The Hunger Games is about great characters, but it is not a great story. That is quite a statement considering that the film has earned 70 million USD on a single day and is based off an insanely popular series of young adult books. The other two movies will be shot and will make a boat-load of money and the phrase, ‘May the Odds ever be in your favor’ will be invoked time and time again. To understand why I have a somewhat more nuanced opinion about this film than others will have, I will have to speak about another film: Battle Royale.
Battle Royale is a Japanese film made in 2000 and one of the ten top grossing movies of all time in Japan (and only recently released in the US on Blu-Ray). It is a story about a dystopian Japan run by a Fascist government that gasses a couple dozen Japanese students and sends them to an island in order to fight to the death. The film, like all foreign films, plays to stereotypes and cultural things that are uniquely Japanese and unless you were from there, the subtext would have to be explained to you. But what it does have that needs no explanation is lots and lots of violence, violence that would make Quentin Tarantino pause and turn green (QT is an enormously big fan of this film).
Battle Royale is not an easy film to watch and I can’t say that I enjoyed it in the conventional sense. It made me angry. Finishing the film and watching its bleak ending made me edgy, it made me want to go to Japan and burn buildings down at the senseless carnage just witnessed. That being said, it was absolutely brilliant film-making. It did not dumb down the children involved but rather spoke to the motivations and mental states of a bunch of teenagers that were given weapons and directed to slaughter each other. Some refused. Some killed gleefully. Some ran away. Some committed suicide. Best of all, it studied the interpersonal dynamics of the group and attached them to the carnage that occurred. The ‘cheerleader’ was gleefully killed by the ‘ugly’ girl. There was nobility and savagery and it was all so very Lord of the Flies. It was heart-breaking to watch but utterly riveting at the same time and I have to admit, if you took any high-school class in the US and put them in the same situation, it would probably pretty much happen like this.
Now, the Hunger Games. Functionally it is the same story allowing for the difference in setting and having read all three books, I know that what is to come expands the universe beyond just the games. I will state that I did not find my time wasted by the Hunger Games and there were certainly some arresting visuals in the course of the film. The best thing though was Jennifer Lawrence in her role of Katniss Everdeen. Forget Bella and her utter uselessness when the cards were on the table. Katniss is a bad-ass teenager that makes her share of mistakes and can get flustered like all teenagers, but she is also in control of herself and takes charge when the situation is on the line. Seeing her put her ‘male interest’ in the box and go out to save the day was very gratifying but my favorite scene was when she was leaving home and confronting her emotionally weak mother. She looked at her and demanded, ‘Don’t cry. Keep it together this time. My sister is relying on you’. Hardcore. Unlike Kristen Stewart, Jennifer Lawrence is an Oscar-Nominated actress with muted but pleasant looks and great acting chops and she is utterly convincing in the role. This is one girl that does not need to be saved. I will go see the other two movies to see JL’s take on the character again.
But as I was watching the story play itself out, I could not stop thinking about Battle Royale. Every-time the camera pulled away and sanitized the violence, I smirked. You couldn’t make the Hunger Games like Battle Royale because BR did not pull the camera away. It did not try to soft-sell the premise that kids killing kids would be anything other than an event of profound horror. It made you watch and made you suffer the carnage along with the children. Unlike Battle Royale, the Hunger Games did not go all the way and therefore, I could not buy the ‘feral’ kids as anything other than another clique. I did not get the menace not the bleak hopelessness from the Hunger Games that I got from BR. Battle Royale punched me in the stomach and then kicked me in the side right before it brought a cinder block down on my head repeatedly as the final survivors left the Island, real demons and PTSD behind their eyes. The Hunger Games gave me a ‘happy ending’ and a plot hook for the next trip to the Cinema when the sequel is released.
I accept the Hunger Games for what it is and I would commend it as a better diversion than most films and it is probably the real start of the Summer movie season (they start earlier and earlier every year). But I cannot honestly call it great cinema because I think it shied away from greatness and settled for merely okay. Go to see Hunger Games for a great performance of an actress that I hope to see more of in the future. Go rent Battle Royale if you want a truly great story.