Friday, August 5, 2011

Not sloppy seconds or hand-me-downs, but a new myth for the current generation. Why The Hunger Games film franchise matters...

Arguably the most surprising bit of news dropped yesterday was the admission that Steven Soderbergh would be performing duties as the second-unit director for Gary Ross's The Hunger Games.  Even with the friendship that the two of them apparently share (The Playlist goes into details), it is a little unexpected for someone of Soderbergh's stature to agree to do second-unit work, on someone else's big-budget young-adult literature adaptation no less.  But that news is merely a segue-way into why the series is indeed far more important than we realize to the long-term health of the industry.  The film, due to be released on March 23rd of next year, is an adaptation of the first of three books detailing a futuristic wasteland where teenagers are forced to fight to the death on a reality TV show as a form of tribune to the society overlords.  Yes, this is not unlike Battle Royale, which is an absolutely terrific action film/social satire from Japan that basically has the same general premise (it's based on a book and a comic book as well).  Having said that, I'll give author Suzanne Collins the benefit of the doubt that she's never seen the 2000 release, as it's never been officially released in theaters or DVD in America.  But the film being released in March, which will theoretically spawn two more in the next several years, is indeed a vital and important one for reasons unrelated to its premise.

First and foremost, The Hunger Games is a new franchise that happens to have a female as its action lead.  It is not a re-branding of a fairy tale nor a female-targeted film revolving entirely around romance.  Major franchises with female leads are an endangered species.  The Twilight Saga had that as well of course.  And while we may disapprove of the choices that Bella Swan makes in regards to the men in her life, she sets her sights on Edward Cullen and pursues him with a single-minded determination that would be praised if she were looking for a buried treasure or fighting off terrorists (or taken for granted if 'she' were a 'he').  But other than Twilight, Underworld, and Resident Evil, the franchise world for female-driven genre pictures is pretty much empty.  Katniss Everdean, taking her little sister's place in a televised death match so that said sibling may live instead, is a step in the right direction. Simply by occupying a space usually reserved for ripped men or geeky boys, she is an important step in leveling the gender playing field in the realm of studio tentpoles.

Also of note is the fact that, so far anyway, Lionsgate plans on releasing The Hunger Games the old-fashioned way.  It will be released in several thousand screens presented in 2D 35mm film (or DLP prints).  There will be no 3D conversion, nor even an IMAX upgrade (which, to be fair, I'd be less opposed to).  Considering that Lionsgate has no other plausible ongoing franchises (unless they get smart and start churning out more of Michael Connelly's "Mickey Haller" legal thrillers), and the field for relatively original (IE - not based on a well-known comic book or board game) franchises is pretty sparse after next year, Lionsgate is taking a chance.  After the middling opening weekends of X-Men: First Class and Cowboys and Aliens, going 2D is almost a risk in the current marketplace.  If The Hunger Games really does end up approaching the levels of even the first Twilight ($69 million opening, $192 million domestic finish), it will be yet more evidence that, as I always like to say, "It's the movie (stupid)". So a win for Hunger Games is a blow against needless 3D-conversions.       

But most importantly, The Hunger Games is just the sort of thing I was discussing a few weeks back.  It is an original myth, taken from an original novel, with new characters that can appeal to the youth of today (and their parents perhaps).  It is not an adventure recycled from our childhoods.  It is not a big-budget variation on a cartoon that we all watched in the 1980s.  It is not a remake or reboot of a 1980s franchise that absolutely no one wanted a redo of (Short Circuit?  Seriously?).  It is not a comic book reboot created solely to retain the rights to a given character.  It is something new, something at least somewhat different, and it is the start of what would be a new film mythology for the current generation.

In the ten years since Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone and The Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring debuted, there have been any number of attempts to mimic their success.  The corpses are legion.  The Spiderwick Chronicles, The Golden Compass, The Dark is Rising, Eragon, Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief, etc.  They all failed, sometimes spectacularly, where the boy who lived succeeded (I'll believe a sequel for the critical flop and commercial mediocrity that is Percy Jackson and the Olympians when I see it).  The Chronicles of Narnia keeps hanging on via international muscle but, judging from the films, are there any memorable characters to be found outside of maybe Aslan and the White Witch?  The one franchise that actually succeeded financially and in the realm of creating new characters is the Twilight franchise.  But it will be ending in a year's time, arguably a year behind schedule (since the final book was split into two films).

I have not read The Hunger Games, and I probably will not, wanting to discover these characters at the movies for the first time.  But the fan frenzy creating by the casting of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson)  Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci... yes!), among others, there seems to show a real affection not just for the narrative but for the characters involved.  I see in these fans the same affection we share for Hermione Granger and Severus Snape.  And, if I may comment on a franchise I have not yet read, that is exactly what this generation of kids, if not every generation of kids, needs: a series of iconic genre characters to call their own.  He-Man and She-Ra was created for me.  Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was created for me.  Gargoyles was created for me.  That so much of our popular culture currently revolves around rehashes of that which was intended for our generation (Transformers, ThunderKats, etc), the generation before us (Star Wars), and/or our parents (Star Trek) as opposed to the current generation is what makes this newest would-be franchise so important.

