie really provides very little hope. At the end of the film the District 12 heroes go home, but the totalitarian state and the hunger games go on. And to what end? I suppose we will have to await the second film in the trilogy, since the opening box office was large enough to guarantee a sequel.

In the meantime, if you want real hope don’t look to this ‘human beings can save themselves saga’ for it. It offers mere panem, and circuses, not real apocalyptic hope. Mere lentil soup instead of birthright hope. I will say this, while is is certainly not a classic film, it far outstrips the competition currently in the theaters—- but that’s not saying much at all.

  • Tracy B

    I’m curious to know if you read the book and its sequels?

  • Tracy B

    (I should say, because I did and saw the movie yesterday, then reread the first novel last night. I’m sorting through how to take the whole package, from books to this movie to the responses to it. It’s vexing me.)

  • J.J.

    I always enjoy your movie reviews. I didn’t get a chance to read the books in advance of seeing the movie. But I liked the movie because looking back, Katniss always made good, solid choices… even though she found herself trapped in an intensely immoral situation (the Hunger Games themselves). But she made such inspiring choices… voluntarily choosing to sacrificially replace her younger sister… never killing except out of self-defense… showing compassion to Rue and others… and never allowing herself to become a savage like others. I don’t know if any of us know how we’d respond when found in such an immoral survivor game.

    But two things bothered me at the end. One, that Petah smiled briefly when interviewed on TV afterward. That seemed weird and out of place. I’m not sure how anyone could force a smile after such a dehumanizing experience, even if you and your girlfriend did survive.

    But also, I wondered if the movie could have had a better ending if Katniss and Petah had chosen to eat the poison berries anyway even when told to stop. As the movie progressed, I began hoping not merely for Katniss’s survival, but for a way to permanently end the Hunger Games once and for all… and I wonder if such a sacrificial act would have upstaged the producers to such an extent that the Hunger Games could be brought to an end. After all, sometimes through great sacrifice the world has changed…

    Curious for your thoughts,
    –J. J.

  • Benw333

    Hi Tracy: I’ve read reviews and summaries but not the novels themselves. J.J. I agree that would have made a better movie ending, but they are follow the books, and it is a trilogy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1109504273 Christine Welten

    I have read the books and the watched the first movie last night and mainly agree with what you have said here. The books offer much more of an insight into the over the top-ness of the Capitol and the desperation that leads to hope theme. I am currently reading the second of the trilogy and the impact of what she did in the Games is much more profound than in the first book. I did find the main actress a bit one dimensional for my liking as compared to the book, which is all written in first person narrative and gives much more of an insight into her reactions and actions. I find the book much more of an interesting take on the idea of ‘war as entertainment’ that I do think our culture can fall into, but the movie failed to grasp the depth of that theme, or the feeling of Katniss playing up to the cameras in order to survive, and I think that was its major failing.

    Good review Ben, appreciate your thoughts :)

  • David

    Ben, I’m not one to really laugh out loud but for some reason you really get to me (By the time I got to the “Theater of the absurd” comment I was a gonner …LOL) You’re hilarious, man. Smh