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By Ryan Wilson

It shows just how out of touch I am with youth culture when I signed off last week, promising to review “The Hunger Game” singular, not the accurate title, The Hunger Games, plural, which obviously signals that there’s more than one. I might as well have said The Crying Game. No, I didn’t know that it was a trilogy of young adult novels, and when I found out, I immediately became biased against the phenomenon due to some bitter Twilight aftertaste.

Now only a week later, after seeing the first film adaptation in the series, I can say that I’m totally hip to what all the kids are taking about. I thoroughly enjoyed The Hunger Games, with a few minor complaints along the way. The story combines two of my favorite movie preoccupations: young love and the post-apocalypse. Forget the fragile remains of society replaying every trope under a cruel Social Darwinism. Which boy will the girl want to kiss?

It’s difficult not to tease, mainly because The Hunger Games steals from just about everything you already should have read. It’s one part Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery,” another part Aldous Huxley‘s Brave New World, and the largest part William Golding’s Lord of The Flies. Well, Lord of The Flies in North Face jackets. Somewhere your high school English teacher is shaking her head.

Not that we care about her. We’re too busy rooting for poor kid Katniss Everdeen, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who must compete in a “Most Dangerous Game” situation among a group of 24 teens for the amusement of her fashion-mistake overlords. Plenty is said about the power of fear and hope in the games, but it’s never quite clear how the games themselves help to keep the rabble at bay, other than the whole grizzly affair is televised, which feels like an effective statement on our current Reality-TV culture. As one of Katniss’s hunky boy-choices tells her, “if we didn’t watch, it would go away.” I kept thinking similar thoughts about the “tributes,” as they’re called. If these kids just made the ethical decision not to kill each other, end of story. But alas, if anything, the movie confirms that high schoolers are just looking for an excuse to kill each other, so the bloodlust runs every which way, and I admit that when Katniss finally picks up her bow and arrow, I wanted to see her use it.

Violence as contradiction is the true theme of the film. We’re horrified during the first half of the film that such a society would exist, but while watching Katniss survive we too surrender to the same violent impulses of that society. The movie messes with us in just the right way. Though its setting and class structures are exaggerated, just enough parallels exist to our world to make moments of the film unsettling. Notably, when the most innocent child, who comes from a minority district, is violently cut down, we see her community rebel against the indifferent authority. It’s difficult not to think about the recent unarmed teenager shot in Florida when watching this sequence. But that’s always been the power of good science fiction: remove its elaborate dressing and what’s left is a skewed reality.

Speaking of dressing, the art direction of the film owes its costumes and décor to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange and Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I was at first annoyed by the gaudy Lady Gaga attire of the gentry here, contrasted by the depression era wardrobe of Katniss’s mining community, but ultimately this visually makes its own political statement concerning the dignity of the common man versus the excess of the one percent.

With so much statement-making implied in the visuals and action, it’s a shame that we finally whittle events down to a weak love story between Katniss and fellow tribute Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson. Director Gary Ross knows how to get the most out of his teenagers, as he did in 1998’s Pleasantville, but Katniss’ personal romantic crisis doesn’t yet resonate.

What does resonate is Lawrence as Katniss, who may be the most engaging female action hero since Sarah Michelle Gellar became Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Like Buffy, Katniss is complex and confident. She’s secure in her talents yet also confused about her circumstance. Like Gellar, Lawrence can hold us with her plight. She controls the frame without saying anything, embodying burgeoning maturity. Young girls are wise to admire her, despite her romantic trials.

The Hunger Games, like Twilight before it, will no doubt continue in the coming years with more films, but unlike Twilight, the film will hopefully gives us plenty to think about besides a soapy love triangle. If the first adaptation is any sign, the series is going after bigger game.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College, Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2012