'The Hunger Games': A fantasy film reflecting reality

the heroine who risks her life by volunteering to replace her sister when the younger girl is chosen to fight in the Hunger Games. MURRAY CLOSE
the heroine who risks her life by volunteering to replace her sister when the younger girl is chosen to fight in the Hunger Games. MURRAY CLOSE (Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen,)
Posted: March 18, 2012

Harry Potter. . . . Bella Swan. . . . Katniss Everdeen?

If the bespectacled boy wizard of the Harry Potter books and films and the sulky high schooler-turned-vampire-wife of the Twilight Saga have long been imprinted in the collective consciousness, is it now time for the teenage heroine of The Hunger Games to join them?

With the Suzanne Collins book perched atop the children's and young-adult best-seller lists pretty much since its publication in late 2008, and with advance ticket sales for the $100 million Lionsgate film adaptation - opening at Friday - outpacing the inaugural Harry Potter, there are strong indications that Ms. Everdeen is indeed heading for that rarefied realm of pop iconography.

"The film has sold out over 1,000 showtimes," and it represents about three-fourths of ticket sales today, reports Harry Medved of Fandango, the online box-office service. "It's among the top-selling titles on Fandango - ever."

But The Hunger Games, which has its share of fantasy elements, colorfully over-the-top costumes, and comically coiffed characters, is in many ways rougher stuff than Harry Potter or Twilight. Collins' books (there are two sequels: Catching Fire and Mockingjay) are set in the postapocalyptic ruins of North America, where the capital city of Panem teems with the rich and effete, while many of the outlying 12 districts are home to struggling farmers and coal miners, the hungry, the underclass.

And every year, the leaders of each district enter two of its children, a boy and a girl, in the Hunger Games - a nationally televised event in which 24 young "Tributes" fight one another. Fight to the death, until only one remains.

Yes, it's kid-lit about the 1 percent vs. the 99, about the weird spectacle of reality TV, about kids killing kids.

"There's a sophistication to Suzanne's books," says Wes Bentley, who plays Seneca Crane, the head Gamemaker (think reality-show director) in The Hunger Games. "In the end, it's about rebellion, government oppression . . . . And all these kids that are put into the Games, it's not by their choice. It's about survival."

In the case of Katniss, played with compelling force by Jennifer Lawrence, it is a choice: Her younger sister, a pip-squeak in pigtails, is chosen to represent the hard-pressed people of District 12. But Katniss - an ace archer who kills deer and rabbit and squirrel for her family's supper - volunteers to take her place.

"It's a human story," says Dayo Okeniyi, the Nigerian-born actor who makes his major-studio debut as Thresh, one of the Tributes favored to win the Games. "Even though it's set in this fantastical world, this surreal future . . . at its core you are dealing with love and sacrifice and the lengths that you would go to to protect the ones you love.

"You can't help but put yourself in the shoes of these characters. You can't help but think, if I were in that situation, would I be as courageous as Katniss? Would I volunteer in my sister's place? If forced to kill or be killed, what would I do?"

For Nina Jacobson, the Hollywood veteran who acquired the rights to Collins' trilogy shortly after The Hunger Games was published, the mounting anticipation - and hype - are something of a surprise.

"I was confident all along that the book deserved to be a movie," says the producer, reached in London midweek, following The Hunger Games' premiere there. "But honestly, everything that has happened in the last two months has exceeded all of my expectations in terms of the amount of excitement that's surrounding it."

Jacobson hired Gary Ross, who wrote Big and directed Seabiscuit, to work on the screenplay and direct the Lionsgate production - the most expensive in the studio's history. Ross shares the screenplay credit with writer Billy Ray, and with Collins. Jacobson was intent on honoring the author's vision, and Collins was involved at every stage of the production.

"The book presents a complex subject matter in a very nuanced and ethical way," Jacobson says. "It addresses our current social conditions, with the growing gap between the haves and the have-nots, and the way in which our fascination with celebrity and [with] the artificial reality of 'reality TV' conceals underlying social ills. . . . It's a very modern book in that regard."

But are tweens and teens going to get that? Do the folks buying The Unofficial Hunger Games Cookbook ("More than 150 recipes inspired by The Hunger Games trilogy!") care about social commentary and subtext?

"I think they get a lot of it, to be honest," Jacobson says. "For one, people identify with Katniss. She's a brave heroine, she steps up to do something for her sister that I think most people can relate to . . . . She is a very accessible heroine in that regard.

"But I also think the degree to which she is aware, in the book and in the movie, that she has to play to the camera if she wants to survive - I think young people are very aware that what they might watch on reality TV is more TV than it is reality.

" . . . Young people are actually really savvy about what they consume, and the success of this book is a reflection of their sophistication," Jacobson says.

In the United Kingdom, Jacobson had to make "very small" trims to some of the film's more violent sequences to safeguard its age 12-and-over rating. (In the United States, the MPAA ratings board gave The Hunger Games a PG-13.) Kids are stabbed, shot through the heart, left lifeless in the woods - woods that are equipped with hundreds of video cameras to bring the lethal combat into the living rooms of the Panemian populace.

"We felt that the violence needed to be honest and feel real, and feel scary, because you don't want to sugarcoat it or soft-pedal it," Jacobson says. "But on the other hand, you don't want to stylize it, or make it gratuitous or sensationalistic or glamorize in any way. And I think Gary found a way to keep it very much rooted in character, rooted in Katniss' experience, but also to make it feel that we weren't pulling our punches, that we weren't glorifying in any way the violence."

If the idea of humans hunting humans in a kind of spectator sport, and of children battling children, doesn't sound entirely original, of course it's not.

"Conceptually, these are not new ideas," says Rob Weiner, humanities and popular culture librarian at Texas Tech University. "It goes back to The Most Dangerous Game, a 1930s picture and novel where you have humans hunting humans. And then you have movies like The Running Man and The Tenth Victim . . . . In the Japanese movie and book Battle Royale, ninth graders are killing each other under order of the government, fighting to the death.

" . . . And it goes back to Lord of the Flies, too, with kids fighting kids."

Weiner, the author of a number of books on film, comic books, and graphic novels, says that The Hunger Games' producers had to keep their mainstream audience in mind - their young mainstream audience - as they reenacted the story's grislier episodes.

"They couldn't make it too edgy, or too violent, but conceptually, there are a lot of antecedents," Weiner says. "It's the same old story, recast in a more palatable way."


Film

The Hunger Games

Opens at 12:01 a.m. Friday 


Contact Steven Rea at 215-854-5629 or srea@phillynews.com. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at www.philly.com/onmovies.

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