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The Hunger Games…you know, for kids!

Prologue:

We are in the emergency room cursing the patient art of applying plastered gauze to broken bones. I, in the literal sense. For my 10-year-old daughter, it is all in her eyes.

Screw it. Kids are kids. Any given day of play that is worth a damn brings with it the risk of broken bones, necks, and general destruction. Today we are victims of our own impatience and a careless game of tag. Not that we are usually the kind given to anger for such incidental schoolyard mishaps. This day is special. Should our cards be played right and the traffic in our favor, we will be in San Antonio, an hour-and-a-half drive from an advance press screening of The Hunger Games.

My little one holds out her arm far enough as to make sure that remnants from the wet plaster do not drip on her Hunger Games shirt. I smile a little. Given the nature of the situation, I feel bad for her pain and applaud her tenacity. I still can’t ignore the beauty of a casted-up 10 year old taking in a world that sees children battle each other to the death. She’s my victorious little tribute. As Slug would say – “When life gives you lemons, paint that shit gold.”

Going through The Hunger Games series was an opportunity to bond with this young woman that I still struggle to understand. She forms bonds with friends full of emotion and petty bickering, sprinkled with sleepovers. This is much different than my own experience with me, my friends and cousins beating the hell out of each other only to get back to the righteous business of trading action figures and mix tapes the following day. Given our own personal attachment to The Hunger Games, I have no idea how I might tackle this piece, but hopefully it will work.

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Having now seen The Hunger Games – twice – I have come to the conclusion that there is no conventional way for me to review this film. To be fair to the film, the readers of the first book, and the readers of the entire series, I am basically going to have to write two reviews/discussions:

Part 1: For those who have never read the book.

Part 2: For those who have read the books.

Feel free to jump ship at will. The more you read, the more secrets you will uncover. If you are not spoiler averse, soldier through. It might be fun. I’m kinda winging it here and I know you’re all smart enough to keep up.

Also, comment as you see fit. I’m hoping this will be a discussion piece.

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Part 1: The Hunger Games Virgins – If you have never read the book.

The actual moment of inspiration for the trilogy came when I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and news coverage of the war in Iraq. One night I’m sitting there flipping around. On one channel there is a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money. And on the next, there is a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way and I thought of Katniss’s story.” – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games was born in a half dream/half lucid channel-flipping session on Suzanne Collins’ couch. Somewhere between reality TV moments and kids fighting in Iraq was born the story of a child at war in a game-like scenario.

Much is given to the comparison of Battle Royale and Running Man to this particular piece, which is unfortunate. The basic story of The Hunger Games has its similarities to these films, but we can play the “who copied who” game all the way back to the Grecian stories of Theseus and the Roman tales of Spartacus. This is what the writer intended, but the argument itself is a turn-off, if for no other reason than critics of this storyline fail to see the similarities in stories that have been told from generation to generation for CENTURIES! No joke…I’m talking BC era shit. In a world where comic book titles repeat themselves ad nauseam and the only argument to be had is, “Who makes the better Joker, Nicholson or Ledger?”* It serves no real purpose for discussion and is a tremendous distraction from the real discussion: Is this a good film?

Yes, it is a good film. No, it is not a great film.

The strength of the film lies solely on the shoulders of its protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, as played by Jennifer Lawrence. Not that her character, Katniss, as written for the film, is anything special. Actually, it almost feels as if large amounts of her charisma and intelligence were ripped away to make room for the already hefty 2.5-hour runtime. More than anything, it gives us a chance to revisit one of the great performances of the last decade in Jennifer Lawrence’s often touted Winter’s Bone. For those that have not seen this gem, it basically involves a young lady from the mountain country that is sent on a brutal journey that leads to nothing but violent pain and loss for the sole purpose of saving her siblings and mother – motives no different than those in The Hunger Games, minus one sibling. Her character in Winter’s Bone, Ree Dolly, is Katniss with real shit to deal with.

I want to reiterate, this is not a slight to The Hunger Games; this was genius casting. Jennifer Lawrence was born to play this part. She has played this part. She is District 12 – “bread and buttered.” She approaches the role with the reluctant strength it deserves. The difference between her role in The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone is that we are never given the opportunity to fall in love with her in The Hunger Games. We see her interact with her family, but we never see her struggle before the games.

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta and Liam Hemsworth as Gale

Unfortunately, she is not the only one that suffers from this lack of attention. Her love interests are little more than pretty faces. Liam Hemsworth’s Gale plays his part like a backwoods Jake Ryan. Tall, dark and handsome, but rather “wuss-like” for lack of a better word. Josh Hutcherson, as Peeta, fills out the rest of the amorous triumvirate, with a little more personality, but with no actual motive other than to “take care of Katniss.” For the ladies out there, this guy would be “just a friend” – Ducky with a knack for painting cakes (yes, he really is a baker!).

The one scene where we should have seen some real emotional resonance is the death of a little girl, who is extremely cute and likable. Rue is the essence of innocence: A 12 year old with a full life ahead of her, adorned with flowers on her death bed and a quiet, but playful disposition that screams “CARE FOR ME!” But, that is the problem. We can’t. We don’t know you. We want to know you. We just haven’t been given the opportunity.

