MCN Columnists
Heather Havrilesky

By Heather Havrilesky hhavrilesky@gmail.com

“The Hunger Games” only leaves you hungrier – and that’s the point

“This is the time to show them everything. Make sure they remember you.” These words of advice given to Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) right before she’s introduced to the enthusiastic fans of the upcoming televised death match, might also have been whispered to director Gary Ross, he of Pleasantville and Seabiscuit. Taking on Suzanne Collins’ bestselling trilogy is certainly no small feat. Capturing the complex allegorical themes depicted in Collins’ book, portraying the anguish and ambivalence experienced by its heroine, doing justice to the impersonal elitism as well as the very personal violence and horror of this story: These would be enormous challenges for any director.

Of course, The Hunger Games will likely be declared a tremendous success on the basis of its box office receipts alone. Devoted fans of the books will be thrilled to see its characters on the big screen, and many will likely pay to do so more than once. Those who haven’t read the books may find themselves so transfixed by the dystopia depicted here — the manipulations of the state, the elitist savagery of urban sophisticates, the rage of the underclass – that they’re ready to declare this a good movie.

And The Hunger Games is a reasonably enjoyable movie, compared to most teen fare. How can it not be? You start with this fantastical story, rich with modern themes, featuring a compelling, fiercely lovable heroine. It’s a can’t-fail franchise: The book makes you want to see the movie, and the movie makes you want to read the book. When the next few months are over, book sales and ticket sales of The Hunger Games are sure to be astronomical.

Sadly, though, considering the richness and complexity of the source material, The Hunger Games falls far short of its potential. This could’ve been a transfixingly horrific, deliriously great film, something on the scale of Alfonso Cuaron’s Children of Men or Darren Aronofsky’s Black Swan or Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. While watching the bad cuts and dizzying action sequences of The Hunger Games, where it’s so hard to track the action that eventually you no longer care, I couldn’t help but think of that scene in Children of Men where Theo (Clive Owen) and his new friends are being chased through the woods by bandits with clubs and fire bombs. Suzanne Collins’ story is filled with similar scenes of suspense and brutality that would translate into heart-stopping sequences in the hands of a daring, artful director. Likewise, when we’re first treated to Ross’s flat Wizard of Oz pans of the denizens of The Capital, with their bright clothing and terrible hairstyles and sick, cynical laughter, I found myself thinking of how Aronofsky transformed the relatively mundane microcosm of New York City ballerinas into a hideous underworld of envious, fire-spitting she-demons through Nina’s paranoid perspective. And when Katniss encounters her fellow competitors (called tributes) in the woods for the first time and it comes off with about as much edginess as an episode of “Gossip Girl,” I naturally thought of how Jackson used breathtaking close-ups and horror-style zooms in Heavenly Creatures to bring the intimacy and contempt of two young girls to the boiling point and beyond.

A truly risky, inspired director might’ve taken the raw material of The Hunger Games and worked it into a mesmerizing, accomplished film. Instead, what we get is stiff, clumsy storytelling, with camera work that alternates between stagnant and dizzyingly frenetic. Even in the final action sequence of the movie, it’s impossible to see who is grappling with whom, who is gaining any advantage, or how anyone involved is reacting emotionally. Then we cut from this jerky, blurry close-up to a long shot that offers the opposite extreme: We’re too far away from the action and there’s so little contrast and color to the scene, that it’s as if we’re watching inert figures perform on a stage from the back row of a rainy amphitheater. Scene after scene, the layers of Katniss’s struggle to survive are reduced to jerky action and simplistic, leaden dialogue.

Obviously the brutality and horror of The Hunger Games has been softened somewhat to increase the likelihood that millions of tweens and teens will flock to the theaters to see it repeatedly. The challenge, of course, is to keep the interpersonal stakes high, pump up the suspense, and paint as vivid a portrait as possible within the limits of what a PG-13 audience can tolerate. Even though we may not see a lot of bloody violence, we should be able to feel the threat of it. We need to understand the ambivalence and dread that Katniss feels, and that her fellow tributes feel.

Oh, and we should probably know who these people are while we’re at it. Instead, we experiences most of the tributes as flat characters, with even Rue (Amandla Stenberg) presented as a likable, empty shadow, and Cato (Alexander Ludwig) delivering the same sneer in every scene, the dystopian version of that old “Welcome to the OC, bitch!” bully archetype. And we’re treated to repeated flashes of Gale’s (Liam Hemsworth) concerned face throughout the movie without even beginning to understand or appreciate his relationship to Katniss.

In fact, we get the sinking feeling about halfway through the movie that, not only is this a film that almost seems designed to feel empty without purchasing and reading the book, but we spend the final moments being set up for the next movie. All of the promise and emotional stakes set forth at the start of the story are for naught. Without spoiling anything, several foreshadowing remarks, in which characters tell us directly what their main focus is, never pay off. And in the final scenes, we’re not treated to anything remotely resembling an emotionally gratifying resolution. For a very long movie that’s essentially about physical and emotional torture not to provide some basic level of emotional connection at the end is simply unforgivable.

