[21 November 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
It’s purported to be the next Twilight, a young adult literary sensation making the leap to the large screen. Some are even hinting at Harry Potter like crossover appeal with Stephen King actually singing the praises of the series. Still, if fans know to be wary of anything, it’s the concept that Hollywood will actually treat their favorite book or fictional series with any artistic or aesthetic respect. Leave it to Lionsgate to give it a try with Suzanne Collins’ beloved Hunger Games. Currently ramping up the hype machine for a March 2012 release, the latest in prerelease promotion saw a trailer rolled out last week… and the snickers of sour disappointment already beginning.
There is no denying that Gary Ross can handle this material. His skill as both a writer (Big, Dave) and director (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) argues for his handle of scope and concept. True, he is not the scribe here. That is being left up to Ms. Collins herself, and with her tenure in kid’s TV (Clarissa Explains It All, The Mystery Files of Shelby Woo) she seems perfect to realize her own ambitions. The casting also boasts a cross section of cultural knowns, including Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Josh Hutcherson, and perhaps most importantly, Oscar-nominee Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) as the main protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.
So everything is in place for a big fat hit - right? Interesting actors… quality behind the lens… fabulously popular piece of fiction…it should all fall into place with perfect commercial credentials… correct? Well, if the trailer is any indication of its potential, The Hunger Games is going to have some issues that may be impossible to overcome. Aside from the production design, which appears to be borrowed from a dainty draft of Darren Lynn Bousman’s Repo: The Genetic Opera and a Postman-meets post-apocalyptic claptrap feel in the third act, the narrative itself appears lifted from a lengthy collection of previously produced items. In fact, Collins was criticized by many for allegedly borrowing her ideas from Koushun Takami’s brilliant Battle Royale (an accusation she’s vehemently denied).
Looking over the plot points, we have a sectioned off society (list any previous sci-fi effort, from Rollerball to Woody Allen’s Sleeper) that requires its children to be sacrificed in the name of the communal great good (ala Shirley Jackson’s The Lottery). The concept of choice - a survivalist contest known as The Hunger Games (though it could easily be called The Long Walk, The Running Man, or… Battle Royale). There, a kill or be killed mentality applies, though readers of the book know that The Capital, a dystopian entity which controls this future world, can provide gifts and favors from sponsors, as well as manipulating the results to win favorable audience ratings (just like the Death Race update, or any number of reality as TV types).
Now granted, there is nothing wrong with a familiar concept handled well. Indeed, Mr. King (whose done at least two of these kinds of efforts under the pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’) seems to particularly like Ms. Collins’ take. But awareness also breeds disdain, too much recognition guaranteeing that at least some in the audience will be aggravated, not awe struck. Like Stephanie Meyers, a mediocre horror romance scribe who prayed no one had read (or even heard of) Anne Rice before she decided to turn vampires into tortured souls for spinsters and soccer moms everywhere, Collins clearly believes she is setting up a whole new generation who haven’t see The Most Dangerous Game or Logan’s Run and won’t recognize it in her merchandised mishmash.
Now, no one is accusing Ms. Collins of being completely devoid of originality (well, except for a certain Japanese author) and she clearly has struck a chord with young readers everywhere. While not quite in the league of someone like J. K. Rowling, The Hunger Games books, as well as the author’s first series, The Underland Chronicles, have made her a bit for a medium celebrity. Movies, on the other hand, have to walk a more perilous path. A novel can sink into the mire of one’s mental theater without ever hitting a recognizable risk. Our brains just work that way. Once you have to visualize things in actuality, the concept of familiarity becomes a cinematic shortcut - thus breeding contempt.
From the moment a clownish Ms. Banks does her dopey diva bit, a sense of desperation fills the trailer’s air. Just like turning neckbiters into sparkly Romeos or reducing werewolves to ab-scratching boy toys, The Hunger Games trailer turns evil both actual and implied into a carnival and endurance into an extension of the early X-Men franchise (just check out the wardrobe the participants are forced to wear). Instead of using vision to invent a post-America world where class and corruption leave visible scars, and one-upmanship has been redefined as philosophical sacrifice, the initial look of this freakshow future shock is decidedly anticlimactic. It’s a combination of camp and theme park impressions.
As the viewer counts off the copies one by one, as they think back to when they first encountered a cinematic social structure where the powerful plague the destitute in order to torment them for their own amusement, a basic sci-fi truism slaps us square in the face - we’ve seen this all before. The Hunger Games can’t claim ownership to the ideas it is borrowing from, but at the very least, it could be a bit more reverent when it tries to re-imagine them. Sure, we’ve yet to see the completed work, and some of the highlights hinted at in the preview can be successfully expanded into something audiences of every inkling can get behind. But it may never be able to overcome the stink of sameness.
There is always the fear, however, that Ross and Company will simply sit down with the tome and illustrate it, page by page, scene by scene, in order to keep the faithful happy. When the Twilight saga attempted it, the result became some of the most profitable bad movies ever made. Having a lot of potential is one thing. The Hunger Games has more than prospective to overcome if it hopes to be more than a well-made memory of the books. So far, the first glimpse fails such a litmus test.