Sometimes new pop culture trends slip right by while I’m busy watching wrestling and stuff. Such is the case with The Hunger Games, the new film based on the first book in a trilogy of novels by Suzanne Collins.
Apparently these books appeal to the same tween audience as the Harry Potter and Twilight books, both of which also became pop culture phenomenons before I had even figured out what they were about (I still haven’t had a chance to see any of the Twilight movies). But I’m actually glad I didn’t know that before seeing The Hunger Games because I saw similarities to various other stories playing out on the screen.
Set in a dystopian America segregated into 12 concentration camp-like districts, the titular games are a perverse way for The Capitol (the movie’s Orwellian governing group, which employs elaborate costumes and grooming to further elevate itself from the commoners) to entertain itself while maintaining control over the populous. It’s basically the same concept as 1987′s The Running Man and 1975′s Death Race 2000, only instead of using convicts in this kill-or-be-killed cross between a game show and reality TV, a male and female between the ages of 12 and 18 is chosen from each district to “play.”
Contestants are then placed in a wilderness setting where they have to first obtain their chosen weapons, then fend for themselves when it comes to food and survival. The only way to win this Darwinian game is to be the sole survivor. Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), who has been the lynchpin for her family since her father died a few years earlier, volunteers to represent her district after the Mad Hatter-esque Elizabeth Banks announces that Katniss’ younger sister has been chosen. She’s paired with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), which causes a bit of tension from the beginning since Katniss is leaving her sort-of boyfriend (Liam Hemsworth) behind.
Starting with the elaborate opening ceremonies and carrying over into the absurdly posh talk show segments that precede the games, Peeta makes his feelings for Katniss known, but it’s not clear he is being sincere or if he is just trying to keep the show interesting. Either way, the two must soon fend for themselves against those chosen from the other districts, as well as the Big Brother-like overseers who are able to do things like insert giant pitbull-like creatures into the vaguely Matrix-like setting in order to keep the world watching.
The Hunger Games does a great job of displaying the brutality that can come when people (especially adolescents) are placed in such cut-throat conditions. Alphas take charge, alliances form and boundaries are created as each teen fights for survival, or for the glory that comes with winning the game. Under the surprisingly astute guidance of Haymitch Abernathy (a drunkenly flamboyant Woody Harrelson) and stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Katniss refuses to play by the rules, which does not please The Capitol (especially after it has assisted her a couple of times by sending a magical salve that makes people heal as fast a Wolverine).
From what I understand, this is all eerily reminiscent of the 1999 Japanese novel Battle Royale. Like Harry Potter and Twilight, that’s another book/film I have yet to experience. Though I can’t attest to its similarities to these stories, I can say that The Hunger Games does borrow heavily from the aforementioned The Running Man and Death Race 2000, as well as 1984, Brave New World, Mad Max and, to a lesser degree, Romeo and Juliet, both thematically and visually. So regardless of its inspirations, The Hunger Games is more than just a showcase of pretty people (though that is definitely part of its appeal). And it’s sure to appeal to teenagers crushing over the film’s young stars as well as sci-fi fans who like a bit of substance with their futuristic stories.
The Hunger Games. Directed by Gary Ross. Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks. Rated PG-13. www.thehungergamesmovie.com.