This ending, when paired with the uninspired, underwhelming filmmaking and half-baked character development throughout, makes The Hunger Games that all too common specimen these days: a reasonably enjoyable movie that could’ve been amazing, even unforgettable. Ironic, isn’t it, that an allegory about crass commercial exploitation of pure souls would itself succumb to such crass commercial exploitation? The sad thing is, when the ticket and book sales are tallied, Ross and Collins and Lionsgate will be hailed as heroes and they’ll never know how far short of memorable they stopped. Because for once, we don’t want to be strung along for the next installment. This is not television, this is the movies. This is the time to show them everything.

One Response to ““The Hunger Games” only leaves you hungrier – and that’s the point”

  1. TareX says:

    I thought the movie was incredibly well executed (saw it three times so far), till I read this. You’re right. This movie had way more potential to be darker, deeper, and more engaging. Not only given the depth of its source material, but with the availability of such talents like Lawrence, Banks…etc. Truth be told, if it weren’t for Jennifer being cast as Katniss, the movie would have fell as flat as its direction. Even before reading this, I thought the last scenes were significantly lacking. Anyway, I hope this sort of criticism makes it to the producers before Catching Fire and Mockingjay are shot. That all said, having read the book -which I found to be comically immature, with a flaky narrative, I’m glad the movie was on a whole different level of ‘mature’.. But still, could have been better.

