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The Hunger Games – Gary Ross post-apocalyptic pursuit thriller – death for TV


Jennifer Lawrence - Katniss Everdeen



The Hunger Games – Gary Ross

This is an intriguing, tense pursuit thriller distinguished from the banal by an impressively assured performance from Jennifer Lawrence. To carry a movie at 21 with relatively little experience has the unmistakable mark of an instinctive actress. Although as Ree in Debra Granik’s bleakly brilliant Winter’s Bone, Lawrence was the emotional epicentre of the film she was surrounded there by strong characterisation and other performances superbly complementary to her own. Here her Hardyesque Katniss Everdeen, proud, fiercely independent beauty is too well drawn, too convincing for either the under-developed characters around her, indeed for the character herself – as written.

That said The Hunger Games is almost manically derivative in form and chaotically inconsistent in content through setting, social structure and emotional dynamics. As a film it is redolent with a sense of déjà vu from Pleasantville(which Ross wrote) The Truman Show, Rollerball, The Running Man and last but not least, Peter Watkins’ disturbing 1971 Punishment Park.

I always think that while critics love to reference other films, it generally pisses off the reader, especially as they may not have seen the films in question and therefore can’t access the point supposedly being made. I mention the above because all but the last have been a feature of generally favourable reviews. (Along with apparently Battle Royale, a Japanese movie made in 2000 which I haven’t seen).

I will try to make clear the relevance of the Watkins movie.

Panem (as in panem et circenses – bread and circuses) is a quasi-Roman State with an Emperor-like ‘President’ Snow (Donald Sutherland having a lot of fun) who true to history, retains his power with diversions to keep the decadent elite submissive. The Gladiatorial combat of ancient Rome is replaced here by the annual Hunger Games in which two representatives from each of 12 slave districts are selected to pay ‘tribute’ through sacrifice by engaging in a pursuit to the death orchestrated as a real reality TV show broadcast live: only one survivor. (Don’t you wishBig Brother was run that way?).

The show’s Director Seneca (advisor to Nero) Crane is aided by, wait for it, Caesar Flickerman (a bewigged Stanley Tucci with a Jedward coiffure and reptilian smile) who winds up audience hysteria in a Panem’s Got Predators style. These 24 lambs are given some survival, killing training before being let loose to slaughter.

When Katniss Everdeen’s (Lawrence) younger sister Primrose is randomly selected to represent Section 12 Katniss volunteers to take her place. She is an ace archer whose poaching in restricted areas (the King’s deer?) means she has forest-craft with which to survive in the woods.

Accompanied by Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) long doe-eyed over her, our feisty Robina Hood is taken to the Capitol where trainer Haymitch Abernathy (a subdued therefore much improved Woody Harrelson) gets drunk to repress his own rebellious instinct which he immediately recognizes and admires mirrored in Katniss.

More a parody than a satire on modern TV and our psyhco-social dependence upon it, our predatory chums are blessed with a style-adviser Cinna played by an engaging, relaxed Lenny Kravitz. Style counts as it attracts sponsors and sponsors fund help within the game. Cinna has black-clad Peeta and Katniss enter the arena with painless flames streaming from their shoulders (are you taking notes Danny Boyle?). (It’s a) Knockout.

Long in the set-up, the The Hunger Games pursuit at last gets under way and the film takes off. Tense, exciting, full of duplicity, cunning and betrayal – the dramatic engine of the movie finally fires up. Ross understands as many Directors do not, how to vary pace to build suspense and Lawrence to her credit plays this tosh absolutely straight investing Katniss with a sense of feminist authenticity that transcends the faintly ludicrous narrative she is required to play out: and a pretty dumb name that sounds like a cat litter.

Katniss the rebel at first appeals to the leaders of this Tellyocracy; but the cynically wise Snow understands as they do not, the threat she represents to the status quo of power. So, unlike their ancient counterparts, these Gladiatorial manipulators screw with the rules to control the outcome. I suppose we might say at the exciting end of what looks like a teen franchise to replace the flagging Twilight concession, honours come out about even. By implication President Snow muttering “you may have a survived a battle little lady but you won’t win the war.”

The Hunger Games demands more than the usual willing suspension of disbelief but once granted delivers a good night at the movies. I suppose we must assume Panem as a post-apocalyptic state as 22nd century glittering TV technology sits side-by-side with Slave Districts looking vaguely feudal in work and social structure. That a modern feminist icon can push the hot buttons of contemporary teens and survive physically and mentally for 24 hours without a mobile phone, also stretches credibility to the limit.

Muddled though this conceptually Lego-bricked construction is, within the scope of its limited aspirations it delivers. But I can’t help feeling that it is infused with a deep but unwitting irony: for The Hunger Games the movie is to its target teen, sorry, young adult audience – precisely what its narrative purports to condemn: bread and circuses come in many forms and those as here, that are subtle and seductive – are no less spirit-sapping than the violent and obvious ones.

We have grotesquely disproportionate youth unemployment across most of the ‘developed’ world underpinning an implacably resistant social and economic inequality, presided over by an aging, self-serving Establishment. Today’s 20-year-olds have lived for half their lives against the backdrop of two bloody, ill-conceived wars – at least one illegal and it is largely their generation dying in them. That film-makers cannot offer young people something more challenging to their rebellious spirit, more rigorously thought through than the subversive victimhood of movie after movie; or this thinly disguised love-will-conquer-all Mills and Bonerism, is as mysterious as it is depressing.

The Sci-Fi Fantasy context, here as usual more Fi than Sci; and distinctly politically safe fantasy at that, distancesthese issues effectively from anything resembling real politics. I understand that the gigantic, fat Turkey that is Hollywood ain’t gonna vote for Christmas, or Thanksgiving but young directors of the past found a way round this. Michael Moore is a pretty thin yield in a world where young Directors should be angry about more than the first weekend’s grosses.

Which brings me back to Punishment Park. In 1971 beset by the Draft, Civil Rights violence and the churning uncertainty of a society whose values they wanted first to question then change, the deeply-committed director Peter Watkins offered this dystopic vision of what would happen if the thinly veiled true feelings of the Establishment were to be openly visited upon the youthful rebels of the day. As an alternative to jail, a motley crew of hippies, draft-dodgers and anti-establisment types take part in a game set in the desert, to capture a designated American Flag. They are accompanied by soldiers who are not supposed to intervene other than to guide them to their destination. If successful, they are set free. The process is filmed throughout. The results are as I remember, deeply disturbing and thought-provoking.

The only link between Punishment Park and The Hunger Games is that both are almost entirely shot in semi-documentary style with hand-held cameras; and broadly the nature of the challenge with which the young people are confronted. The Hunger Games subtly panders and mollifies with an underlying sense of the impotence of defiance: it encourages a way of feeling to survive as an individual in a hostile world. Punishment Park challenges and provokes thought seeding an anger that demands social change for the better.

In a real world where the ubiquity of social media is dismantling traditional structures of news and information systems with the knock-on impact on a democratic system that is failing them, bread and circuses like The Hunger Games are truly fiddling while Rome burns. Our young people need cinema that respects and represents their voice and most of all challenges to think in the kind of way that Punishment Park and other films of the time did 40 years ago.

It isn’t I think mere nostalgia that makes me wonder whether we have not lost something precious in the intervening 41 years: in film as elsewhere.


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