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By Shane M. Dallmann

Virtually everybody reading this is well aware of THE HUNGER GAMES, poised to devour the box office and become the new “young adult” sensation as the TWILIGHT films fade into the sunset. Those who’ve been following my particular reviews for a while are probably aware that the “deadly game show” concept is one of my adopted cinematic specialties, and would probably like to know how I feel about the similarity between THE HUNGER GAMES and BATTLE ROYALE more than they wonder how I feel about the current pop culture phenomenon, however…

Well, first off, I find it quite remarkable that BATTLE ROYALE was considered too controversial for American release until very recently, while THE HUNGER GAMES is going to make a saturation PG-13 fortune. (I also turn your attention to a worthwhile article in TIME Magazine which ponders over the PG-13 awarded to this film as opposed to the R rating assigned to the would-be-helpful documentary BULLY simply because some of the latter’s subjects dropped a few of those four-letter words that every student hears every day.) Okay, the violence in THE HUNGER GAMES is stylized and toned-down to the point where it’s not nearly as traumatic as that of BATTLE ROYALE, but that’s certainly not the only difference.

Naturally, I wasn’t going to delve into something this contentious without doing my homework. I prepared for the HUNGER GAMES movie by reading the first book in the Suzanne Collins trilogy. And I’m prepared to state that THE HUNGER GAMES is not a ripoff of BATTLE ROYALE. I have no reason to think that Ms. Collins ever saw the Japanese film which hadn’t been officially released in the U.S. and which was only known to a cadre of hardcore film fans and manga enthusiasts. The “death sport of the future” is a tried and true staple, and it’s asking too much to suggest that Collins wasn’t capable of coming up with a variant involving youngsters on her own. This is an even less remarkable coincidence than the REPO! THE GENETIC OPERA/REPO MEN flap of recent years (same premise, different story and characters), or, if you want to dig back even further, the parts-and-parcels appropriated from Lucio Fulci’s THE NEW GLADIATORS for the Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle THE RUNNING MAN (my cause célèbre of the late 1980s).

We’ve seen deathsports staged in the name of “giving the people what they want” (DEATH RACE 2000); as a substitute for global war designed to squelch individual personality (the original ROLLERBALL); as a TV ratings sensation (NEW GLADIATORS/RUNNING MAN, etc.); as a means to an unauthorized Web “killing” (THE CONDEMNED)… the list goes on, the list goes on. In BATTLE ROYALE, Japan was experimenting with a way to deal with potential troublemakers; and in THE HUNGER GAMES, the title games are staged as punishment for a long-ago rebellion and as a means to teach the population just who’s in charge… year after year.

I read the book with great interest (I don’t have to rehash the plot or characters, do I?)—I especially wanted to know if the story would fatally compromise itself by arranging to have young narrator/heroine Katniss survive the games without ever having to actually kill anyone herself. Such was not the case—spoilers end—color me satisfied. The book itself is quite reasonably effective and held my interest more than had any TWILIGHT entry (and yes, I’ve read all four of them).

The movie takes its time building up to the games themselves, which don’t commence until roughly an hour into the running time. Now, that’s fine for the book, which is first-person-narrated and supplies plenty of vital background and detail. The movie starts quite atmospherically with the depiction of the devastated District 12, but when we get to the Capitol? I notice a lot of critics complain that the future-chic look of the film (costumes, hairstyles) is a bit too silly, but frankly, it’s not a patch on THE FIFTH ELEMENT, which it seems to be trying to resemble. As we proceed through the first half of the film, it’s a good thing that we’ve got a legitimately talented actress in Jennifer Lawrence to carry things… and it’s an even better thing that such pros as Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci are there to spice things up. Then the games begin…

The action that follows is quite faithful to the book, with the exceptions being reasonable for the format. We break from the first-person format in order to supply information Katniss merely thought about for our benefit in the book, and to give Donald Sutherland (as President Snow) and Wes Bentley (as the Gamesmaster) more screen time in which to expound on the reasons behind the games and why this particular round doesn’t seem to be working to their advantage. (An interesting elimination from the book is the concept that the population is compelled to watch the games—here, we’re given a conversation between our young protagonists which suggests that there would be no need for the Games if people simply refused to watch—to me, that’s the wrong way to approach this story.) But every important thing that happened in the book happens in the movie, which also wisely dispenses with one of the novel’s more ludicrous revelations (there are savage beasts, but we’re spared the “Mutts” as such). I also liked the addition of the flash-mob Macarena staged by a rebellious district. Or maybe I made that part up because I was bored.

Oops. There. I said it. For all of its fidelity, for all of its controversy, for all of its promised action and suspense, the movie just isn’t all that exciting. I know—it’s supposed to be downbeat and dystopian. And I know that people complained about the non-action scenes in the original ROLLERBALL (I didn’t agree), but the clash itself delivered what it promised and then some—and it still does, no matter how many times I see it and no matter how well I know who’s going to be left standing when it’s all over. Not once during THE HUNGER GAMES did I feel any true tension. The book did, indeed, provide a reasonably fresh way to look at this controversial concept. But the movies have already taken depictions of such clashes to various extremes, and nothing THE HUNGER GAMES does can improve on what we’ve already seen plenty of times. But of course, the target audience isn’t likely to have seen any of its cinematic predecessors. And they’re going to make this a monster hit. And I hope it inspires them to dig a little further into the concept. We shall see…