The Harry Potter series was created for the current generation, which is why its success mattered.  It created a whole mythology specifically for the generation that grew up reading them.  For better or worse, the Twilight series accomplished the same thing to a relative scale.  Now that the Harry Potter series is at an end and The Twilight Saga has just over a year left, there will soon be a gaping hole in the world of bigscreen mythology.  The Hunger Games, partially by default (the barren wasteland of recycled nostalgia), partially due to the free publicity that comes with being the alleged 'next big thing', and partly because of its alleged quality, has a shot at being the next great new myth on the silver screen.  Right from the start, people have taking to calling The Hunger Games 'the next Twilight' (purely because it featured a female lead I'd imagine) as if it were a left-handed compliment.  But kids need modern cinematic folklore.  They needed Star Wars and Indiana Jones in the 1980s and they needed Harry Potter and Twilight in the 2000s.  The Hunger Games may not be for you or for me.  It's a modern myth, written in the present and intended to be enjoyed and cherished by the children growing up right now.  It's written today, for the kids of today.  And that's why it matters.

Scott Mendelson  


Brandon said...


corysims said...

I agree, Brandon. Great write up, Scott.

Personally, I found the books to be very, very good.

k0rrupt said...

" for the kids of today"

I would suggest you read the books. If done right then this film won't be for kids of today. Its bloody, violent and from what I've heard about the second and third (i've only read the first, own the second) the violence is upped. Even referring to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, which were very much family/children oriented franchises would, in my opinion, require a bit of a rethink on your part in terms of determining which audience this book was made for.

Lipton said...

It's a real shame that Shyamalan's Avatar: The Last Airbender was such a catastrophe because that's another entertainment product that is wholly new for this generation. But at least the movie's flop didn't impact the animated franchise seeing as they're gearing up to produce a sequel series.

Remake fever is obnoxious though I don't think it's quite as dire as you do. I was one of those children of the 70's/80's and some of the shows I remember the best are Rocky & Bullwinkle, Looney Tunes, and Scooby Doo, all products of my parents' generation. I think the rising generation will have the chance to enjoy stories that were created specifically for them, they just may not come from film.

Which isn't to say that I approve of the incessant need to remake, I think the Smurfs should have stayed in my childhood where they belong, not be inflicted on a new generation in some creepy CGI-fest of a movie. I do want to see The Hunger Games do really well, not just because I enjoyed the book but also for all of the reasons you've mentioned. The movie industry needs a shot of something new to get out of this rut they've fallen into. There are only so many comic book movies that anyone should have to see.

Lady Jane said...

Scott, I had the same hopes for "Hunger Games" as a meaningful modern-day myth for the younger set. Then I read it.

"Hunger Games" is a book about a girl getting a very big makeover for a reality television show, and that's about it. There is no significant or meaningful world-building or myth-making to speak of. It's "American Idol" with bows and arrows. I'm not kidding. We get a token amount of "world building," but the only world that's being built is essentially a poverty-stricken Appalachia. We've seen that world many times. People eat squirrels and live in shacks and so on and so forth.

Then we get to the actual Hunger Games, which is what Collins spends the bulk of her time and energy on. And the Hunger Games is a reality television show that is an exact replica of today's reality television. We get an ugly duckling heroine who gets a big makeover. Entire chapters of the book are devoted to her meetings with stylists and trainers and PR flaks and being interviewed before a live studio audience. I'm NOT kidding. Then she's followed around by TV cameras while audiences cast votes on who they like the best as the cast members of the reality show form alliances and betray each other, etc...

Could it make for a neat action movie? I don't know, maybe. But the book was a huge disappointment full of shopworn ideas (or no ideas at all), the most that it offers its readers is gory violence ("ooh it's so EDGY for a YA audience!") and a reality show with all the reality-show trappings we see every night on TV (I think a character actually says, "I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to win!").

There's more imagination and richness in virtually any chapter from the Harry Potter books than you'll find in the entire first book of HUNGER GAMES.

The Rhyme to Reason said...

I have to completely disagree with your analysis! the book is not about a reality TV show, it's making fun of reality TV cliches and taboos. The majority of the series is actually about a political revolution using the Hunger Games as a means of propaganda (the Capital did not intend). There is much depth to the actual creation of the games in the first place. The games were a way to strike fear into the public as a way of saying the the government would not allow another revolution. The Capital takes kids and lock them in an arena, then they go kill each other. There really isn't anything glamorous about it.

There is strategy at play as always! The glamorous part of the story is to get support so the tribute can last longer in the arena and maybe make it out with there life. Since it is a TV show, there are elements of production in it. In several cases, the character realizes she is being televised and plays to the camera but it has everything to do with the very powerful political statements being made and how she interacts with the other characters.

@Lady Jane: I'm really quite disappointed in your rudimentary understanding of this powerful series. Next time, look past the obvious and realize the plot, characters, and theme are quite advanced and past the point of being conspicuous.

Lady Jane said...

The book asks us to accept that the evil overlords of The Capital need a way to subvert and control their colonies and squelch the threat of any future rebellions. The book then asks us to accept that the best way the overlords in the Capital can come up with to do this is to forcibly remove the oppressed peoples' children and have them kill each other in a televised reality show. Uh, OK.

But then Collins tells us that instead of this being spirit-crushing, a lot of district's REALLY LOVE the hunger games. In fact they train their children to be awesome fighters so they can bring honor and prizes to the home districts.

Ssssooo...the Capital designed the Hunger Games as an effective soul-crushing method to destroy the spirits of the oppressed and keep them from ever wanting to rebel -- oh, but the oppressed people actually really like it and want their kids chosen and want them to win?

None of it makes any sense, and the novel doesn't work on any level as satire either -- it's satirizing what? Reality television culture? The tone is too drenched in realism and the violence is too graphic. This movie could be a disposable bows-and-arrows action flick for teens, but to pretend it has any larger meaning as satire or commentary or meaningful myth-making is wishful thinking.


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