Saturday, 31 March 2012

Exposure: "The Hunger Games"

"You really want to know how to stay alive? You get people to like you."
- Haymitch Abernathy.

The advice being proferred by one of the mentors to the teenage heroes in Suzanne Collins' book The Hunger Games applies only too well to its young-adult readership's passage through high school. Yet these could equally be the watchwords of producers attempting to launch and sustain a successful franchise in a depressed movie marketplace still pining for Potter and clinging to what's left of the Twilight series. (Hey, it's not as though we're likely to see John Carter Returns any time soon.) The premise - in a decadent future world, a reality television phenomenon sends teens out to the woods to battle one another to the death - could scarcely be any more zeitgeisty, or eye-catching, or jolting, in theory: as recent dispatches from the British censor have made apparent, the film risked incurring a commercially risky 15 certificate before its distributors toned down its violence, making nice with the audience.

The mentor's final words before sending these kids out into the wilds are: "Make sure they remember you." Is The Hunger Games memorable? Well, these are early days for the franchise: I couldn't predict from their respective first instalments how disillusioned I would come to grow with the Harry Potter series, or - conversely - how I would warm to the later Twilight movies in the face of all rational judgement. Still, for all the hype and hoopla it has thus far generated, HG1 struck me as a rather humdrum, unexceptional, business-as-usual proposition, stymied by the standard first-film problem of having to set out the rules of the game before it can get round to the action, but also by a more general sense that it's been thrown together, altogether too hastily, to fill a gap in the market.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of individual films, the Potter and Twilight franchises presented their audience with unified, coherent worlds. The Hunger Games takes place in a bric-a-brac universe, throwing into the mix feudalism (Jennifer Lawrence's heroine Katniss is introduced stalking a deer with bow and arrow), Stalinist brutalism (the show's initial selection process is conducted in vast concrete pens Orwell might have relished writing about) and futurism (Situation Room-like electronic screens update players and viewers alike on who's still living and who's dead). This provides a field day for the costume and set designers, who don't necessarily have to ensure that all the pieces tesselate; it also sets the uncertain tone for the actors.

I'm sure there was a lengthy and considered audition and casting stage ahead of filming The Hunger Games. On screen, however, it does rather look as though the producers went to a fire sale on Hollywood and Vine and lugged back under their arms performers of such contrasting styles as Elizabeth Banks (all her subtle comic gifts buried under three inches of make-up from Maybelline's Amadeus range), Lenny Kravitz (rather bland in the film's Louis Walsh role), Donald Sutherland (biding time fussing with the roses in the Presidential garden) and Wes Bentley (stuck with Craig David's old facial hair, and apparently the best the franchise can come up with by way of an evil overlord).

The prevalence of big hair, outré maquillage and clip-on accessories (Kravitz plumps for boring earrings - four of 'em) can't entirely conceal the fact that, at this stage, these characters are little more than straw dolls, offering not a huge amount to engage with or care about. I'm in a small minority on this, I know, but I also found Lawrence - presumably the big casting decision, in the YA equivalent of the Scarlett role - naggingly glassy-eyed and humorless, qualities that mattered less in the ostensibly serious Winter's Bone than in a splashy mainstream attention-grabber like this: the gal scrubs up okay in a fire-red dress for her big television appearance, but it's otherwise hard to credit how Katniss would become a star, even in this depraved and desensitised a universe.

The film's U.S. box office would suggest we're all going to have to sit through two or three more of these before we get old - it got people to like it - but, in its handling of the material, The Hunger Games falls flat between two very distinct stools. It doesn't have the gleeful, subversive wit of the cult Japanese kill-your-babies favourite Battle Royale (which emerged ten years ago at the very start of the reality-TV revolution), or indeed the heart and counter-revolutionary spirit of the far more critical, Charlie Brooker-penned "15 Million Merits" episode of TV's recent Black Mirror. Both the film, and the players within it, proceed from a mute, unquestioning acceptance of the Hunger Games format: it doesn't want to turn off anybody (particularly those who actually enjoy watching Survivor or Fear Factor or I'm a Celebrity...) by daring to suggest such spectacles may just form part of the bread-and-circuses of overfed, syphilitic, decaying empires.

It strikes me as telling that the film has posted substantially bigger numbers in the States, where the likes of American Idol have become seen as a legitimate basis for a career, than it has in Europe, where a certain intellectual sniffiness about/resistance to
la télé-poubelle continues to hold sway, and Steve Brookstein, Michelle McManus et al. have become overnight laughing stocks. Katniss's success story - her "journey", in Cowellspeak - is peculiar enough to make one question what the fantasy element is here. In Harry Potter, which skewed young, the fantasy was clearly that of having special powers, and getting an entire school to do your business, reducing the place to ashes in the process. In Twilight, which skews feminine, it's being considered special enough to have two very different types of hunk fighting over you.

In The Hunger Games, the fantasy audiences are being asked to disappear into involves being special enough to be whisked off to the big city, waxed off and hosed down, and then cast out to the woods to die of exposure or at the hands of your peers. Katniss and co. may yet rise up and overthrow the regime that oppresses them, yet too much of this glumly conformist exercise appears designed to train young cinemagoers to play their part as consumers and develop exactly that hunger (and, judging by the reactions of some of the teenagers I watched the film with, that bloodlust) that the corporate, dog-eat-dog world demands of them. Any satire or dissent within the film is unintentional, and that of an industry that is now some distance beyond it; it's the product of an entertainment moment when millions tune in on a weekly basis to gawp at the nation's best and brightest being given the thumbs up or down by the likes of Amanda Holden, David Hasselhoff and The Bloke from The Script. Frankly, who are we to judge?

The Hunger Games is in cinemas nationwide.

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