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“The Hunger Games”—(Reality TV Bites)

It’s a reality TV show producer’s fantasy/nightmare: a televised competition in which those eliminated are not merely voted off the island. Instead, in “The Hunger Games,’ they die.

Could society devolve enough to allow a televised spectacle in which 24 youthful contestants fight to the death, until there is only one left standing? Check back in 50 years and see. In THG, the competition is an annual punishment meted out to each of 12 political districts for a failed rebellion in this near future state/nation, Panem.

The best player in “The Hunger Games,” is Katniss Everdeen. Or is she? Katniss, played wonderfully by Jennifer Lawrence, is a strong young woman whose sister is chosen in a random drawing to be part of this annual death match. Knowing that her weak sister would quickly be killed, Katniss volunteers to take her place.

As preparations for the games begin, Katniss becomes a favorite: A favorite of those who watch and wager on the games. A favorite of TV host Caesar Flickerman, played by Stanley Tucci (who sports some very weird hair). A favorite of mentor Haymitch Abernathy, played by Woody Harrelson.  A favorite of fellow “tribute” Peeta Mellark, played by Josh Hutcherson. But not a favorite of President Snow, played by Donald Sutherland.

Having watched reality shows on TV for many years now, I have often suspected producers of manipulating outcomes via physical competitions that favor certain players, vote totals that appear questionable and judges who keep less-talented but more attractive players. It happened in the early days of TV when quiz show contestants who audiences liked were given answers so they would stay on week after week.

Manipulation by the TV producer and his crew occurs often during “The Hunger Games.” Rules are changed. Fires are set. Wild animals are unleashed. Medical supplies are shared from beyond the game area. But even as producers are working their trickery on contestants, so do Katniss and Peeta work theirs on the producers.

THG delivers a compelling screen character in Katniss along with a story that keeps the viewer totally engaged. (The only time I checked my watch during the screening was to note that the actual competition begins at the movie’s halfway point, about 70 minutes in.) Whether this is “the movie event of the year” is debatable, but “The Hunger Games” is a well-crafted movie. Director Gary Ross tells the story clearly without calling attention to himself via cinematic stunts.

“The Hunger Games” presents a chilling vision of a future not too far removed from 2012. Moviegoers who have watched TV shows like “Survivor,” “The Real World,” “American Idol,” “The Bachelor” and “Big Brother” will see elements of those shows and others in “The Hunger Games.”

Because “The Hunger Games” is based on a “young adult” novel which has been embraced by teens, adults may fear that THG has some Twilight-like tendencies. Nope. If you are a grownup, you can see and enjoy this movie. And you should.

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