This week, the first cinematic adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy is hogging the home video spotlight.
The Hunger Games
3½ stars (out of four)
Rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images – all involving teens
Available Aug. 18 on DVD, Blu-ray, digital download and on demand
When “The Hunger Games” played theaters in March, it posted the biggest opening in history for a movie released outside of summer. While there is no direct correlation between box office success and quality, the numbers are worth reporting, especially since “The Hunger Games” is a blockbuster that’s actually good.
Truth told, 2012 has been an excellent year for blockbuster movies. “The Avengers” and “The Dark Knight Rises” also boast a nice mix of quality, spectacle and audience approval, but it was “The Hunger Games” that got the ball rolling. As impressive as the box office totals are, they probably weren’t a surprise to fans of Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” novels. The books are breakout hits in multiple countries, meaning the movie reached theaters with a built-in audience.
“The Hunger Games” is the first entry in Collins’ three-story set, which takes place in Panem, a post-apocalyptic version of North America. The country is comprised of a wealthy capitol city and 12 poverty-stricken districts. As penance for past rebellion, each district is forced to sacrifice one boy and one girl to an annual gladiator-like contest known as the Hunger Games. The contest is televised much like today’s reality TV programs, but the stakes are much higher than on “Survivor” or “The Bachelor.” In this game show, the contestants fight to the death.
The heroine of the film is Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), a smart, athletic 16-year-old who volunteers for the games as a replacement for her meek younger sister, who was chosen by lottery. As the movie progresses, director Gary Ross (“Seabiscuit,” “Pleasantville”) walks viewers through Katniss’ journey, step by step. First, the contestants are treated like celebrities, as they’re trotted onto talk shows for all of Panem to see. Then, they get a brief introduction to combat and survival skills before being thrown into a massive outdoor arena where they must fight each other and a number of artificially constructed dangers.
The film also sets the stage for a “Romeo and Juliet”-style romance. The other competitor from Katniss’ district is a handsome young man named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), and the two like each other, making it more heartbreaking when they’re thrown into the arena.
On the surface, “The Hunger Games” is a simple kill-or-be-killed action movie, but Ross wants viewers to come away with a deeper message. Because the games are televised, the film is clearly meant as a media critique, but even that description is limiting. It’s safer to call “The Hunger Games” a critique of modern society. The project is not, however, flawless. Despite what appear to be pure motives on the part of Ross and Collins – the latter helped adapt her novel for the screen – “The Hunger Games” could be interpreted as a project that glorifies violence. I don’t believe that’s what the filmmakers were attempting, but since the key characters are teens, even the possibility of that reading is troubling.
Filmgoers will do well to remember that this movie is the first part of a trilogy, meaning the thematic elements presented here are underdeveloped. Hopefully, as the series plays out, the filmmakers’ thoughts on violence will become clearer and, hopefully, the remaining films will be just as energetic and exciting as this one.
DVD and Blu-ray extras include a marketing archive, a conversation between Ross and film critic Elvis Mitchell, and an eight-part documentary on the making of the movie.
ALSO OUT THIS WEEK
Criterion films by the Dardenne brothers: The Criterion Collection is delivering two movies by the filmmaking duo of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne: “La Promesse” (1996) and “Rosetta” (1999). Released in 1996, “La Promesse” was their breakthrough work, and it tells the story of a teen boy who comes to terms with the fact that his father makes a living exploiting illegal immigrants. “Rosetta” won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for its stark portrayal of a poverty-stricken woman trying to support both herself and her alcoholic mother. Both films are presented in French with English subtitles.
“Glee” – The Complete Third Season: This TV dramedy about the players in a high school show choir has been great from the beginning. The 22 episodes presented here are filled with teen-angst drama, frequent laughs and tons of great music.
“Dexter” – The Complete Sixth Season: Showtime’s drama about a super-intelligent serial killer who attacks only “deserving” victims has been a perennial favorite, and this release offers fans the chance to revisit recent episodes. Michael C. Hall stars.
“Juan of the Dead”: Horror comedy about a middle-aged Cuban slacker (Alexis Diaz de Villegas) who fights back when Havana is overrun by zombies. Written and directed by Alejandro Brugues.
“Breathless”: Comedy-thriller about an unhappy housewife (Gina Gershon) who, along with her best friend (Kelli Giddish), plots to kill her thuggish husband (Val Kilmer). Co-written and directed by Jesse Baget.
“Jaws” – 100th Anniversary Edition: This Steven Spielberg-directed thriller is considered one of the greatest films of all time for a reason. The story, about a giant shark that terrorizes a beach community, is just as action-packed as it is suspenseful. Richard Dreyfuss, Roy Scheider and Robert Shaw star. Universal is rolling the movie onto a new combo pack that includes DVD, Blu-ray and digital versions of the feature.
“Community” – The Complete Third Season: Another 22 episodes of the NBC comedy about students making their way through a Colorado community college.
– Forrest Hartman is an independent film critic whose byline has appeared in some of the nation’s largest publications. For more of his work visit http://www.ForrestHartman.com. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.