The Execution Factor
One of the skills I imagine you have to master as the parent of a young child is presenting the proper expression of surprise and delight when they do something new – new and breathtakingly original and memorable for them, of course, but something which you yourself grew familiar with, accustomed to, and indeed perhaps even a little bit tired of a long time in the past. Every generation has to rediscover things for itself, of course, and so one ought to be indulgent in these matters.
As with toddlers tying their shoes or mastering bladder control, so with major entertainment corporations rediscovering and representing hoary old SF tropes and clichés, I suppose: which brings us to, need it even be said, The Hunger Games, directed by Gary Ross from the novel by Suzanne Collins.
In an unspecified future, North America is under the control of a totalitarian regime, and has been reconstituted as a single nation named Panem – presumably twinned with the nation of Circenses (one for the Latin scholars out there). The control of the ruling Capitol is maintained through the titular Hunger Games, in which young men and women from the outlying regions are forced to fight to the death in front of TV cameras on an annual basis. This time around, representing the remote District 12, where the inhabitants eke out an existence of bucolic deprivation, are Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – sorry folks, everyone has names like that. After being presented to the public and the preening judges and officials in the Capitol, the contestants are transported to the remote arena where the bloodletting will take place, and the stage is set for a battle roy – oops, hush my mouth...
Pointing out things that The Hunger Games is a rip-off of has become a bit of a blood sport in its own right recently: in addition to a certain Japanese movie, people are going on about Rollerball, original episodes of Star Trek, and so on, and so on. Well, you know, just because something isn't original doesn't necessarily mean it's actually bad, and it seems to me that the main donor of most of the narrative DNA here is Nigel Kneale's 1968 play The Year of the Sex Olympics, in which a jaded population is kept pacified by savage reality TV 'entertainment'. (Mark Gatiss has observed that in later life Nigel Kneale could have been given his own late night TV show where he just sat glowering at the camera and hissing 'I told you so.') So no, it's not new, but it's taking from the very best of sources.
And, naturally, as a new take on a classic theme, The Hunger Games does tell us a lot about the time in which it was made (i.e., now). As a portrait of the culture wars currently being waged in America, the film is rather interesting: the decent, homespun, countrified districts are controlled by the corrupt, decadent and effete metropolitans of the city. The political and social comment in this film is not overplayed – the producers steer clear of going into too much detail about any differences in religion and social morality between city and districts – which is probably just as well, as appearing too didactic or preachy would probably not be a good route to go down. Nevertheless, the line between being vicariously entertained by fictional slaughter and genuinely entertained by the real thing is probably thinner than most people would like to think, and it seemed to me the producers have missed a bit of a trick in not examining this theme in more depth.
Even so, the build-up to the start of the Games is finely done with considerable tension being generated: but, alas, I found the Games themselves to be rather disappointingly presented. We're led to expect something truly vicious, and relentlessly, gruellingly savage and brutal – but commercial considerations (and the need for an accommodating certification) appear to have played their part and the action is relatively tame stuff. As a result the film comes across as rather anodyne and toned-down, where more overt bloodletting and violence would probably have suited its theme better. (At the risk of revealing a spoiler, plotting which allows a character to progress to the closing stages of this kind of elimination event without committing a single cold-blooded killing struck me as a bit of a cop-out, too.)
This is not a perfect film, then, but on the other hand it's a superior piece of work, well-mounted, solidly written and with some very good turns in it. Jennifer Lawrence is making a bit of a habit of giving great performances in big studio movies and she does so here as well. She pretty much carries the entire picture here, without much sign of strain. Donald Sutherland seems rather subdued as the bad guy, and the guys playing Lawrence's various love interests aren't much more than placeholders, but Lenny Kravitz is impressive as her stylist. The only genuinely bum note is struck by the hammy performance turned in by Woody Harrelson as her trainer.
There's a bit of a wobble late-on as some soapy teen romance insinuates his way into the story, which is sort of ominous as it looks like this is the route the inevitable sequels may be going down, but on the whole this is well worth the price of admission: involving, quite thoughtful entertainment that ticks the drama, romance, and action boxes very satisfactorily. Even so, it's not going to change the world – its anger against the reality TV culture dominating modern TV feels entirely feigned. In the end The Hunger Games is simply superior entertainment, with nothing present that will discomfit Cowell too much – or even rattle Boyle.