The ultimate tragedy of every war film ever made is the loss of youth. We can throw this around in a figurative or literal sense, but it’s all the same. The young die and the few that make it through live, but without their innocence intact. This reality is lacking in the film. So much is made of the violence in the film that the general movie-going public sincerely believed that this would be action packed. It’s not. It’s true that children die in the film, but none of the deaths are particularly graphic by today’s standards and they die in short, quick bursts. It’s a lot of “hurry up and wait.” It looks gritty and immediate, but feels sedate and restrained.

If you really want to see the film, go into this with the expectation of watching a tremendous performance of a CliffsNotes presentation of your favorite story. That is basically what this is. A slow CliffsNotes cut.

I’m not the least bit surprised that the film is rated PG-13. It comes by the rating honestly. It’s an intense family film with kids killing each other. Put a wand in each of their hands and the controversy would melt away. Place the instruments of death in the hands of an adult, and you would have yourself an R.

If you have never picked up the book, check out a matinee. It’s worth that much and your slightly older kids might love you for it. As for the younger ones, leave ‘em at home. Not that they should be disturbed by the violence. They will just be bored.

*The correct answer is Ledger.

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Part 2: The Hunger Games Enthusiasts – For those that have read the books

The spark that inspired The Hunger Games trilogy, its significant influence would have to be, the Greek myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The myth tells how in punishment for past deeds, Athens periodically had to send seven youths and seven maidens to Crete where they were thrown in the labyrinth and devoured by the monstrous Minotaur. Theseus, who is the son of the king, volunteered to go. I guess in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus…While the details are different, the three essential elements remain:

1.) You have a ruthless government, that…

2.) forces people to fight to the death as….

3.) a form of popular entertainment.” – Suzanne Collins

I feel like I’ve been pretty damn hard on this film. I would like to sincerely make sweeping odes of impartiality and absence of bias, but that would be a lie. Myself, like many others have lived with this tale for quite a while. At the time I first sat down to share these books with my daughter, I was looking for something with edge, but fairly safe. The major theme in the films and books that I try to expose my daughter to usually play rather adult. She likes stories with women that kick ass and I encourage it. Given the current state of films that show women as overly emotional, dramatic beings whose sole motivation in life is catching a boyfriend, keeping him, and dodging the fallout of gossip, the story of one woman against 23 others trying to take her life seemed perfect for us. It’s not Kill Bill, but it would do.

Having now seen the movie, I can reluctantly say that maybe this book was not as perfect for adaptation as I thought it would be. The book isn’t exactly dense, but it might have benefited from an extra 30 minutes in service to the full story, but then the film would’ve felt only that much longer and slower. The real failure of this film is the lack of insight into the mind of Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen.

In the book, Katniss is always one step ahead of everyone except Cinna. The game creators, the Capitol, Peeta, and even Haymitch (most of the time) all had to deal with the fallout from her dubious plans at one time or another. She plays to the emotion of Capitol and District audiences with such ease that you can’t help but root for her from chapter to chapter. The problem with bringing such a beautifully written character to the screen is that most of her battles are won internally. In the book, you can follow these thought processes and applaud their logic. On the big screen, you can’t do it. It’s just not engaging. Gary Ross could’ve attempted voice over, but Suzanne Collins’ writing is not exactly the best suited for this treatment.

Maybe if this were a four/five episode HBO, Starz or A&E miniseries, all of this could have been addressed. It’s probable we could have had more Haymitch, more Cinna and more Rue, but that’s neither here nor there. In the film as it stands – the one you pay $10 a piece for – it’s a problem.

I hope there is another cut floating around. Something that fills out a little bit more of not only the characters, but the Districts. Other than a brief pre-revolutionary moment in District 11, the makeup of the rest of the entire country of Panem was an afterthought. Again, not a place to inspire empathy to the other Districts that are sending tributes to die. This is a major misstep, considering that much of the next two films will rely on our ability to care for those who live outside of District 12.

Surprisingly, much has been made about the political leanings of the book and film – That it might reflect on our time. An anti-elitist (read: liberal) message aimed at the excesses of today’s corporate power mongers. This really surprises me given that the series seems to go out of its way to be politically agnostic. In one book, throwing thinly veiled social critiques at the wealthy capitol, but then later, making even harsher judgements of the semi-communist alternatives of (spoiler alert) District 13.

The film does little to raise any discussion at all. The small bit of revolution we do see seems no more than an afterthought.

If I were predicting, and I am, I would say that they are going to do everything they can to focus on the kills and stay away from the meat of the message, which is too bad. If there is anything our kids could use, it is a little revolution.

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Epilogue:

Sitting on the couch typing out this short review. The Godfather on the screen. Kiddo on the couch. I can’t help but wonder what she might think of the movie given a few days to absorb everything.

So, I ask…

“Sweetheart. What did you think of The Hunger Games? Really. Be honest.”

“I LOVED IT!”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

“If you had to choose between The Hunger Games and Kill Bill for an action movie, which would you choose?”

“Nothing against the The Hunger Games, but I would choose Kill Bill.”

“What about between The Hunger Games and Sucker Punch?”

“Ugh. Sucker Punch.”

“So, what’s your favorite movie then?

The Hunger Games! Easy.”

Can’t convince everyone.