Sometimes I lie in bed at night and wonder if a movie made for an adult audience will ever give the likes of The Godfather a run for its money at the box office (617,963,700 domestic in adjusted dollars). I don’t wonder for long. So infantilised is film culture since the late ’70s, and so dependent have studios become on comic book heroes and teen-franchises like Harry Potter and Twilight for voluminous ticket sales, that the days when delinquents went to the cinema to experience a part of the adult world, like a child taking an interest in the grown ups’ conversation around the dinner table, are long gone. Now the position is reversed; adults are forced to regress, and if they can’t, or won’t, the blockbuster experience can seem very empty indeed.
The Hunger Games arrives as the latest Generation Y obsession to make it to multiplexes, and at first sight mature eyes may widen a little. Here’s a character focused franchise, because a movie can’t just be a movie anymore, with a fine lead, Jennifer Lawrence, which forces our nymphs to confront some interesting themes; totalitarianism, propaganda, their own mortality; yet this film pulls its punches, content to be a glossy entertainment.
Suzanne Collins’ story has two satirical strings to its bow. It’s both a reality TV burlesque and thinly veiled critique of America’s war machine. In Panem, a sort of young adult Oceania, the state annually compels each district to serve up its teens for a televised hunt. Donald Sutherland, the state’s despotic president, explains the game’s raison d’être; it’s about giving hope to the downtrodden citizenry, he says – the children of coal miners and wheat pickers; just enough that they don’t question the status quo.
The show was devised as perpetual punishment for the proles’ last misguided attempt at destroying the Ancien Régime. It appeals to their base instincts, pits them against each other and distracts them from the injustices vested upon them from above. That, you say, is more intellectual meat that you’d find in your average teen franchise, and I’d be inclined to agree. The problem with Gary Ross’ opener is that its satire is toothless.
However extreme the fictive format, reality TV may now be beyond the satirist’s reach. We balked at the sort of show depicted in Stephen King’s The Running Man, but whereas death as entertainment is still an exaggeration, it’s no longer the leap it was once was; not at a time when almost any indignity is transmitted, while the stuff that can’t be for legal reasons is freely available, unedited on the internet.
Meanwhile, the film’s anti-war credentials are undermined by its sanitised slaughter. It’s a film that waters down its strongest motifs; it’s bloodless, guileless. Ross films confrontations between tykes with obfuscating jerks and edits, a style employed in solving the problem of showing children brutalising children while maintaining a teen friendly rating. This robs these moments of shock, and by extension, meaning. One long shot of a boy breaking the neck of another, inaudibly to blunt its impact, is the closest Ross comes to discomforting us, and this in a story about unmediated violence.
If that paternalism is a problem (and in this context, ridiculous), the distended running time is another. The Hunger Games is an unfocused affair; it sags in the middle, losing precious momentum; something no reality TV editor would have allowed. The game arena is a space bereft of tension, fear or provocation. It simply plays out. One imagines the theatres of war Collins took inspiration from were more foreboding.
Three further movies are planned. We must hope that the content matures with the target audience.