The Hunger Games: A stew of media leftovers

Each week, the Reel Dad checks the nutritional value of a movie — new or classic — to help families choose what to watch. This week’s pick is the adaptation of the popular novel, The Hunger Games.

Making a movie is like cooking dinner. You follow a recipe, toss in reliable ingredients, consider the appropriate heat and time, and prepare until ready. And, if you serve a hungry crowd with high expectations, you hope to avoid disappointment.

The Hunger Games is the latest publishing phenomenon to journey through the cinema kitchen. While its blend of romance, action and honor may inspire a reader to visualize, the literal translation of a novel to the screen requires a clear point of view. But director Gary Ross never seems to know what he is preparing. Is this a romance? An adventure? A political commentary? Without a clear sense of purpose, Ross permits the conflicting visual styles and abbreviated narrative to create a confusing film filled with too many characters, computer-generated effects and under-cooked relationships. Instead of rewarding the book’s fans with an ultimate movie experience, this cinema chef serves a standard stew that overflows with media leftovers.

As with any adaptation, The Hunger Games searches for an efficient way to detail its backstory. We quickly learn that Jennifer Lawrence is a young woman trapped in a society where, to stabilize the citizenry, annual televised games pit young people in a fight to the death. This ultimate reality show, carefully staged in a manipulated environment from a vast control center, illustrates the plight of people whose leader fears the power of hope. The media machine is not prepared, however, for a heroine strong enough to defy expectations as she maneuvers her way through this exaggerated chase of cat and mouse.

Ross could have converted the book’s strong narrative into thought-provoking entertainment. But like a chef who overlooks the fundamentals, this director ignores the basics. He does not give us enough insight into this unusual world to help us understand why the sets and costumes must be so stylized. He refuses to take the necessary screen time to develop the primary characters or how they relate. And he fails to focus on the actors’ performances, leaving us to rely on our movie memories of their past work, from the similar portrayal Lawrence created for Winter’s Bone to the familiar personas of Woody Harrelson and Stanley Tucci. This leaves us without people to care about, who struggle in a world we do not fully embrace.

Where Ross really misses the mark, however, is failing to establish the importance of the games to the people. We get no sense of what this experience means to viewers, what hope it offers, what heroes they need. Unlike how Clint Eastwood conveyed the power of rugby in Invictus, Ross overlooks the media power that propels this adventure. For such a film to work in a world conditioned by television reality shows, Ross needs the edge of The Truman Show instead of the bland approach he brought to Pleasantville several years ago.

Perhaps Ross is the wrong cook for this kitchen. Just as with his adaptation of the much-loved Seabiscuit, the director dilutes a story people adore with clichés we have seen too many times. The million who crave The Hunger Games as it was on paper deserve more from the film.

Film Nutritional Value

The Hunger Games

* Content: Medium. While it may be adapted from a popular novel, the film never creates its own identity, tone or rhythm.

* Entertainment: Medium. As strong as the book’s narrative may be, the film is undermined by poor character development and a clash of visual styles.

* Message: Medium. Because the characters are difficult to care for, the film misses many opportunities to comment on the larger world.

* Relevance: Medium. Any adaptation of a novel this popular becomes a relevant movie event. But The Hunger Games disappoints.

* Opportunity for Dialogue: Medium. Those who love the story on the page will have much to discuss about its adaptation for the screen.

(The Hunger Games is rated PG-13 for intense violent thematic material and disturbing images. The film runs 142 minutes.)

2-1/2 Popcorn Buckets