[26 March 2012]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
No one expected such a result. Even with comparisons to Twilight and the inevitable weakness of the late March release weekend, few in the pundit biz could have anticipated the final tally. Indeed, when all is said and accounted for, The Hunger Games will wind up holding the distinction of having the third largest three day weekend box office total EVER! Only The Dark Knight and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 rank higher. With $155 million in the till and a few more records among its accomplishments, it signals the start of a very lucrative franchise for the gamblers at Lionsgate. Even if the 30 March numbers see a significant drop-off (say, somewhere in the 60% range), we are still looking at a movie that stands to make almost $250 million in less than ten days.
But what does it mean? What exactly does tapping into an already established teen lit phenon cultural zeitgeist really reflect? One could easily argue that, with a presold demo and an aesthetic consensus (the movie did well with critics, generally), a hit was bound to happen. Yet when you look at all the other wounded wannabes sitting in discount bins around the world, the Lemony Snickets and Eragons of the book-to-film universe, one has to wonder how Hunger did it. Of course, the core concept promised something scandalous and sensational, but as it turns out, the narrative is really not about kids killing kids. Even the comparison to Battle Royale no longer seem legitimate since, some foundational elements aside, both efforts have different philosophical aims.
No, it appears that, like Harry Potter or Stephanie Meyer’s spangled bloodsuckers, Suzanne Collins’ inconsistent dystopia captured some legitimate lightning in a bottle. In light of our current political clime, with reform masquerading as Tea Party evangelism, the set-up for Games seems wholly understandable. As a matter of fact, while watching the film, it’s easy to see a hidden message regarding the treatment of the have nots by the harlequin haute couture haves. Granted, we are talking about a near century of legalized murder, made all the more meaningful since it is the youth of this fragile nation known as Panem suffering for their sins. The whole backstory (civil war, District punishment, etc.) could use some clarification, but who couldn’t identify, in 2012, with an out of control Establishment victimizing the disenfranchised.
And then there is Jennifer Lawrence. That Oscar sitting on Natalie Portman’s mantle really belongs to the up and coming superstar. She was amazing in Winter’s Bone and made many a fanboy forget Ms. Rebecca Romijn-Whatever with her portrayal of Mystique in X-Men, First Class. Showing she is more than capable of carrying an entire movie on her fetching 21-year-old shoulders, she really sold the situation for Katniss Everdeen and her fellow competitors. Even without knowing who the other 20 something entries really are, Lawrence used her eyes and her expressions to invest the actual Games with a kind of universal melancholy. Even amid all the violence and action, she never lost sight of her original sacrifice and the pain it cost her.
Several critics have pointed out that, unlike previous attempts at jumpstarting a successful film series out of a collection of celebrated novels (Percy Jackson, Cirque du Freak), both Twilight and Games feature female protagonists. As a matter of fact, the movies seems centered on those age old adages of empowerment and gender equality. Like the current trends in pop music where rabid teen fandom - almost exclusive female - makes Justin Bieber and Katy Perry chart topping champions, media geared toward the tentative Tiger Beat marketplace seems like a solid bet. Indeed, Mr. Potter is, so far, the only boy lead that seems to have overcome the whole “you go girl” guarantee.
Of course, for those behind the scenes, the massive weekend take is both a blessing and a curse. Already ready to take on the next book in the series (Catching Fire) with director Gary Ross behind the lens, expectations have gone from huge to nuclear. Remember, the first Twilight film was pretty well panned by most film journalists. It wasn’t until the third entry in the series that many in the media gave the franchise a judgmental break. Now, with success both commercially and artistically right up front, the stakes are even higher. Some are even suggesting a lack of legs with The Hunger Games material. Indeed, once the ‘novelty’ wears off, finding ways to keep the franchise in the public eye will be even harder. Remember - success is almost always measured by those you can capture outside the already converted.
Naturally, none of this quells the enthusiasm in the industry about such a risk so richly rewarded. One can easily see meetings happening all over Tinseltown, each one centering on how they can get their hands on the next big young adult obsession. As assistants Google for successful YA novels and phone calls are made to cooperative literary agents, some still unknown writers are going to get paid…and paid well. Their imaginations will be fleeced for some fleeting attempt to play catch-up, the end results being another turnstile bonanza…or a collection of Spiderwick Chronicles. As Drew McWeeney over at Hitflix pointed out, we are living in the age of fan driven entertainment. If everything is done right, the results are bankable. When they are not, the “fantrums” begin.
That being said, few will be foaming over The Hunger Games...that is, until the next installment is actually ready to go. Then the same level of teeth gnashing and hand wringing will accompany the mandatory “wait and see.” With the memory of so many millions still resonating up and down the halls, few will allows anything remotely resemble a chance or challenge. Instead, one can almost guarantee a nice, knowing adaptation (or as one commenter called it - “vanilla pudding that tastes nothing like vanilla or pudding”) without risk or the desire to deviate from the prearranged product. After all, when one is starring such huge success in the face, it’s impossible to ignore the bottom line. In the case of The Hunger Games, reaching such a magic number means more to come…and perhaps less to care about.