By Carl Kozlowski
Arnold Schwarzenegger has become famous in several different life arenas: as a world-champion weightlifter, an international cinema superstar and the governor of California. But who would have thought he could also be considered a prophetic media satirist as well?
Back in 1987, he starred in The Running Man, a sci-fi action flick based on a short story by Stephen King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman. That film envisioned a future in which an average man (though if Arnie’s an “average” man, that alone makes the film sci-fi) is forced to battle for his life against a series of high-tech opponents on national TV, as sarcastic host Richard Dawson brings an evil sense of glee to the proceedings.
While that film scored middling reviews and made just $31 million at the box office, it foreshadowed countless campaign headlines labeling Arnie as a “running man” for governor and paved the way for the coming wave of American Idol and reality television as well. But perhaps the highest-profile project it foreshadowed was The Hunger Games, a worldwide blockbuster trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins that this weekend makes its debut as a film series in theaters across the planet.
Hunger focuses on a teenage girl named Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), who lives in a future decade amid the Appalachia-like Region 12 of a country called Panem. Panem used to be the United States, back before a revolution against institutional greed and corruption was viciously crushed by the government. The citizens have since lived in abject poverty and fear of their leaders, with the annual Hunger Games providing their only joy amid a miserable existence.
The Games require that government police march into each district and take captive one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18, who are chosen by a lottery to fight to the death against teens from other districts while the nation watches the killings on television and cheers. The sole survivor of the games each year gets to be showered in money and live in the lap of luxury as a symbol of the government’s “love” for the people.
When Katniss’ younger sister is named in the draft and breaks down in hysterical tears, she volunteers to take her place, causing a sensation as the first volunteer ever in her district. And as she and her District 12 compatriot, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), prepare for the Games, she devises a plan to survive it all while retaining as much of her decency and humanity as possible.
Co-written and directed by Gary Ross, who has proven himself to be a world-class filmmaker with Pleasantville and Seabiscuit, The Hunger Games creates a disturbing look at a future society that’s lost its way both economically and morally. When teens’ only hope for a better life is to fight to the death against 23 of their peers, and everyone else tunes in to cheer on the proceedings, it’s clear something has gone very, very wrong.
Yet Ross, who co-wrote the script with Collins and Billy Ray (who also covered complex moral territory in the film Breach), isn’t being exploitative with the material. He guides his cast through heartbreakingly real performances, as Lawrence and Hutcherson signal they’re ready for stardom and Woody Harrelson offers a haunting quality as a former Games champion who mentors Katniss and Peeta, but clearly wishes he’d never experienced the Games in the first place.
The film deftly balances its moral questions with intensely evolving action, and thankfully Collins and Ross have each found a way to keep what could have been an unrelentingly violent film tense while leaving much of the deaths off-screen and filled in by viewers’ imaginations. Meanwhile, Stanley Tucci brings the film some much-needed wicked humor through his portrayal of Caesar Flickerman, the main broadcast host whose overly toothy smarm and maniacal laugh seem based on a cross-breeding of Ryan Seacrest and Regis Philbin.
All told, The Hunger Games takes what could have been an ugly wallow in the darkest corners of the human spirit and inspires viewers by showing a heroine who continually tries to find the most decent path of behavior she can. In a world where we too often see the absolute worst of humanity in our real lives on the news, and where our teenagers’ idea of entertainment is too often centered on sex-obsessed vampires and werewolves, viewers should feel not only entertained but thankful that so many outstanding talents have successfully managed to speak to our times.