Before I review “The Hunger Games,” I want to promise my readers that I won’t accuse this film of ripping off the Japanese thriller “Battle Royale.”
I also want to assure the fans of the young adult novel by Suzanne Collins that I am one of you. Despite the seemingly random appearance of werewolves and the author’s frequent use of the word “stuff” as a catchall wonder-noun, I enjoyed the book a great deal because of its engaging, tough as nails female protagonist and potent theme that love and creation are far more challenging in this world than hate and destruction.
That said, I completely hated this movie. Its greatest failure comes from the fact that in trying to cram all of the plot details of a 384 page book into a 142 minute film, they rushed through the story, omitting its meaning as well as the reasons that made me care about the characters so much.
There’s no need to recount the plot as I’m certain most surface dwellers already know it by heart, but a crucial difference between the book and the film is the timespan in which the titular child-on-child televised bloodsport takes place. In Collins’ novel, the Hunger Games that Katniss Everdeen endures is no less than a two-week ordeal and surviving it requires our hero to be put through the wringer. She’s burned, she’s dehydrated, she’s stung by mutated bees with trippy LSD stinger venom, she loses her hearing in one ear, she watches a close ally die like a stuck pig, she watches another ally lose his leg to savage dog-beasts, and she gets cut in the face by a sadistic opponent. That she endures all of these setbacks and still manages to emerge from the Games with some shred of her humanity intact is something to applaud.
The Hunger Games that Katniss must endure in the film seems trivial by comparison. Katniss (played by Jennifer Lawrence) endures no more than three days of PG-13 rated turmoil and emerges co-victor with her District 12 buddy Peeta (played by the miscast Josh Hutcherson). Even worse, the movie omits the detail that concluded the novel so deftly: That Katniss is unsure of her true feelings for Peeta and only pretended to love him during the Games in an attempt to curry favor with the live TV audience.
Why would director and co-writer Gary Ross leave out this detail, which sets up the main conflict for the entire series? Were they worried it would alienate mainstream audiences? My guess is that the financiers who ponied up the cash for this film wanted to play it safe – the same strategy behind the movie’s key offense.
By choosing to play it safe, the film was clearly shot with a more commercial PG-13 rating in mind. Problem is, this is a story about children who are forced to kill each other with knives, arrows, blunt objects, and swords. Collins knew this when she wrote the book. She spares few visceral details when her child combatants meet their gruesome ends.
In shying – or cutting – away from the cruelty and savagery of their actions, Ross’ film takes the terrible act of children forced to murder other children and does something unforgivable by making it look casual. Brazilian filmmaker Fernando Meirelles understood this risk when he made his unflinching child gang war epic “City of God.” I can imagine right now that there are children reenacting the events from “The Hunger Games” as if they were ‘fun’ and ‘cool,’ thus replicating the worldview of the soulless Capitol dwellers from Collins’ novel.
This is why I can’t say that “The Hunger Games” is a rip-off of the superior “Battle Royale.” Despite the Japanese thriller’s tongue in cheekiness, there’s a pervasive awareness throughout the film that what is taking place is one of the most horrible scenarios ever imagined. Part of this has to do with the film’s special effects makeup, which is gory without feeling exploitive. The bigger reason the games in “Battle Royale” seem horrible has to do with Fukasaku’s insistence that we view his combatants as more than just pieces in a game, they are fully realized characters with back stories and hidden motivations for their behavior onscreen.
With “The Hunger Games,” it seems that characters are a luxury, something the filmmakers cannot afford to give us as we quickly leap from one plot point to the next. And while Peeta’s ultimate desire is to be more than just a piece in this heartless game, the real tragedy of this cinematic failure is that this is all he’s allowed to be.