While a great archer, part of Katniss’s essential appeal as a character is that she is fallible: she is accurate, but she does miss. And there are consequences.

Full disclosure: I haven’t read more than the first 10 or so pages of The Hunger Games, the opening volume of Suzanne Collins’ incredibly popular trilogy. What I did read, I liked, but I knew I wouldn’t have time to finish before seeing the movie so I opted to let Gary Ross’s (Seabiscuit, Pleasantville) version be my first foray into the universe of Panem, the Capitol, and Katniss Everdeen. Ross is not a guy I’d have expected to jump into a vaguely post-apocalyptic but acutely dystopian story about a 16 year old girl killing kids on television but everybody’s full of surprises, I guess. The good news is that, in spite of his somewhat pedestrian prior stuff, Ross completely pulls The Hunger Games off. It’s a great movie, not only because it’s science fiction of a bonkers type we don’t see much anymore, but because it has themes that simply work, often because they are more sophisticated and character-heavy than average.

By the way, some uninformed types keep claiming Collins’ ripped off Battle Royale,  a Japanese book (better known for its film adaptation, coincidentally) that has similar subject matter. I have read that book and seen the movie 3 or 4 times. I can vouch for that The Hunger Games, while an echo of certain parts, is no rip-off. I’ll get into my reasoning at the end of this review.

The people of The Capitol basically look like clowns while the people of the Districts look like homesteaders from the 19th Century.

The film opens with a spartan little bit of text telling us a bit about the world. Enough to know that this is a world some way into a comeback from apocalyptic circumstances. This is confirmed by some of the imagery in a piece of propaganda shown later. Apparently there have long been haves and have-nots in this society as 74 years prior to the events of this story, there was some kind of uprising that led to the establishment of a blood sport called The Hunger Games. In these games, one male and one female from each of the 12 Districts (though there is also a barely mentioned 13th) is called up by lottery to go to The Capitol and prepare for the ultimate game show where the losers all die of exposure, the elements, or each others’ hands and the winner enjoys endless fame and fortune.

We’re introduced to all this through the perspective of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, who owns this role) as she tries to feed her sister and disconnected mother in a small community that has 19th century technology. They’re coal miners, for fuck’s sake. The circumstances are dire with every year bringing greater likelihood of her or her sister getting called up for the games and apparently there are ways to trade for food that necessitate having your name put in additional times, increasing the likelihood that you’ll be picked.

The film is completely economical in setting all this up. It retains this economy as the situation plays out for Katniss to wind up at the games, volunteering in place of her sister, along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s boy who has some connection to her. The movie introduces Peeta a bit too late and at first I thought they’d fumbled the character a bit (again, never read up to where he gets into the book, so I don’t mean it’s an adaptation issue), especially when it felt like he was starting to get more important. That said, I think Ross chose, correctly, to tease out the connection between Peeta and Katniss via flashbacks. By the time they’re trying to survive the games together, what seems like a lifetime later, the relationship and its small history resonate strongly. Especially considering the added, sophisticated layer of showmanship going on. Does Katniss really like Peeta in the end, or is she playing along with the “plotline” that’s been coaxed out of her thanks to Peeta and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson)? The movie doesn’t hold your hand or directly spell out what’s really going on here. Instead, suggestion comes from small gestures of character such as the way Katniss looks at Gale in the film’s closing scenes. I loved that The Hunger Games didn’t hold my hand with it sophisticated, subtle beats. Especially given its intended audience. The restraint shown by the writers (of which Suzanne Collins was one, she did the first pass on the screenplay), director, composer James Newton Howard, and especially the actors, is really a marvel.

Little world-specific things like the significance of the mockingjay or this gesture remain unexplained, allowing them to grow into the uninitiated audience organically.

That said, The Hunger Games is not afraid to go big when required. The most powerful sequence in the film is when a young player whom Katniss has befriended is killed. Her reaction, and the reaction of the people of the district the girl was from, play out and intermingle, creating a sense of what Katniss’s role is becoming in this society. It’s a nice bit of foreshadowing for the later books, which I hear are more about another uprising where Katniss plays a central part. You can see her becoming a symbol, a legend, etc in real-time during this sequence and it all comes down to the very humane message that this dead kid is a fucking dead kid and that’s what matters.

The pageantry of the Games is pretty crazy, really, and everything from the chariot parade to the talk show introduction to the players is given as much attention as the smaller, character moments that really drive the film. This is important because part of the point of the story, with regard to its social commentary, is that all this pageantry is essentially demeaning and thus the battle becomes not against other children or against the challenges of poor life in the Districts, but one of finding and maintaining an identity in spite of the pressure to be what they want you to be. This is something every teenager and most people in general can identify with. No we don’t have quite the same challenges and pressures as these people over here, but we do have those forces in our lives that ask us to surrender our identity, to play along or play for, and we probably nearly all resent that. The Hunger Games, without going too far with this idea, certainly plays with that emotional reality.

Even though many of them are dressed or groomed like idiots, the cast of this movie plays everything pretty seriously, except in the few lighter parts, and it somehow works.

