…a movie based on a book you may not have read yet and might not be aware of if not for rags like Entertainment Weekly enthusiastically jamming the upcoming film adaptation down your damn throat at every opportunity.
I’m not bitter, really. Color me more perplexed. If you ask EW— or any other major media outlet, so as not to throw one publication under the bus– The Hunger Games seems like the natural candidate to hold the crown of “next big, universally popular franchise” now that the Harry Potter saga has come to a close and the thoroughly turgid, insipid Twilight films are winding down to their last two entries. Confronting this with honesty, there’s really no room for surprise that the search for the next big series has begun; the Hollywood hype machine never sleeps, after all, and when it can it likes to get a leg up on generating buzz. So in that respect, I’m totally on-board with the reasons for the unrelenting coverage and pushing of the 2012 movie. I get it. No sweat.
But I’m confused– very confused– regarding the approach Lionsgate has taken to promoting the film. If Hunger Games had an iconic, classic status forever cementing it in over-arching literary canon, or the same watershed cross-cultural popularity enjoyed by the aforementioned Potter books, then the context-lacking and, frankly, inert promotional campaign would make some sense. Images like the one below would come packaged with inherent context; it’s not just a shot of Josh Hutcherson elbow-deep in baking flour (something that’s bereft of any sort of meaning for people like me who haven’t read the book), it’s a shot of his character in a particular point in the narrative. To someone who’s read Suzanne Collins’ novel, that image signifies something. To the rest of us, it’s bupkiss.
I can’t get excited about this, and I can’t understand why anyone might consider this a reasonable teaser shot designed to generate interest in the film. To me, this and almost every single other preview image released to this date just boils down to actors standing around in their costumes– which is fine for Jennifer Lawrence, who happens to have a prop (a bow and a quiver of arrows) that adds some kind of context to at least some the promo material in which she features.
Of course, as much as the marketing and promo tactics on display leave me cold and baffled, their employment doesn’t constitute the primary thrust of my point here. More than anything, I’m curious as to what makes the media-at-large think that this franchise should be or even will be the Big One, the next major draw to replace the gaping holes left in cinema hierarchy by the departure of Potter and– soon enough– Twilight from theatrical rotation. What does a young adult novel speak to in popular public consciousness that makes The Hunger Games into the media’s race horse? Why is this the franchise we should all be excited over?
Take the Lord of the Rings series as an example. One could very easily look at 2001 through a discerning lens and conclude that Peter Jackson’s Fellowship of the Ring became a box office monster in part due to the terrorist attacks of September 11th. While the Tolkien faithful needed no convincing at the time, myself included, those on the other side of the fence with little knowledge of the books did. What got them into the theaters to watch one of the best genre epics of all time? The conflict at the film’s heart– the themes of good versus evil, of a peaceful ideal world coming under siege by an unrelenting and unfathomable evil– must have struck a chord with many in the wake of the destruction wrought that day. And so the Lord of the Rings franchise became one with crossover appeal, something that fans of the iconic literary works would flock to by default but that the less-familiar mainstream could also relate to.
I’m not saying that The Hunger Games requires a national or worldwide tragedy to become palatable. Rather I’m suggesting that there must be something about the material that has both the studio and media outlets alike convinced that they have a winner on their hands. I’m already giving both parties far too much credit, since the motivation comes down to the bottom line, guaranteed– at a $75 million studio budget (which admittedly says nothing about what the advertising budget could be), and boasting a cast of pretty young actors with respectable visibility, this is probably a pretty secure gamble for all involved (though similar young adult fare– e.g. D.J. Caruso’s I Am Number Four— hasn’t even been able to break even at home*). But the analytical side of me can’t help asking: Why The Hunger Games? Why now?
The narrative concerns a dystopian vision of America’s future in which the country is segregated into twelve districts, which house the impoverished masses, and the Capitol, where the wealthy indulge themselves and ignore the plaintive suffering of the district populations. While I’m generally not one to talk straight-up politics (with some notable exceptions), I think America’s experiencing a political and social climate that’s heavily defined by division (or perceived divisions), and arguably has been for a while; from the “you’re one of us or you’re one of them/you’re with us or you’re against us” mob mentality that spawned in the wake of 9/11 to the culture war between “real” Americans and, ostensibly, “fake” ones, Americans have been isolating themselves from one another based on ideology for years. If The Hunger Games speaks to anything, it’s that sense of division, though admittedly the novel’s dividing lines are not self-imposed (and I would argue that the opposite is true in America today).
Moreover, the book’s central conceit– in which the minority upper class lives the sort of high life only dreamed of by those outside of the Capitol, who barely scrape by living day to day– speaks to both liberal and conservative perspectives on sociological issues pertaining to the allotment of wealth in America and also to the stature and role of government in American society. The left-wing perspective, for example, might revolve around the disproportionate quality of living enjoyed by the minority upper class versus the majority of the population, as well as the distribution of wealth.
Does this mean that American audiences, with hot-topic political issues fresh in their minds, will flock to see The Hunger Games in theaters? I have no idea whatsoever. But if they do, then subtext– whether viewers acknowledge it or not– could play a big role in selling tickets. Then again, I may be projecting myself too much onto the average moviegoer, who doesn’t really care about what a film says to them below the surface and really just wants to shut their brain off for a little while** and ignore the world. And I grant that I’m assuming far too much about how well-informed most people are, as well. Nonetheless, I feel very much compelled to understand the massive emphasis being placed on the film’s impending release; do executives and marketers really feel confident that they have a hit on their hands, or is there something intangible and more substantive driving the push behind Gary Ross’ third directorial feature?
Bonus round question: What if Hunger Games doesn’t turn out to be legit and audiences don’t turn out in droves to watch the first chapter in the saga of sixteen-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence, whose turn in Winter’s Bone could provide a foundation for the character) as she participates in the Battle Royale-esque game of the title. What franchise could spring up to become the new dominating force in serial cinema?
*Not to mention that their releases both fall in the same season.
**In which case I recommend alcohol; it’s cheaper and it’s more effective. Win win.