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Gary Ross's "The Hunger Games"

Early reviews are surprisingly solid — but of course, that's only half the story.
The DailyThe Hunger Games

R Kurt Osenlund gives Gary Ross's The Hunger Games three out of four stars, which is a fairly solid endorsement, coming from Slant. That's nice and all, but The Hunger Games as a film is really only half the story. The other half has to do with marketing and the impact the film will have on the industry, aspects of a movie we don't usually pay all that much attention to around here, but in this case, they cannot be ignored.

According to Bloomberg's Michael White, when it opens on Friday, The Hunger Games may pull in between $115 million and $270 million during the first three days of its run. "It will also transform Lions Gate, an independent filmmaker known for horror movies, Tyler Perry comedies and a long takeover fight with Carl Icahn. With The Hunger Games, Twilight and two more projects with sequel potential, Vancouver-based Lions Gate has a chance to compete with Hollywood's biggest studios." Shares in the company (which he spells out as two words, while others call it Lionsgate), "have risen 71 percent this year as investors weighed prospects for The Hunger Games and the $412.5 million January acquisition of Summit Entertainment, owner of the Twilight vampire films and rights to a series of science-fiction novels dubbed Ender's Game." In short, however you spell it, the company's a player now.

It's also pulled off "what may be the marketer's ultimate trick: persuading fans to persuade each other." Brooks Barnes in the New York Times: "The art lies in allowing fans to feel as if they are discovering a film, but in truth Hollywood's new promotional paradigm involves a digital hard sell in which little is left to chance — as becomes apparent in a rare step-by-step tour through the timetable and techniques used by Lionsgate to assure that The Hunger Games becomes a box office phenomenon." And of course, Barnes takes us on that tour.

The Hunger Games

To the film itself, and back to R Kurt Osenlund: "Dystopian revolution is at the heart of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games trilogy, which imagines a futuristic, postwar North America at the mercy of an iron-fisted empire. But deeper still is mandatory adolescent homicide, a plainspoken, horrifying bloodsport that, in the first installment especially, lays down eerie and deeply powerful stakes. For those who aren't hip to the story (or, given the incessant chatter, simply aren't hip), the titular games are an annual, televised form of punishment, wherein the scattered 'districts' who once rebelled are reminded to fall in line by watching 24 of their children fight to the death until only one remains." And of course, "this is hardly an auteur's film, and while Ross's efforts are quite commendable, there's little that seems to boast a unique directorial stamp. A very solid adaptation that will send many a rabid reader over the moon, The Hunger Games is more notable for the holes it doesn't fall into than the great heights it reaches."

"Ross, screenwriter of the proletariat presidential fantasy Dave and writer-director of the social-consciousness-as-sci-fi tome Pleasantville, has always engaged his subjects with a light and yet substantial touch," writes Todd Gilchrist for the Playlist, "but his adaptation of Suzanne Collins's acclaimed young-adult novel is a truly remarkable achievement: he turns escapism into a deeply emotional experience. Instantly razing comparisons — qualitative especially — to other female-friendly series such as Twilight, The Hunger Games is the first film in a long time that deserves Hollywood's instant-franchise ambitions because it appeals to genre fans regardless of gender by crafting a story that's both epic and intimate, spectacular and subtle."

But Jason Gorber, writing at Twitch, has not been won over: "The Hunger Games is a kind of infantilized version of Battle Royale, taking any real sense of danger or doom from the premise and wringing through an almost callously preposterous 'feel good' prism so that we're left with what amounts to a near-bloodless massacre."

The Hunger Games

The story centers on 16-year-old Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence, "already a hunter and a survivor," according to the Age's Philippa Hawker, "protecting her sister, keeping her fragile mother close. When her sister is chosen for the games, she volunteers to take her place. She finds two mentors: Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), the elegant stylist with the gold guyliner who helps her present a confident face to the public, and Haymitch (Woody Harrelson), the drunken former winner whom she initially regards as a buffoon…. The Hunger Games' strength is not its social critique — rather, it's an exhilarating sense of a character learning to control her own destiny."

Update: "[T]he notion of people hunting down each other in the name of entertainment is not exactly the freshest conceit," allows Peter Sobczynski at eFilmCritic. "The Richard Connell short story 'The Most Dangerous Game,' for example, has inspired any number of adaptations, legitimate and otherwise." Then there's "the campy 1965 Italian effort The 10th Victim, in which a group of top-level assassins, including Marcello Mastroianni and Ursula Andress, become part of a game show in which they are to bump each other off…. The gimmick of widespread murder as televised entertainment proscribed by the government to sate and distract the increasingly jaded masses would later turn up in films such as the classic 1975 Roger Corman production Death Race 2000 and the 1987 Stephen King adaptation The Running Man (which, in a brilliant stroke of casting, deployed none other than game show staple Richard Dawson, in the role of his career, as the malevolent emcee)…. The key difference between The Hunger Games and its antecedents is one of approach. In those earlier versions, the premise was mined largely for satirical effect… Happily, director Gary Ross — marking his return to filmmaking after a nearly decade-long hiatus following the 2003 release of Seabiscuit — has chosen to treat it in adult-minded manner and this decision not only helps the film as a whole but goes a long way to making it into something other than a Battle Royale with cheese."

The Hunger Games

"The surprise of The Hunger Games isn't that it lives up to its hype – it's that it plays as if that hype never even existed, which may be the trickiest achievement a big movie can pull off these days." Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek: "As allegories go, this is a pretty obvious one, particularly in the era of the 99%, although neither Collins nor Gary Ross... really needs to belabor the point…. The picture makes room for a number of standout supporting actors: Stanley Tucci as an unctuous yet sympathetic games commentator; Elizabeth Banks as the fluttery, ineffectual official helper-outer Effie Trinket… Wes Bentley has a turn as a smooth, unnerving semi-villain, and Donald Sutherland shows up as a malevolent elder statesman, a role he digs into with sly gusto."

