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Review

ʻThe Hunger Gamesʼ has the odds in its favor

Michael Brun

March 30, 2012

There were several times while watching “The Hunger Games” when I asked myself, “Wait, what?”

As a total novice to the “Hunger” mythos, I went into this movie with only a basic understanding of the plot— teenagers from a dystopian future being randomly picked to fight to the death in a twisted reality show.

The Hunger Games movie poster
The Hunger Games stars Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson as teenagers in a strange future where they are chosen to fight to the death.

That much I had down; but, I was not prepared for all of the rules governing the contest.

More than one third of this nearly two and half hour movie is devoted to explaining the rules of the Hunger Games. The competitors, called tributes, are randomly selected for their death sentence by raffle, conjuring images of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”

From here they are whisked away by maglev train to the Capitol, a bizarre cityscape as imagined by Marilyn Manson or Lady Gaga.

The unlucky tributes from the impoverished mining settlement of District 12 are Katniss and Peeta, played by Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson respectively. The lavishness of the Capitol is alien to the teens, who treasure a piece of bread as a rare commodity.

Orientating the District 12 tributes to the rules of the game are an eclectic mix of actors, including Woody Harrelson, Lenny Kravitz and a nearly unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks hiding behind a slathering of white makeup. The trio serves as mentors not only to Katniss and Peeta, but to the audience as well.

Although not as overt as in movies like “The Running Man,” criticism of reality television is an obvious theme in “The Hunger Games.”

As such, I would like to use “American Idol” as a point of reference. Granted, “Idol” is not about bloodshed, but I think the rituals behind the show parallel those of the Hunger Games.

Imagine trying to explain “American Idol” to someone from ancient Rome. There would be some common ground to make comparisons—it is like the Colosseum, only for singing—but the Roman would not have an appreciation for the cultural aspects of the show.

Rituals like laughing at the bad auditions, or tuning in only to listen to Simon Cowell’s blunt remarks, would likely be lost on an outsider. That is how I felt while watching “The Hunger Games.” Like the hypothetical Roman above, I was an outsider. The movie presents its complex world as-is, with only scraps of information for viewers to piece together the full picture.

I found the experience challenging, but in the most entertaining sense. “The Hunger Games” does not cater to the lowest common denominator; rather, it presents just enough exposition to drive the plot, while leaving room for viewers to analyze and interpret meaning and significance.

Perhaps readers of the source novel will experience it differently, but this movie set my imagination on fire.

Like the “American Idol” auditions, the pre-combat scenes offer a strange mix of emotion. There is a sense of wonderment and discovery, but it is contrasted by overbearing dread. As the competing tributes are introduced—like the unreasonably cute Rue, played by 13-year-old Amanda Stenberg—I could not help but smile.

But in the back of my mind I knew these characters would be cut by the end of the movie. And unlike “American Idol,” this means being murdered, maybe even by our heroes.

By the time the mortal combat gets underway, I was sufficiently sold on the premise of the “The Hunger Games.” I had become invested in the characters, and was genuinely interested to see how Katniss would navigate through such an impossible situation. Would she kill her friends to win? Or would she take death as an alternative to murder?

Then the movie lost me.

Without giving away too much of the story, the rules of the game—which audiences just spent over an hour struggling to understand—are tossed out the window at the last minute to keep Katniss from having to make the hard decision.

Minor flaws like shoddy computer-generated attack dogs are easy to overlook considering the movie’s relatively modest budget, but such a major cop-out from the basic premise of the plot left a sour aftertaste to an otherwise enjoyable experience.

That said, if “The Hunger Games” is what passes as young-adult entertainment nowadays, then I am pleased. This is heartfelt, high-concept science fiction that will challenge viewers to think about making hard choices—even if the characters get to skate around them for now. Bring on part two.

Michael Brun is an alumnus of UW-River Falls.