I knew that I was going to see The Hunger Games this weekend, because there was nothing else coming out and perhaps also because I wanted to see what the world was suddenly so excited about, but I had no thought of going to a midnight showing. Why would I? To the best of my knowledge, I’ve never so much as touched a copy of one of the books; if you’d asked me about the movie a month ago, I probably would’ve guessed that ‘hunger game’ was the proper anthropological term for those offers at restaurants where your meal is free if you can eat an entire three-pound hamburger.
Then a friend from work suggested that a group of us go to see it at midnight at the Arclight Hollywood, and, well, why the hell not? So it was that five of us found ourselves rushing to our seats at 12:20 in the morning, fully aware that we had to get up to be at work at 9 the next day, surrounded by teenage girls and middle-aged fantasy fans, not sure what to expect.
I’ve been to one other midnight screening in my life, when I was a junior in high school and decided that it would be fun to go to the 12:01 show of Star Wars Episode III. I was with two friends, and we waited in a long line outside what was then the Loews Boston Common theater (since transformed into an AMC by virtue of the merger between the two chains) surrounded by people wearing Darth Vader costumes and chattering excitedly about what we’d heard was far and away the best of Lucas’s three prequel films. To this day, I’ll maintain that that is the case, and I don’t think it’s a position that many will contest; but then, how could they, when The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones are the two movies it was competing with? Still, though, beyond a couple of particularly memorable scenes, what really sticks out to me about that night is the memory of standing in line talking, and listening to the people around me comparing notes about what they knew about the storyline, and perhaps most strangely feeling very young. There were other teenagers in the line with us, I’m sure, but most of the audience were older, in their thirties: men and women who had come of age in the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, when Star Wars changed the face of moviemaking. Still, there was a particular energy – a sense that this was, yes, a movie, but also an event to be remembered separately and apart from whatever we thought of the story we were about to take in, and that we were all sharing it together.
The faces at the premiere of The Hunger Games were different, generally younger, more female, decked out not with robes and lightsabers but strange wigs and graphic t-shirts bearing the film’s ubiquitous ‘mockingjay’ logo. The energy, though, was the same, all talk and excitement and wide-eyed anticipation – and some muttered voices fearing that the movie couldn’t possibly live up to the images that they had crafted in their own minds when they were reading the books.
The Hunger Games, if you somehow don’t already know, is sort of a thematically reversed version of The Lord of the Flies, similarly taking as its narrative center a group of adolescents who have to kill each other. Where Golding’s novel is about the breakdown of human morality in the absence of social constraints, however, Games – much like the cult Japanese film Battle Royale, a mega-hit in its own country when it was released in 2000 – has its characters forced into gladiatorial-style violence by a government using the spectacle as a unifying force. In the mythology of this franchise, as explained by the opening crawl, the Hunger Games arose after a rebellion by a number of provinces was quelled, with the tournament meant as a way to prevent future revolts. The film depicts the ‘seventy-fourth annual’ Hunger Games, and follows Katniss Everdeen (the suddenly-exploding Jennifer Lawrence), a sixteen-year-old from ‘District 12,’ who volunteers for the Games when her younger sister is the one selected.
It is, in other words, an iteration of dystopian fiction, but unlike the typical Hollywood treatment of that genre, The Hunger Games has the good sense to stay as far away from far-reaching social political storylines as it possibly can. Indeed, the movie’s worst and most illogical moments come when it tries to establish the wider implications of Katniss’s continued survival in an arena where ‘tributes’ from outlying provinces such as her own usually die quickly. Presumably, such moments are meant to establish a broader conflict that will arise with the second and third installments of the series, and they don’t bode well for those installments, because it doesn’t make any sense why they happen. For the most part, though, the film’s subject is Katniss’s efforts to survive, her moral difficulties with the arena that she has volunteered to enter, and her relationship with Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the other ‘tribute’ from her home province.
And you know what? It’s not half-bad. Sure, those moments depicting social upheaval and misplaced villainy are painful to watch, but they are mercifully few and far between, and Lawrence – truly one of the bright young stars of the next generation – is charismatic and intense enough that it’s impossible not to root for her to pull off an unlikely victory. Meanwhile, director Gary Ross wisely chose not to tone down the storyline’s melancholy darkness, with the result that even in the scenes set in the ostensibly decadent Capitol one gets a sense of grit and violence: the Hunger Games may be brutal, but they are both product and symbol of the world that they are integral to, a world of hardscrabble survival, where, no matter how opulent their lifestyles may be, the powers that be know that they are only one or two steps removed from the arena themselves. There is a fine texture here – something that John Carter’s Andrew Stanton would do well to examine – that transmits a sort of hardness, a darkness of outlook and belief; if the Roman Empire were a phenomenon of our dystopic future and not of antiquity, surely living under it would feel something like this.
Of course, nothing that I have to say is going to alter the plans of the millions who are want to see this film, and, at the end of the day, that may not be such a bad thing. Much as I enjoyed the movie, for once I’m not sure that the film and its narrative merits and fallacies are really the point. As a critic, as a professional, as a student of film, I’m accustomed to going to movies by myself at odd times of the day, sitting without snacks or drinks, and watching with a detached eye. That doesn’t mean that I don’t want to enjoy the movie; one doesn’t get into this business without a sincere love of cinema. It does mean, though, that my concern is with what does and doesn’t work with the movie, not with my experience of going to see it.
In some cases, though – cases like The Hunger Games, or perhaps most supremely with Titanic and Avatar, two films that I consider to be vastly overrated but may, I begin to suspect, simply operate on a profoundly different set of rules from the ones that customarily apply – maybe it really is only the experience that matters, the feeling of being transported somewhere new and exciting and unknown. Movies, after all, are all about magic, and what is more magical than seeing something that has only ever existed in your imagination coming vividly to life on a screen the size of the side of a barn? Readers of the Hunger Games novels had that experience this weekend, and they were lucky enough to have it come in the form of a solidly good, enjoyable movie. (Meanwhile, lovers of Dune stayed home to stick more pins into their David Lynch voodoo dolls).
Yes, I enjoyed the movie, but what struck me more than anything else, standing in the lobby of theater at midnight, were the animated conversations about this or that character, the heated arguments about whether or not Jennifer Lawrence was right for the part, the teenage girls taking pictures of each other in costume and getting progressively more excited as it got closer and closer to their show time. It was a shared cultural experience of the sort that only the movies can create, and that, in this era of ever-increasing demographic targeting, has become ever-more rare. Industry professionals wring their hands constantly over declining box office numbers and the increasing levels of competition from other media, but I left the theater with a smile on my face, certain of this conviction: that movie magic is alive and well, and that, at the Arclight and theaters across the country, it was in the process of minting a new generation of movie lovers.
Not all movies can be events; many good movies have no magic in them whatsoever, and, no matter how magical they are, no bad movie is ever anything but a bad movie. When those event movies come along, though – and we are privileged enough that we have another one, in The Dark Knight Rises, that will be coming out this year as well – there is nothing quite like letting them pull you along into their worlds, and sharing those worlds, via gasps and applause and intent concentration, with the people in the theater with you. That shared experience, that collective expanding of our imaginative horizons, is what movie magic is all about, and it was there at the Arclight at midnight for The Hunger Games.