It’s impossible not to compare Suzanne Collins’ story of a dystopian society were children / teens are forced to participate in a battle to the death with Koshoun Takami's novel Battle Royal, which spawned two films in 2000 [M] and 2003 [M], but there are significant differences that allow both works to stand on their own as unique cultural satires.
Whereas Takami’s approach amped up the violence and immediately plunged readers into the terror of being a teen forced to kill fellow classmates, Collins focused on slowly building up the mythology within her Orwellian world, as well as the relationships between heroine Katniss and her fractured family, her one true love, and the strange friendships and alliances she’s forced to build prior to the games – that of her media-savvy mentor, a personal stylist, and her ‘real’ and ‘screen’ boyfriends – the boy she loves at home, and the local boy with whom she’s been paired to represent her district.
Much like the more benign The Truman Show (1998) and the shrill Gamer (2009), everything is televised, and the shifting perspectives between contestants, emcees, organizers, and audiences capture a world where the media is abusive in the hands of corporations and governments. One unique concept (possibly borrowed from Battle Royale II: Requiem, is the use of viewers who sponsor players and fund extra benefits in the form of live-saving ointments, or nutritious soup).
Unlike the Battle Royale films and Gamer, the actual combat within Hunger is dialed down to a PG-13 level, with any gore appearing as clinical wounds, and most of the hand-to-hand combat happening in stylized montages designed to impress the stress level of being hunted and surprised versus a showcase for splattering, grisly violence. Blood-letting is saved for specific confrontations in the finale, but most of the trauma is obfuscated by careful editing and cinematography. The villains are grey rather than psychotic, although there are two 'career' players clearly hooked on the thrill of achieving a high kill count.
Collins, who also co-wrote the script, apparently supervised the script’s design, while ensures the unresolved character threads will be picked up in the next film (and likely progress into a third).
Whereas Battle I’s character focus moved from a series of interconnected micro-battles to a final good vs. evil, Hunger sticks with its central heroine – a move that allows her character to intensify, albeit at the expense of the fellow combatants, who remain generally banal teen killers. After the game’s debut where the 24 teens are hacked down to 12, it’s essentially a cat & mouse game between Katniss and her ‘screen’ boyfriend, a few reluctant killers, a passive-aggressive killer, and blood-thirsty career killers.
Gary Ross’ direction is well-balanced, but the PG-13 design diminishes the film’s impact. A much tamer work than Gamer, Hunger is also reflective of the American commercial culture where violence is packaged for the broadest possible audience, and specialty fans wanting gore must access premium, specialty venues (like unrated video releases, or via grislier foreign films that spawned a tamer American remake).
What’s ironic is how Hunger was produced & released by Lionsgate, an indie studio whose prior wealth and reputation came from the Saw franchise – torture porn - the polar opposite of Collins’ canon, and yet Hunger may become a bigger cash cow than the Saw series, since its penetration isn't restricted to R-level audiences.
Those first exposed to Battle Royale will find Hunger Games too simplistic, but it has its own merits. The real challenge will be how well Collins and the filmmakers can develop the franchise into an engaging series with increasingly riskier entanglements.
© 2012 Mark R. Hasan