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Why The Hunger Games Phenomenon Matters

By Steven Pate in Arts & Entertainment on Mar 26, 2012 7:00PM

Some movie called The Hunger Games opened this weekend. We're told a few people went to see it. In fact, more than any other non-sequel movie, ever. The "Plastic Bag" guy from American Beauty will now be more famous for an insane beard that is sure to be a Halloween staple come October. Dead tree media get to write a lot of stories about the inevitable archery craze. Jennifer Lawrence is about to be everywhere. Okay. But now that we're on the other side of the most-hyped movie event so far this year, we can ask: should you care about The Hunger Games even if you are not a hilariously into-it teenage girl? Emphatically yes.

As a mass phenomenon, The Hunger Games is worth your attention, even if you do not plan to read the outrageously popular young-adult books or even watch the surprisingly well-received movie. On the right, Fox News and plenty of others are eager to take the film as a parable about big government. On the left, it's said to depict class warfare of the 99 percent rebelling against the exploitative 1 percent and a cautionary tale about the impact of global warming. The tween-age blockbuster of the previous presidential election year, Twilight, played up partisanship for the romantic rivals but was aimed squarely at an 8-19 year old girls. The triumph of Susan Collins' Hunger Games books heralds a market for teen fiction now dominated now by depictions of broken-down societies. It's almost as if the kids are riddled with anxiety that they're not going to have a better standard of living than their parents. We might want to pay attention to that.

Set in a dystopian North America about a century into the future, The Hunger Games describe a yearly gladiatorial reality show in which youths from each of twelve districts are forced into a battle to the death for the amusement of the decadent fascists who govern them from a distant capital. Our hero, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), hails from the almost comically impoverished coal-mining district, where she has learned resourcefulness, loyalty, and perseverance, and where her will to survive has been honed sharper than the arrows she uses for supplementing her family's meager diet. A host of influences are chewed up and spat-out nearly intact: Kinji Fukasaku's brilliant Battle Royale, The Running Man, The Truman Show, reality television spectacles such as Survivor, but these feel mostly like contemporary resonances for the relation of an underlying mythological tale: a hero who endures trials, overcomes a world seemingly fashioned to thwart her, outwits rivals, and rescues her people.

It's not a perfect movie, or even a great one. Director Gary Ross's pacing is uneven, and several action sequences shot with hand-held cameras are laughably disorienting. The folks we saw it with who had read the books complained that emotional connections which were key to their enjoyment were mostly missing from this adaptation of the book's first person perspective, that Woody Harrelson was not disgusting enough in his turn as a drunken adviser, and that Katniss' travails in the games itself were insufficiently trying. These are of course lots of fun for fans to bicker over, but the film has great sequences of its own, such as the most breathtaking fight scene ever set to a Steve Reich piece. Ultimately it is Lawrence who carries the whole spectacle on her shoulders as an unsentimental, indomitable yet easy-to-root for hero.

The strength of this opening weekend should help lots of people figure out the obvious: you don't have to be a teen, or a girl, to root for Katniss. Exit polls by Lionsgate showed that while the audience skewed female (61 percent to 39 percent, less pronounced than for a Twilight film, for example) most of the audience was over the age 25. As Bridesmaids demonstrated last year that there is a pretty big audience for females who are funny, The Hunger Games gives lie to the ever-disappearing notion that action movies depend appealing primarily to teenage boys. If the actual future looks anything like the dark and anxious vision of it in The Hunger Games, we are in trouble. But if the future of Hollywood blockbusters looks anything like this film, we'll probably be alright.