|Artemis lives: Jennifer Lawrence flexes in The Hunger Games|
* * * The Hunger Games. Written by Gary Ross, Suzanne Collins & Billy Ray. Directed by Gary Ross.
Once upon a time “young adult” books lived in a ghetto—a niche market of fantasy, adventure and cautionary tales for ‘tweeners and young teens not yet in the coveted 18-24 year old demographic. Perhaps it was Harry Potter, or perhaps just the inevitable next step in the juvenilization of American culture, but those days are long gone. The Twilight series regularly tops The New York Times bestseller list. J.K. Rowling’s books occupy no fewer than seven of the top ten spots in USA Today’s list of the 150 bestselling books of the last 15 years. (Pity poor Dan Brown by comparison, who nominally writes for adults yet ranks only #3 and #13.) Suzanne Collins’ teen survival epic The Hunger Games has sold more than 24 million copies just in the US. Gary Ross’ movie version of Games just recorded the third-best opening weekend in movie history, at $155 million. “Young adult” is not just out of the ghetto now, it is mainstream.
These big numbers are driven not just by sales to kids. Collin’s book is pretty grim material—the story of Katniss, a 16 year-old girl living in a dystopian future where most of the population of “what is left of North America” are enslaved, and 24 teenagers are forced to fight to the death in an annual televised reality show called The Hunger Games. For anyone old enough to be dead in Logan’s Run, reading the book brings on a regular series of responses. Stage One is recognition of the many obvious sources of material for Collins’ premise—Survivor, The Most Dangerous Game, Gladiator, Logan’s Run, The Truman Show, Lord of the Flies, Rollerball, at least one episode of the original Star Trek. Stage Two is dismay at the threadbare prose, which has the feel of a movie treatment more than a full-fledged novel, with language that is decidedly not from the upper slopes of Mount Parnassus (“You could hear a pin drop,” she writes. “I’m biting my nails like there’s no tomorrow.”) But then comes Stage Three, absorption, because Collins’ plot has such enormous momentum it is physically impossible not to turn the pages. After devouring it, the reader at last enters Stages Four, acceptance—followed perhaps by awe at the commercial juggernaut Collins has unleashed.
Like the makers of Watchmen a couple of years ago, Ross (Seabiscuit) seems to have made the movie version of Hunger Games half-gazing over his shoulder, as if worried the slightest departure from “canon” will be punished by its fans. And indeed, the virtues of the movie match those of the book—the engrossing, hurtling plot and likeable heroine offsetting the derivative premise and under-imagined setting. As Katniss, a teen from the coal-lands of Appalachia forced to grow up early, Kentucky-born Jennifer Lawrence is perfectly cast, for she played a virtually identical character in Winter’s Bone in 2010. Her modesty and anti-glamor, which give all signs of not being an act, give Games more heart than most spring blockbusters I can remember.
This being election season, it’s tempting to interpret how this movie will be read politically. The Hunger Games are staged by Katniss’ overlords in the Capitol, whom Collins and Ross portray as supercilious ninnies living off the honest labor of the working-class Districts. The actor playing “Effie Trinket”, for instance, appears under so much pancake makeup, periwigged and perched on such high and tiny heels, she’s barely recognizable as Elizabeth Banks. Such freaks can be read as the bogies of either end of the political spectrum: for conservatives, the Capitol obviously represents the class of rich, out-of-touch government regulators, living it up inside the Beltway. On the Left, meanwhile, they might be read as the Wall Street 1%, living large on the rules they have rigged for their own benefit. All that sounds like a wash—except for one small but telling detail: when Katniss and her team-mate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) are whisked from District 12 (Appalachia) to the Capitol (somewhere in Rockies), they go not on a plane, which obviously would be fastest, but by high-speed rail. You know—the kind of train Obama wants to build, but Republican governors from Wisconsin to Florida have refused as big-government boondoggles. If you heard that dog-whistle, you just might be a Tea Party “patriot”.
Much of the Games-related scuttlebutt in the Twitterverse is over on the question “Do kids really kill kids in this movie?” Yes, Virginia, they indeed do, and sometimes with extreme prejudice. In a post-Columbine world, this may have a more ominous ring than Collins intended. While there are bloodier movies around, and I sincerely doubt many kids will be tempted to stage Hunger Games of their own, this movie deserves its PG-13 rating. Best keep the smaller Tributes at home until they’re of age.
© 2012 Nicholas Nicastro