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Friday, March 23, 2012

The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins' Trilogy Comes to the Screen

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Move over Twilight Saga. Suzanne Collins' young adult trilogy, The Hunger Games, has won a wide audience of readers for its sensitive handling of teenagers faced with hard choices in a society with little hope. Striving to keep the movie faithful to her book, Collins co-produced and co-wrote the screenplay for The Hunger Games from her first novel. With only minor missteps, the film is a heart pounding thriller and an unsettling depiction of a future with deep roots in the present.

The story and its protagonist are foremost throughout the film; special effects are refreshingly minimal. The heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), lives in District 12, a region in a future America where daily life amid the tottering shacks and wooden rain barrels has reverted to a 19th century level of rural poverty. An enormous gap separates America's impoverished outlying districts from the powerful elite of the Capitol, a city resembling Albert Speer's model for postwar Berlin. To entertain and cow the populace, the Capitol's government and its media partners stage the annual televised Hunger Games, an Xtreme sports event pitting two-person teams from each of the 12 districts in a contest for life itself. Twenty-three of the participants must die, usually at the hands of other contestants. Only one player can emerge from the wooded killing fields to accept the crown of victory.

The players are teenagers, a boy and girl from each district chosen by lottery. When Katniss' younger sister's name is drawn, Katniss steps forward to volunteer in her place. The boy chosen from District 12, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), secretly nurses a crush on Katniss, a self-reliant girl too buy running her household—dad died in the coal mine and mom is unstable—to notice.

When Katniss and Peeta are brought to the Capitol to take part in the media circus, the disparity between the inhabitants of District 12 and the Capitol becomes painfully apparent; with their homespun clothes and simple ways, the former are reminiscent of Appalachia in the Great Depression while the latter are luxury-loving fops from the wackiest fashion week runway. The history behind this society is efficiently tucked into an infomercial filled with such familiar-sounding phrases as “Freedom Has a Cost,” “We Swore as a Nation…” and “This is How we Remember Our Past; This is How we Safeguard Our Future.”

But the political system is less central to the film than the media spectacle it encourages. More prevalent than the country's president (a bewhiskered Donald Sutherland) is the glitzy TV host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), an unctuous model of gratuitous glad-handing and insincerity. He and his stream of mindless guests are Access Hollywood amplified as they speak in pop culture jargon about “healing” as the live audience applauds on cue. Katniss stares at their world with eyes of cold contempt. Her head is on straight, but will she be able to survive her 23 opponents in the ultimate reality TV show, including the boy who loves her—especially if the game turns out to be rigged?

The cast and screenplay of The Hunger Games endow Katniss and Peeta with believability and just enough psychological weight. The story has only a few moments that beg disbelief; a few of the finer plot points seem excised from the final draft; and the pace drags only here and there as Katniss struggles to survive during the televised game. Although a less than perfect film, The Hunger Games remains a memorable story with many moving moments. It asks an important question early on: What if everyone simply stopped watching the media spectacle? Would the corrupt status quo evaporate without the distracted consent of its citizens? At least in episode one of the trilogy, we never hear the answer.
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