"If the experience of reading Collins's novel is one of being inside a horrifyingly brutal reality television show," writes Richard Larson at the House Next Door, "the experience the film adaptation offers is one more akin to watching one, and its success depends on our awareness of this relatively new medium as well as our willingness to critique it." Katniss is "fighting to survive, rather than to secure a second season or a particularly lucrative endorsement deal, but the game — mastered already by Snooki and her popular housemates — is essentially played the same way."

"There's scarcely a single memorable shot in the entire film, which is saying something when at least one of them involves a young tribute getting a spear in the guts," writes Matt Bochenski at Little White Lies.

Updates, 3/23: "Obsessive female fandom is having a moment," writes Guardian and New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny in Salon. "First it was the Twilight books and tie-in vampire-chastity-fantasy films that still have women all over the world daydreaming about being brutalized by bloodsucking aristocrats. Now, just as the first film installment of The Hunger Games hits cinemas, Fifty Shades of Grey, the X-rated fan-fiction novel based around the Twilight films, will soon be arriving in bookstores. They're popular not only because they flip the classic narrative on women, but because they take on three issues key to young women's lives — sex, class and power."

On the other hand, also in Salon, Andrew O'Hehir: "It's easy to be seduced by something that's both as clever and as successful as The Hunger Games, and to conclude that it must have something to say about violence and the media and changing ideas of femininity and other hot-button topics it appears to address. But as becomes even clearer in the movie version, it really doesn't. It's a cannily crafted entertainment that refers to ideas without actually possessing any, beyond an all-purpose populism that could appeal just as easily to a Tea Partyer as to a left-winger."

One more in Salon: Laura Miller explains the dynamics of the books' success.

In Slate, Matthew Yglesias considers the economics that would have led to conditions depicted in The Hunger Games:

A book released this week by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson — the former a professor at MIT, the latter at Harvard — called Why Nations Fail can help shed some light on bleak conditions in District 12 but also why Collins doesn't attempt to portray everyday life in many of Panem's other districts….

District 12 is a quintessential extractive economy. It's oriented around a coal mine, the kind of facility where unskilled labor can be highly productive in light of the value of the underlying commodity. In a free society, market competition for labor and union organizing would drive wages up. But instead the Capitol imposes a single purchaser of mine labor and offers subsistence wages….

Collins is right in line with the most depressing conclusion offered by Acemoglu and Robinson, namely that once extractive institutions are established they're hard to get rid of. Africa's modern states, they note, were created by European colonialists who set out to create extractive institutions to exploit the local population. The injustice of the situation led eventually to African mass resistance and the overthrow of colonial rule. But in almost every case, the new elite simply started running the same extractive institutions for their own benefit. The real battle turned out to have been over who ran the machinery of extraction, not its existence. And this, precisely, is the moral of Collins's trilogy.

On a far lighter note, Matt Singer recently released this question unto the Twittersphere: "Who would win The Hunger Games for film critics?" And of course, he collects some of the more amusing answers.

But back to the movie, by way of Melissa Anderson's measuring it against the book: "A withering indictment of omnipresent screens, endless spectacle, and debased celebrity culture, The Hunger Games was inspired, the author has said, by flipping the channels from a reality-TV show to footage of the Iraq war. Most of Collins's critique, then, is compromised by the very existence of this big-screen transfer, itself the most anticipated spectacle of the spring…. [A]t the risk of indulging in tired, pointless debates about page versus screen, it is impossible for this movie to ever hope to match the fury of the book. Collins is no great prose stylist, but through her very premise, she astringently articulates her anger at a culture — ours — indifferent to inequity and war and besotted with its own stupidity. (Horrifyingly, you have the sense while reading that these televised Survivor-style kiddie kills seem all too likely to be realized one day.) But the book's rage and despair are diluted here…"

"This is how you adapt a novel into a satisfying movie," counters Paul Constant in the Stranger. "Hardcore fans are sure to miss three or four small details that didn't survive the transition from the 337-page novel to the 140-minute movie, but that's just quibbling. The movie stands as a work of art on its own, and that's the best possible tribute to the book that I can imagine."

More from Anton Bitel (Sight & Sound), Peter Bradshaw (Guardian, 4/5), Richard Brody (New Yorker; he also gathers initial reactions to the movie from overseas), Josef Braun, Ty Burr (Boston Globe, 3/4), Richard Corliss (Time), Manohla Dargis (New York Times), David Denby (New Yorker), Roger Ebert (Chicago Sun-Times, 3/4), Bilge Ebiri (Nashville Scene), David Edelstein (New York), Steve Erickson (Gay City News), Tom Huddleston (Time Out London, 3/5), Jonathan Kiefer (Faster Times), Matt Prigge (Philadelphia Weekly, B-), Joshua Rothkopf (Time Out New York, 4/5), Marc Savlov (Austin Chronicle, 3.5/5), Dana Stevens (Slate), Scott Tobias (AV Club, B) and Kenneth Turan (Los Angeles Times).

Ed Symkus interviews Ross for the Boston Phoenix and Ross is a guest on Elvis Mitchell's The Treatment.

Updates, 3/24: "The Hunger Games has become the rare piece of Hollywood entertainment: a canvas onto which disparate and even opposing ideologies are enthusiastically projected." For the LAT, Steven Zeitchik rounds up the various arguments.

On its first day, the film's earned $68.3 million, making it "the fifth-best premiere ever and in fact the best ever for a non-sequel," notes Andre Tartar in Vulture.

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No force on earth would force me to see this thing — even for free.

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