The young-adult fantasy series translation from page to silver screen movement has become one of the most profitable propositions in pop culture over the past decade. What started with the kid-friendly Harry Potter (whose films contained an admirable Disney-dark magic to them that began to wear off and bore me by the fourth entry) and crested into communal madness with Stephanie Meyer’s malarial Twilight series has become a go-to cash cow for Hollywood. When I first heard about The Hunger Games, I thought, “Oh, here we go again.” But then I read up on what they were about – a kind of Atwood-lite dystopian future, pop-Vonnegut if you will, spiced with The Running Man with a dash of Battle Royale. Finally, a young adult fantasy series with very little fantasy, a dash of satire, and magic replaced by futurist woe and real violence. And cast in the lead role was Jennifer Lawrence, the most talented young actress of her generation. And whaddya know, the first film was typically mega-blockbuster flawed but pretty good. And it was J-Law as Katniss Everdeen who changed the game.
Boys’ fantasies and hero-worship have been catered to forever. In this day and age they have Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Ender’s Game, as well as the typical swarm of comic book films and sci-fi flicks featuring superheroes and manly men saving the world and getting the girls. What have girls and young women had to dream about in similar fashion? The occasional animated Pixar heroine? The toxicity of Twilight, which when you strip away the sparkly emo-boyband vampires, teaches teenage girls to stay in abusive relationships? “Yes, my dear, if you love him hard enough, maybe YOU can change him. You gotta stick by your man no matter how freakish and horrible he is, stick by him even if he kills you.” Beautiful message, isn’t it?
Well, thank the pop culture gods, because into the modern mythos has stepped Katniss Everdeen. Here’s a scrappy beautiful young small town gal who is willing to sacrifice everything for family when she volunteers to take her younger sister’s place in the annual Hunger Games (a fascist mechanism for the controlling Capitol to remind the destitute Districts it lords over that revolution is futile, where children are picked by lottery to enter an arena and battle to the death, the victor like some celebrated last-person-standing reality show star). Katniss, a skilled archer from years of hunting for her family’s dinner, overcomes her fears through hard work, physical strength, mental cunning, and the innate will to survive. She’s motived in equal parts by fear and love. She doesn’t want to be a hero or a star…she just wants to survive and protect the innocent. She’s also a gal who roots for the nice guy, her fellow district tribute Peeta (played by brick-faced dull but amiable man-boy Josh Hutcherson) – for if there are any “bad boys” in author Suzanne Collins’ future world, surely those selfish assholes starved to death. Talk about evolution.
The sequel, Catching Fire, offers up much of the same with a delicious extra helping of crazytown shenanigans. The new clockwork arena for the all-star-former-victors-pitted-against-each-other quarter-quell featuring tick-tocking terrors every hour (from poisonous fog to raining blood to murderous baboons) is a wonderfully wicked piece of creative death machinery. Though both films have had their fair share of problems with editing, pacing, and clunky dialogue, Catching Fire has a more cohesive look and feel (presumably from an increased budget and new director Francis Lawrence who replaced shaky-cam loving Garry Ross). Sadly missing is a memorable music score.
Part of the appeal for wider audiences who have not read the books is the “oh, look who it is!” supporting cast. Back for some scenery chewing are Stanley Tucci as the flamboyant Hunger Games TV-host and Elizabeth Banks as the trashy stylish tribute den mother, Effie Trinkett. The president of Panem is once again played with decadent dictatorial panache by Donald Sutherland, and Woody Harrelson picks up his paycheck as tribute mentor and former victor Haymitch. The guys (amongst them Hutcherson) are played by interchangeable blank-faced man-children making it hard to understand why Katniss would get caught up in any kind of love triangle (yes, even Katniss succumbs to this lame plot trope), but also hard to hate them. An eclectic bit of newcomers to the franchise show up including Philip Seymour Hoffman as the head games designer, and Jeffrey Wright and Amanda Plummer as former victors. Katniss even gets a character foil in the anger-fueled axe-wielding Johanna Mason played by the delectably minx-like Jena Malone.
Catching Fire ends in the inevitable cliffhanger. *SPOILERS AHEAD* Katniss, after having brought down the arena’s surveillance system, is suddenly whisked away by leaders of an underground revolution while Peeta and Johanna have been taken back (presumably in handcuffs?) to the Capitol. In typical recent Hollywood style, they’ll be dividing up the third book into two films to milk that cow as long as they can and potentially wear out their welcome with the likes of me, but hell…I’ll take The Hunger Games and any positively themed girl-power copycat film that might come down the pike over the slippery choke-inducing tripe (50 Shades of Grey included) that Twilight’s shadow hath horrifically wrought.
And rising above this ash will be Jennifer Lawrence, whose moxy and skill have shown young women dreaming Hollywood dreams that they can do anything. Lesser actresses (cough cough Kristen Stewart) would’ve been overshadowed by the franchise stigma, but Lawrence has used it to catapult herself to the A-list. From Winter’s Bone to Silver Linings Playbook to the upcoming American Hustle and Serena, Lawrence, like her fictional counterpart Katniss, is a reluctant star and a risk-taker. And damn if that isn’t entertaining to watch. Here’s hoping, in this world of Twilight and Miley Cyrus, that both J-Law and Katniss keep their wits about them and continue to provide young women worthy role models. As they would wish in Panem, may the odds forever be in their favor.
Written by David H. Schleicher