One of the complaints being lodged against the movie is that it overuses shaky-cam. Before I defend that, let me get it out of the way that I am a staunch defender of the technique so long as it’s used to purpose. In the Greengrass Bourne films, for example, the shaky-cam is used to accentuate the violence and say something about how kinetic and chaotic, yet controlled, it really is for these men. It tells a story in other words. In The Hunger Games, the point of the shaky-cam is lost in early scenes where its employed to give us flashes of what life in District 12 is like as Katniss walks through it to meet Gale in the woods. Later, it’s used quite a bit to, again, accentuate the violence. This time, though, it’s meant to show chaos but also horror as these are kids being murdered and we’re not supposed to be deriving any vicarious thrill from the way this goes down. Taking some pleasure in killing is human and nothing to be ashamed of, but a storyteller has some responsibility toward tone. The tone of the majority of deaths in The Hunger Games is one of horror, chaos, and eventually pointlessness (best exemplified in off-screen deaths later in the film as well as Katniss mercy-killing a certain other tribute). Of course, there are one or two kills that are the type we’re supposed to get some satisfaction from and these happen quickly, but clearly. One of them even elicited some applause from my audience.

Anyways, I can summarize by saying that The Hunger Games does use shaky-came to a purpose, especially in the second half of the film when the bloodshed begins. This means that it’s not a fair criticism to say it takes away from the movie, even if it may be unnecessary in some spots. If you hate all shaky-cam everywhere, I can’t help you, as that problem is about you and not the movies you watch.

The art direction for The Capitol and its sterile/technological underbelly resembles that of 70’s-era science fiction. I wonder if this is intentional since those movies tended to be social commentaries also.

To the extent that The Hunger Games is a social commentary, it’s one that has a lot in common with last year’s In Time. Mostly this comes down to both being fairly topical. Critics have called both movies “for the Occupiers”, of course referring to the people who support or participate in the various Occupy movements around the world. I pointed to a lot of why In Time was so topical, almost like it was on purpose, to the main issues underlining this movement and the sum of dissatisfaction and unrest in these economically uncertain times.

The Hunger Games is, at its core, about haves and have-nots and a system set up to keep one on top of the other in perpetuity. We live in such a system and it seems like that’s rapidly becoming an undeniable fact. Therefore, if people take from The Hunger Games what they should, there might be the seed of some kind of message or call to change buried in the obscurity of the storytelling that will have some kind of effect on young people as they grow up. Then again, it seems like Collins stays away from commenting on these aspects of her books and prefers to talk about the Roman Empire as a more direct influence than current geopolitics. Which, fair enough, they almost certainly took shape before things quite got like this but it’s not as if the American economy holding the rest of the world hostage is anything remotely new. I just think it’s interesting that here we have a movie based on some books which are ostensibly meant for young women, which are also being sold to the general population as the franchise to follow after Twilight (not that they could be any less alike), and its got all these potentially subversive messages.

In the words of Effie Trinket, “I just love that.”

Effie Trinket is the real hero of The Hunger Games.

Now on to Battle Royale.

For those who don’t know, Battle Royale started out as a Japanese satirical novel about a near-future Japanese society that was basically the same as the then-contemporary one except for one difference: the government kills a bunch of school-kids every year by making them fight each other to the death in a controlled environment. They do this, it seems, to control the populace but it’s explained to the kids in a sort of silly way (presumably because the controller is bonkers, and he is) that sort of just gets the wheres and whyfors out of the way so that the story can get into who these kids are and how they’re going to all die horribly. Battle Royale is a pretty shallow book, but its premise is a lot of fun and so are its characters. I have no bones with it or its infinitely fun movie adaptation.

That said, The Hunger Games has about as much in common with Battle Royale as Star Wars does to Avatar: The Last Airbender. The similarities are present in the premise. I grant that. But that’s ultimately shallow, isn’t it? I mean, tons of books and movies and games echo each other either by accident or because creative types like to borrow and play with ideas they liked from elsewhere. This happens all of the time. You can trace the sacrifice and bloodsport of children back to Greek mythology, with the Athenian tributes to Minos and its Minotaur and Labyrinth, if you want. You can say The Incredibles rips off Watchmen because both have someone killing old superheroes. Ultimately, works influence each other and as long as there isn’t any blatant ripping off, why should we be upset? We should be excited when a concept or premise gets updated or remixed in some cool new way.

I say The Hunger Games, even if it did get influenced by BR and that’s in no way certain, definitely stands on its own two feet. Moreover, Battle Royale was itself influenced by Stephen King (The Long Walk, The Running Man) at the very least. So too with The Hunger Games. The only reason anyone cares about Battle Royale as a dog in this fight is because it’s an obscure, nerd-centric property. It’s as simple as that. It’s something people feel like they have ownership of. That same bullshit nerd entitlement that has people actually petitioning for Bioware to change the endings of Mass Effect 3.

Happy Hunger Games.

So anyway, call me a convert. The Hunger Games is totally legit.