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Leonard Klady's Friday Estimates
Friday Screens % Chg Cume
Lucy 17 3173 NEW 17
Hercules 11 3595 NEW 11
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 4.7 3668 -55% 160.4
The Purge: Anarchy 3.4 2856 -65% 44.8
Planes: Fire & Rescue 2.8 3839 -57% 28.6
Sex Tape 1.9 3062 -68% 22.8
And So It Goes 1.3 1762 NEW 1.3
Transformers: Age of Extinction 1.3 2476 -54% 233
Tammy 1.1 2562 -54% 75.8
22 Jump Street 0.8 1613 -46% 183.9
Also Debuting
A Most Wanted Man 0.71 361
The Fluffy Movie 0.51 432
Kick 0.37 179
Magic in the Moonlight 0.12 17
She's Dating the Gangster 70,000 46
Alludu Seenu 29,100 86
The Divine Move 13,000 11
Happy Christmas 4,150 4
A Master Builder 3,100 2
Thirumanam Ennum Nikkah 2,800 13
Eyjafjallajokull 1,800 4
Come Back to Me 1,500 8
A Letter to Momo 1,100 1
Very Good Girls 1,100 9
3-Day Estimates Weekend % Chg Cume
It was supposed to be a horse race (notwithstanding Belmont) but at the finish line the singular teen romance The Fault in Our Stars left the competition in the dust with an estimated $48.1 million debut. Conversely, the frame’s other major release Edge of Tomorrow proved disappointing in a distant second at $28.9 million.
Exclusive newcomers were strong, including a solo Manhattan campaign of $9,400 for Citizen Koch. Much-ballyhooed abortion-themed rom-com Obvious Child proved fertile with $84,100 at four dispensaries.
In the niches, Indian import Holiday partied fair at $373,000 while Pinoy romantic comedy Maybe This Time grossed an impressive return of $552,000 on a trifling 51 screens.
Revenues for the session exceeded $160 million and ebbed 3% from last weekend’s tally. It was 8% improved from 2013 when the debut of The Purge posted $34 million and holdovers of Fast & Furious 6 and Now You See Me duked it out for place position with respective box office of $19.6 million and $19 million.
Industry tracking pitted The Fault in Our Stars against Edge of Tomorrow with the former demonstrating a slight edge as it picked up momentum toward opening day. The adaptation of John Green’s YA novel of teens who strike sparks in a cancer support group had a prognosis of $35 million.
The tide truly turned when Fault generated $8.2 million and Edge took in $1.8 million from Thursday previews. Crystal ball-gazers upped the ante to $55 million but the picture took another surprise turn with an unexpected 31% drop from Friday to Saturday business. Strong WOM in exit polling bodes well to broaden the opening weekend crowd, a predictaly 82% of women and was 79% aged 25-years and younger.
Edge of Tomorrow appeared to suffer from the amusement park factor with the movie crowd opting to skip this particular fun ride. Tracking had pegged the pic to open at between $32 million and $34 million. Reviews were upbeat for the futuristic mayhem with a Groundhog Day twist that opened a week earlier in 27 international territories to $18.7 million.
Exit demos also indicated that the sci-fier wasn’t particularly stepping on Fault’s toes with a 61% male tilt and 73% of the audience aged 25-years and older. A studio spokesman expressed confidence for a strong second weekend hold but history and upcoming competition definitely have the picture bucking considerable odds. International prospects are already ahead of Edge of Darkness’s likely final domestic tally with a second weekend estimated at $82 million that included a $25 million bow in China, $16.6 million in South Korea and Russia with $8.6 million.
Open Road's Chef expanded effectively again, prepping $10 million domestically.
Weekend (estimates) June 6 - 8, 2014
Title
Distributor
Gross (average)
% change *
Theaters
Cume
The Fault in Our Stars
Fox
48.1 (15,160)
NEW
3173
48.1
Maleficent
BV
33.6 (8,520)
-52%
3948
127.5
Edge of Tomorrow
WB
28.9 (8,280)
NEW
3490
28.9
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Fox
14.9 (4,090)
-54%
3639
189
A Million Ways to Die in the West
Uni
7.2 (2,270)
-57%
3160
30.1
Godzilla
WB
6.0 (1.920)
-50%
3110
185.1
Neighbors
Uni
5.2 (1,940)
-36%
2674
137.8
Blended
WB
4.0 (1,370)
-51%
2928
36.5
Chef
Open Road
2.5 (1,940)
32%
1298
10.3
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Sony
1.9 (1,290)
-46%
1481
196.3
Million Dollar Arm
BV
1.8 (1,120)
-49%
1643
31.4
Belle
Searchlight
.75 (1,580)
-40%
476
7.6
Rio 2
Fox
.72 (1,030)
-35%
702
125.6
Maybe This Time
ABS
.55 (10,820)
NEW
51
0.55
The Other Woman
Fox
.48 (980)
-65%
489
83.2
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
BV
.43 (1,360)
-31%
317
255.9
Holiday
Big Pictures
.37 (2,590)
NEW
144
0.37
Heaven is for Real
Sony
.37 (830)
-54%
446
88.8
Words and Pictures
Roadside Attractions
.29 (2,940)
269%
98
0.54
Grand Seduction
eOne
.28 (3,020)
-13%
97
0.82
The Lego Movie
WB
.26 (960)
-5%
274
255.8
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Fox Searchlight
.24 (1,280)
-37%
185
57.8
Ida
Music Box
.21 (2,540)
-10%
84
1.3
The Immigrant
Weinstein
.19 (1,320)
-39%
145
1.4
Divergent
Lionsgate
.19 (650)
-43%
298
149
Weekend Total ($500,000+ Films)
$156.60
% Change (Last Year)
8%
% Change (Last Week)
-3%
Also debuting/expanding
Fed Up
Weinstein Co.
83,600 (950)
-49%
88
1.2
Obvious Child
A24
84,100 (21,030)
4
0.08
Cold in July
IFC
68,900 (970)
-38%
71
0.25
Night Moves
Cinedgm
48,500 (1,520)
126%
32
30,800
Lunchbox
Sony Classics
50,700 (1,100)
-9%
46
4.1
Filmistaan
UTV
35,500 (1,480)
24
0.04
WolfCop
Echolands
34,900 (4,360)
8
0.03
Ping Pong Summer
Gravitas
26,400 (1,760)
15
0.03
Supermensch: The Legend of Shep Gordon
Weinstein Co.
23,200 (5,800)
4
0.02
Only Lovers Left Alive
Sony Classics
22,800 (760)
-53%
30
1.6
Tracks
Mongrel
13,800 (2,760)
5
0.01
Citizen Koch
Variance
9,400 (9,400)
1
0.01
Trust Me
Paladin
5,100 (565)
9
0.01
Burning Blue
Film Arcade
4,600 (380)
12
0.01
The Case Against 8
Submarine
4,300 (1,430)
3
0.01
Test
Variance
2,400 (800)
3
0.01
Domestic Market Share (Jan. 1 - June 5, 2014)
Distributor
Box Office
Market Share
Warner Bros. (12)
728.5
16.80%
Buena Vista (11)
677.1
15.60%
20th Century Fox (11)
615.2
14.20%
Sony (11)
577.7
13.30%
Universal (10)
540.5
12.50%
Paramount (8)
322.2
7.40%
Lionsgate (13)
285.4
6.60%
Open Road (6)
95.1
2.20%
Fox Searchlight (5)
83.7
1.90%
Weinstein Co. (12)
76.5
1.80%
Relativity (5)
75.5
1.80%
FreeStyle (6)
68.9
1.60%
Focus (6)
39.2
0.90%
eOne/Seville (14)
35.3
0.80%
Other * (142)
107.9
2.60%
4328.7
100.00%
* none greater than 0.4%
Top Domestic Grossers (Jan. 1 - June 5, 2014) *
Title
Distributor
Box Office
The Lego Movie
WB
255,590,340
Captain America: The Winter Soldier
BV
255,447,104
The Amazing Spider-Man 2
Sony
194,388,396
Godzilla
WB
179,093,006
X-Men: Days of Future Past
Fox
174,401,266
Divergent
Lionsgate
148,811,524
Frozen *
BV
137,534,677
Ride Along
Uni
134,965,071
Neighbors
Uni
132,600,495
Lone Survivor
Uni/eOne
125,026,404
Rio 2
Fox
124,909,565
Mr. Peabody & Sherman
Fox
110,162,081
300: Rise of an Empire
WB
106,601,189
Noah
Par
100,950,258
Maleficent
BV
93,846,968
Non-Stop
Uni
91,869,306
Heaven is for Real
Sony
88,412,645
American Hustle *
Sony/eOne
82,661,672
The Other Woman
Fox
81,725,819
The Monuments Men
Sony
78,132,865
* does not include 2013 Box Office