Battle Royale, with cheese

Reality TV goes to post-apocalyptic extremes in solid adaptation of young-adult novel

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is no Bella Swan, and that’s a very good thing.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is no Bella Swan, and that’s a very good thing.

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrellson and Stanley Tucci. Directed by Gary Ross. Cinemark 14, Feather River Cinemas and Paradise Cinema 7. PG-13.
Rated 3.0

Not having read the wildly successful Suzanne Collins trilogy, I’m clueless as to how successful The Hunger Games’ transition is to the screen. But for a blockbuster aimed at teens, this first entry for the new Lionsgate franchise is fairly solid entertainment, with a surprising amount of subversive subtext and socio-political satire thrown in.

The movie commences with a grim vision of a dystopian America a few generations down the road, where proles abide in Appalachian squalor after the world seemingly bankrupts itself during the course of a war on terror. These folks have it bad, with no computers, cell phones or even a ratty old Xbox to pass the time. So everyone just sits in doorways and looks miserable. Except for Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who stalks the woods hunting for sustenance for her hungry family.

Of course, some elite aspects of society have managed to ride out the troubles with only slight discomfort, while the proles do what they’re required to do to keep the machinery running. And to keep the edgy populace in line, the graybeards have provided them a little circus to go along with the bread called The Hunger Games. It’s reality TV taken to the logical extreme, where sports fans finally get what they’ve always wanted: a game where contestants really do set out to kill each other until the last one stands victorious.

Guess who ends up as a contestant?

This premise isn’t entirely fresh, as elements of the blogosphere indignantly point out that it’s a rip-off of the Japanese cult splatterfest Battle Royale. Or the Schwarzenegger romp The Running Man. Or Series 7: The Contenders, or … well, it all depends on how much of a hipster douchebag the complainant wants to be. Sure, these films have certain common elements, and these all spring from the recurring motif that seemingly civilized societies sure do love watching themselves some recreational mayhem. Ironically enough, these films provide just that while still casting a jaundiced eye on the concept. And The Hunger Games is no exception. Though it does dilute the appeal of teens-killing-teens for mass entertainment by having the heroine nap frequently while the other contestants kill each other off-screen.

The Hunger Games takes its cue from the narrative approach of TV’s continuing dramas, allowing the characters to more comfortably develop. As such, it’s leisurely paced and laced with welcome grace notes that movies generally don’t have the patience to cultivate, with an eye for the communication of body language and subtextual manipulation.

But taking the TV approach to a movie isn’t entirely successful, as the pacing gets a little too sluggish at times and the content has apparently been homogenized for better mass appeal. Although most viewers might find that the biggest downside is having to wait until November of 2013 for the next episode.