There’s a slang phrase you don’t really hear anymore, so much so I’m pretty sure most people have forgotten its meaning: “From hunger”. In fact the last time I can recall hearing it recently wasn’t technically recent, since it was a line of dialogue from the 1950 movie Sunset Boulevard. In that film, a potential movie script is rejected by its reader as being “from hunger”. Modern audiences have to guess at that from its context… or you could do a quick search and find this explanation from The Free Dictionary: “very mediocre; acceptable only when nothing else is available”. The suggested etymology is that of the idea of food you would only choose to eat if you had no real other choice, save starvation.
So I watched The Hunger Games. And before you draw too many conclusions from the first paragraph: I liked it. It’s not a new idea; but then, what really is? The writers of the Book of Ecclesiastes of The Bible were already considering the well of human imagination to have run dry almost 3000 years ago, and they certainly weren’t referring to the prior existence of Battle Royale. The author of Hunger Games is on record as saying she never heard of Battle Royale until she submitted her manuscript for publication, and you know what? I believe her. If you wanted to claim rip-off you could point both properties to The Running Man, but I’m sure The Running Man has its own parallel ancestry to deal with. This is why you can’t copyright ideas, only the specific way those ideas are executed. And that’s also how you have to judge a work… it helps of course if the premise isn’t one that’s been done to death in recent memory, but even an idea which seems like a true breath of fresh air to the audience of the day still has to succeed as a story.
We retell stories because our memories aren’t perfect, even in this day and age where even our humblest drunken ramblings are recorded for posterity. We also retell them because, while certain themes and types of stories remain universal, the way it’s delivered to us changes, and that can matter more than we perhaps like to admit. Beethoven and Trent Reznor both use the same 12 note scale to make music, but although Reznor does have a classically trained background, his industrial, computer-assisted compositions spoke a lot more viscerally to my teenaged self.
I realize I still haven’t said much about Hunger Games itself, beyond saying I liked it. I did see a lot of Running Man in its presentation, which brought me to the curious realization that unlike many other sci-fi movies of my youth (Total Recall, Robocop) it hasn’t been remade. Maybe now it doesn’t need to be? I think I can happily christen Hunger Games as a Running Man for the millenial generation, and if I had a teenage daughter I’d much prefer she be a fan of it than Twilight. Jennifer Lawrence is a fine young actress and Katniss as a character spanks Bella Swan on pretty much all counts.
Lest this sound like faint praise, it’s not. I’m of course predisposed towards post-apocalyptic settings with an overbearing media aspect, and there were many fine moments and places where I thought the director made some ambitious choices. Not all of them work, but some do, and the ambition is to be appreciated in a time when a lot of what’s coming out of Hollywood has a mucky sameness to it, particularly in action movies. Hell I can’t even remember an instance of “shakycam”, and for that I am *profoundly* grateful.
If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s definitely worth a watch. Is it mind blowing? No. Is it a classic for the ages? No. But it at least engages your brain a bit, looks pretty, and it can’t be overstated that a young woman is there as the competent, complicated, and (most importantly) non-fetishized action hero, even though that’s not the central message. It can’t help but be a message because we just have so few of those in our larger mass media, but that’s perhaps a discussion for another day.
In the meantime, I’ll just sum up by saying that from hunger, Hunger Games is not.