The Little Epic that Couldn't



"When you're young," Pauline Kael noted, "the odds are very good that you'll find something to enjoy in almost any movie." Luckily, The Hunger Games is marketing to youth, and Lions Gate Entertainment is successful so far. A triumph of publicity. Thursday's midnight screening garnered over $25 million and this Friday morning, the 10 AM screening I attended was basically sold out.

The film, for those not connected to the current cultural zeitgeist, is based upon the first novel of Suzanne Collins's highly engaging trilogy about a dystopian United States where 24 teenagers from 12 impoverished zones are forced to battle each other to death for the enjoyment of the frivolous ruling class. Only one will be allowed to be victor. 

But where the phenomenally successful books inflame the imagination with the bravado of their spirited 16-year-old feminist heroine, Katniss Everdeen, and her growing realization that she has the power to inspire others to throw off their chains, the film's take on the matter rarely rises above indifference.

The basic problems stem from director Gary Ross's lackluster direction and his witless, bare-bones screenplay, co-written with author Collins and Billy Ray. This is sort of a take on a classic. You get the characters and the plot basics, but the art is missing. And without the art and the details of Katniss's world, you are stuck with characters just going through the motions of an epic tale. The evolving mental and emotional states of the leads and especially their coterie are given extremely short shrift.

Sometimes the casting here makes up for the loss. The two major supporting characters of the book, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), Katniss's mentor, and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), her clothing designer, are pale versions of their text counterparts, only registering a bit because Harrelson and Kravitz are themselves impossible to ignore.

But Liam Hemsworth as Gale Hawthorne, Katniss's true first love, is dreadful in a part that's been greatly reduced. It as if he has wandered in off the set of The Brady Bunch.

Luckily, Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss and Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellar, Katniss's counterpart teen fighter from District 12, do make you care as much as they can. They have the chops, or in Hutcherson's case the puppy-dog looks.

But what's possibly more oddly dispiriting about The Hunger Games than its screenplay is that the visual elements of Collins's world are created in such a threadbare manner. You've seen better sets on American Idol. From the costumes to the makeup to the special effects, all are supplied on the cheap -- or look that way. Well, what can you expect with a $78 million budget?

On the plus side, if the film causes even more folks to read The Hunger Games -- a sort of a panoramic Lord of the Flies meets Survivor meets The Powerpuff Girls with a dash of Machiavelli -- no harm is done. Collins has created a lucid love story that struggles to survive in a totalitarian, media-manipulating, capitalistic society gone awry. A young, wise woman is the hero, and that is something always to applaud.