Taking aim at a moving target in ‘Hunger Games’

Wild turkeys have been a recurring theme in my life recently. I missed the screening of The Hunger Games, still mopping up at the box office two weeks after its opening, because I was back East. Among other places, I visited a honey farm in West Virginia, where I saw a small flock of the handsome birds trooping past the front windows.

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Then, when I got back to Arizona, I received a press release from the National Wild Turkey Federation, noting that they teach young people some of the same bowhunting skills employed by the heroine of The Hunger Games.

The organization, which is holding such an event from April 19 through 26 on U.S. Forest Service land around Flagstaff, Alpine and Christopher Creek (for details call 928-848-4549), would like very much to hook their wagon to the Hunger Games train.

No fools the National Wild Turkey Federation. The Hunger Games, based on the wildly successful novel by Suzanne Collins, had one of the strongest opening weekends in cinema history, and shows early signs that it may be for this generation what, say, Star Wars was for the previous.

Anyway, the wild turkeys seemed to be telling me that I need to see the movie, so I did, and found it exciting, absorbing, disturbingly plausible, and ultimately evasive.

For the uninitiated: The Hunger Games is set in a future America in which, every year, each of 12 “Districts” selects two “Tributes”—young people who are sent to the capital to compete in the televised title event, a winner-take-all elimination by combat, to the death.

Our heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives in a sort of third-world Appalachian district, volunteers for this revolting duty to prevent her younger sister, chosen by lottery, from having to go.

In the capital, Katniss and her district-mate Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) meet their competitors, are schooled for the competition by a mentor, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), and groomed for the showmanship side of it by Cinna (Lenny Kravitz).

Eventually the kids are released in what appears to be a pretty wilderness area, but is actually an arena wired for TV and environmental manipulation, and they start killing each other. Katniss takes to the high country and waits for the fight to come to her.

You don’t have to be a student of pop culture to know that this premise is nothing really new, that its lineage can be traced from Death Race 2000 (1975) to The Most Dangerous Game (1932), to, alas, the real-life gladiatorial combats of the “bread and circuses” era of ancient Rome.

Not even the satire of “reality TV” is new—this movie reminded me a lot of Daniel Minahan’s grim, neglected 2001 thriller Series 7: The Contenders, essentially a low-budget take on the same idea, with one crucial differences, the difference that delivers a 152-million-dollar opening weekend: the combatants in The Hunger Games are adolescent kids.

They’re attractive kids, at that. Lawrence, of Winter’s Bone, is a young beauty with a melancholy face and thick hair which, like the locks of the other female tributes, somehow remains lush and lovely no matter how many days she sleeps outside.

Large as the role is, it’s a little underwritten, but she gets more out of it than might be expected—she has a fine moment, for instance, modeling a dress she’s wearing on a TV interview, in which you can see that she’s simultaneously terrified and, fleetingly, pleased by her glamour.

She has a strong rapport with the charmingly wide-eyed, openhearted Hutcherson, and with a younger costar, Amandla Stenberg as the resourceful Rue, but Hunger Games, directed with skill and restraint by Gary Ross, is not an ensemble piece—Lawrence carries it like a star.

The movie, however gripping it may be, is overprotective—not of its star but of her character. The story is rigged so that, while Katniss kills, she does so only in self-defense, and she’s excused from ever having to kill anyone she (or the audience) likes.

This strikes me as having less to do with plausibility or strong drama than with the need to market the film to preteens without alienating them, or their parents.

And I have to admit that a hugely successful entertainment about kids slaughtering kids for the entertainment of kids doesn’t strike me as the cheeriest news for humankind.

But The Hunger Games seems, at least, humane, in touch with the horror of its own concept, and with its scary proximity to our own pop culture.



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