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Jason Wallis ‘The Hunger Games:’ So what’s the point?

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Jason Wallis

Posted: Friday, April 6, 2012 9:02 am

I humbly apologize for my absence last week. An unfortunate occurrence in my personal life prevented me from making a trip to the theater, but things have calmed down and it’s back to the grind.

Today we’ve got a belated review of “The Hunger Games” (I would have liked to include it last time along with all the other “HG”-related goodies, but I suppose it’s just as well since I’d have been quite the party-pooper anyway), to be followed in the coming weeks by “American Reunion” and “The Cabin in the Woods” before we cascade into a hellish two-week void until “The Avengers” inevitably rocks our socks off and ushers in the deluge of major summer releases. Not the best plan, but at least it’s something.

I demand answers. As a citizen of these United States, I demand an immediate and comprehensive investigation into Hollywood’s hiring of screw-ups and miscreants vis a vis the production of popular literary adaptations. Case in point: “The Hunger Games,” a big-budget translation of Suzanne’s Collins’ hugely successful teen-lit series about a futuristic dystopia in which groups of teenagers are routinely assembled for televised winner-take-all battles to the death.

Now, it was bound to be a success for the same reason the “Twilight” movies and the lesser “Harry Potter” films were: Series fans (which conservatively comprise, say, 80 percent of the viewing audience) will see the big-screen adaptations of their favorite books regardless of the films’ overall quality. If the filmmakers don’t “mess around” with too much of the original story, the fans will see them again and again, gushing like schoolgirls every time.

But what about the rest of us — you know, discriminating adult viewers who aren’t inclined to devote significant amounts of time and energy to devouring vast tomes of teen-lit nonsense? Surely we have a place in all this. Surely it is not too much to ask that actual filmmakers are hired to craft worthy adaptations of these wildly popular franchises, so that us “normies” can at least enjoyably partake in the fervor as well?

It’s no coincidence that the third “Harry Potter” flick was far and away the best: Alfonso Cuaron, a director of note, approached the project with outsiders in mind, and instead of fixating on remaining “faithful” to every little detail, he fashioned a fully realized, highly original work of cinematic art. If only studios would use that as a template more often, we might get someone more talented than Gary Ross to helm a project as large and daunting as “The Hunger Games.”

I mean, can you even imagine the pitch meetings for this thing? “So, we’ve got this futuristic survival tale that could be the launching point for a $2 billion movie franchise. Who should we try to get? Ridley Scott would be too obvious… Could be an interesting turn for David Lynch… Neil Marshall ran over my cat, so no… Neil Blomkamp’s probably full up… I know! We’ll get the guy whose only credits are ‘Pleasantville’ and ‘Seabiscuit’! Surely he will deliver a carefully polished product!”

I’m generally inclined toward dystopian nightmares, and am definitely into survival stories, so I approached “The Hunger Games” with a very open mind. However, the mistakes of Ross and company are too significant and too numerous to overlook in the name of “having a good time.” For starters, there is no substantial socio-political subtext to be found here. Didn’t exist in the book either? Doesn’t matter, wedge it in. Otherwise, all you’ve got is a piece of pop entertainment involving the brutal murder of children, which itself paradoxically hinges on the viewer’s moral disgust at the prospect of pop entertainment involving the brutal murder of children. Without some over-arching social or political metaphor (and sorry, “war kills kids” doesn’t cut it), the whole thing becomes a meaningless circus of cruelty.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that, necessarily. I enjoy exploitation as much as the next red-blooded American, but if I’m gonna wallow, I gotta wallow in style. Unfortunately, “The Hunger Games” is devoid of such style, with Ross preferring constant and inexplicable close-up shots, even in the most inappropriate moments. The action scenes (which come at a brisk clip once the maddeningly detailed expository scenes are through) are incoherent blurs of motion — somewhat understandable, given the difficulty inherent to depicting 12-year-olds being wantonly butchered, but still presumably avoidable with a competent artist in the director’s chair.

The characterizations, with one notable exception, are shockingly stunted. For instance, I would have liked to know more about the crazy-eyed knife-throwing chick from District 2, or Rue, the angelic young black girl from the poverty-stricken District 11. Time that could have been better spent delving into their back stories is instead devoted to endless exposition about the “great rebellion” that led to the creation of the annual Hunger Games contest. (Even if such elements will play into the second and third installments, enough is enough.) And it’s not as if Ross and his screenwriters couldn’t find the time — this thing is damn near 150 minutes long.

Thankfully, Jennifer Lawrence — as our heroine who volunteers for the games in the place of her younger sister — manages to hold the film together. She in no way delivers on the promise she showed a couple years back with “Winter’s Bone,” but her natural talent and general likeability are a definite bright point in this largely dismal production. Word has it that Ross may be demanding too much money for the sequel, so would it be too much to hope that Lawrence will get to reteam with “Winter’s Bone” director Debra Granik? Or, in fact, anyone with any shred of actual filmmaking talent? Yeah, probably.

(Note: I spared you my rant about how self-professed “Hunger Games” fans should take a look at “Battle Royale,” released in Japan more than a decade ago but only now finding distribution stateside thanks to the success of “HG.” It is … quite something, and will perhaps be the subject of a future column.)

“The Hunger Games” is rated PG-13 for violence.

Jason Wallis is a News-Sentinel copy editor. He can be reached at jasonwallis@comcast.net.

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