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Satisfied, buzzing. That’s all the audiences say about The Hunger Games full movie 2012:
The audience at Monday’s packed first screening of The Hunger Games full movie came out juiced and satisfied, ready to spread the good word, while all I could think was: They’ve just seen a film in which twenty-plus kids are murdered. Why aren’t they devastated? If the filmmakers had done their job with any courage, the audience would have been both juiced and devastated.
Like tons of others, from preteens to fogeys, I found the first novel of Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games trilogy brilliantly well-written and deeply upsetting: I was shaking when I put it down, haunted both by the carnage and my own complicity in rooting for the deaths of the kids trying to kill the heroine, Katniss Everdeen. The book and its two sequels are set in an unspecified future in which a country — presumably the former United States — is divided into twelve fenced-off districts many miles apart.
Each year, to remind people of its limitless power, a totalitarian government holds a lottery to select two children per district to participate in a killing ritual televised to the masses, complete with pregame ceremonies and beauty-pageant-style interviews. Out of 24 children, only one will live. And we pray it will be Katniss, who volunteers for the games — unprecedentedly — in place of her little sister, the lottery “winner.”
Both the novel and its obvious inspiration, the shocking Japanese film Battle Royale, are cruel as well as kicky: When a child dies, we breathe a sigh of relief that the good guys have one less adversary, but we rarely go, “Yes!” We feel revulsion for this evil ritual and the system that holds it in place, for the government that believes the surest way to guarantee obedience is the sacrifice of children. But if the film’s director, Gary Ross, has qualms about children killing children, he doesn’t share them with the audience. The murders onscreen are quick and, apart from a mean girl stung to death by wasps, clean.
The cutting is so fast that you can barely figure out what’s going on, which has already won Ross praise for his restraint, his tastefulness. Tasteful child-killing! In spite of the body count, the rating is PG-13. Just think: If Ross had made the killings agonizing and tragic — truly horrifying — he’d likely have received an R. But by taking the sting out of death, he has a made a slaughterfest for the whole family. With the exception of sole egregiously lovable character, no one is even mourned or missed.
Ross’s penchant is for showbiz satire, a pleasant enough approach in Pleasantville but ruinous in Seabiscuit, in which a great book about the torturous underbelly of horse racing became a lame, movie-ish period piece. His way of approach to The Hunger Games is hackish and silly.
From the first scene on, the film is all shaky close-ups, so you rarely have a chance to take in the space, and the editing is so fast (three angles when one will do) that you can barely focus. (There were times I wished Katniss would turn her arrow on the camera operator.) As Katniss’s dissolute mentor Haymitch, a former Hunger Games champ, Woody Harrelson has no chance to establish a comic rhythm — or, more important, disgust at the system he’s now a party to. The book’s most fascinating, mercurial character, the costume designer Cinna, is now a blandly nice guy played by the agreeable but dull non-actor Lenny Kravitz.
Watching The Hunger Games, I was impressed both by how wittily Ross hit his marks and how many chances he was missing to take the movie to the next level — to make it more shocking, lyrical, insane, daring. A highlight of the book is how Cinna uses his showbiz savvy to make the reluctant Katniss — who can’t conceal her loathing of the decadence and inhumanity of the conspicuously consumptive District 1 — a star, the center of the pre–Hunger Games pageant. But in the film, her entrance in an outfit that’s literally in flames is so poorly screened you can’t savor her triumph.
Ross throws away what could be a startling image of child warriors rising out of tubes to face one another in a semicircle, each knowing that he or she might have seconds to live. The novel’s most unnerving detail, that a pack of man-eating synthetic mutts have the eyes of murdered children, is inexplicably left out: Now they’re just generic beasts.
The Hunger Games has two great assets: the score by James Newton Howard, which manages to be at once thrilling and plaintive, and the Katniss of Jennifer Lawrence. The actress is not a conventionally chiseled Hollywood ingenue or a trained action star. But there’s a steadiness in her blue eyes that makes her riveting. She brings the same grim self-containment to Katniss that she had as Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone — and she looks mighty good with a bow and arrow. Without words, J-Law makes it clear that Katniss’s mission is not simply to stay alive but to hold on to her humanity at all costs.
A few other actors register despite the speed-freak editing. Josh Hutcherson has an impressive, sorrowful countenance as Katniss’s partner District 12 contestant Peeta, and there are entertaining performances by Stanley Tucci in a blue bouffant as a talk-show host; Wes Bentley in a manicured, black-fungus beard as the Games’ high-tech coordinator; and Donald Sutherland in a white mane as the demonic lion of a president.
I loved the jumping back and forth between Katniss and The Hunger Games control room, where competitors are watched and special effects — fireballs, rampaging dog monsters — are devised and dispatched. (The book is told from Katniss’s perspective, so we’re not privy to the government’s machinations.) Scenes of Katniss running through the woods, the canopy of trees above her streaking by, awaken her heightened fight-or-flight instincts — one of the few examples in which Ross’s visual strategy fits the characters’ emotions.
Back to the audience: satisfied, buzzing. The Hunger Games full movie will no doubt break box-office records, and I am sure the majority of its audience will like it and love (for good reason) Jennifer Lawrence. But where is the pervasive, lingering sense of loss? Where is the terror? Maybe the real horror is how easily the film goes down.