Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Hunger Games

When I read Suzanne Collins' runaway best-seller I was sucked in by the relentless force of the narrative, but when all was said and done I was undecided on whether I could actually advocate it as either literature or pop entertainment.  That was several years ago before I knew it would be turned into a movie.  Now that I've seen the movie I have come to the conclusion that I like it about as much as I like burning the roof of my mouth on steaming hot mozzarella cheese.

There was a reason I didn't choose to read the final books in the trilogy, but it wasn't apparent until after seeing the movie when I realized that there is a flaw in the central premise itself.  Collins and the filmmakers ask us to look on with guilty excitement while the continent formerly known as North America (now a fascist state named after PanAm's distant cousin Panem) forces 24 youths to kill each other on National television.  What follows is a cautionary tale about the perils of dictatorship and the possible fate of our future society.  The Hunger Games are a thinly veiled allegory for willful consumption.  Many of the "tributes" competing in the death match willfully slaughter one another to survive while we are treated to glimpses of the hungry masses eating it all up as if it were an episode of The Amazing Race.

The flaw is in the way the movie is engineered to generate grim excitement around the carnage.  In spite of its blatant moral agenda, the message is confused.  For every minute of screen time that's devoted to lamenting the cruelty of the audience that applauds the competition, there are 20 equal minutes of slick soulless shaky-cam suspense dedicated to immersing us in the games.  The movie encourages us to pick favorites in the battle (and there's no real contest there), but it never really demands that we think about what the spectacle of death actually means.  The ideal movie adaptation would seize on the irony of this contradiction to tell a story that is morbidly fun, kind of like A Clockwork Orange with minors.  This film plays it straight without so much as a wink and consequently fails as both allegory and entertainment.

The plight of Panem's citizens deliberately evokes the atmosphere of a concentration camp and the buildup to the games is constructed with such solemnity and rigor that I thought I had accidentally wandered into a screening at the Simon Weisenthal Center.  Any and all flashes of character development that may have existed in the book have been traded for shallow thrills.  The movie is suspenseful, but it falls apart any time the characters attempt to express any recognizable human emotion.  All of this only underscores how inadequately the premise is executed by director Gary Ross and company.   Ross has returned to the director's chair nine years after having directed Seabiscuit and 14 years after directing Pleasantville.  Both are thoughtful films, but here he asks us to check our brains at the door.  He applies all his efforts to making the proceedings more 'real' by virtue of his hand-held camera, but the effect is distancing and drains the movie of all its guilty fun.  The movie is manufactured as crassly as the games are manufactured by the Panem media and the result is so indulgent that I was tempted to rise out of my seat in protest and plead for a revival of The Running Man...or Gladiator...or The Most Dangerous Game...or especially Battle Royale.  The list goes on.