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'Hunger Games': Mortal Combat As Appointment TV
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'Hunger Games': Mortal Combat As Appointment TV



Looks like a lot of teenagers will be staying up very late tonight to see the film "The Hunger Games." It opens at midnight in many theaters across the country. It's based on a young adult bestseller about teens in a televised fight-to-the-death. Preopening sales are in the millions, which may render reviews superfluous, but Bob Mondello has one, anyway.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Hungry for a good dystopia? Have I got a feast for you. A society built on the ruins of war-torn North America, where the war's victors live in a shining city on a hill and keep the losers - the 99 percent maybe - in the direst poverty. The fat cats in the capitol also remind the losers how subjugated they are with an annual televised ritual called the Hunger Games.


DONALD SUTHERLAND: (as President Snow) So it was decreed that each year, the 12 districts of Panem shall offer up in tribute one young man and woman between the ages of 12 and 18 to be trained in the art of survival and to be prepared to fight to the death.

MONDELLO: Competitors are chosen by lottery in each of Panem's 12 districts, then forced to battle in an arena where cameras capture their every death throe. It's the ultimate TV game show. First place gets you a life free from starvation. Second place, well, there is no second place. But as everyone keeps saying, may the odds be ever in your favor. Selected from District 12, which looks a lot like Depression-era Appalachia, is a baker's son...


ELIZABETH BANKS: (as Effie Trinket) Peeta Melark.

MONDELLO: And a coal miner's daughter so afraid of her own shadow that she wouldn't last two minutes in the arena.


BANKS: (as Effie Trinket) Primrose Everdeen.

MONDELLO: Her older sister, Katniss, can't let that stand.


JENNIFER LAWRENCE: (as Katniss Everdeen) I volunteer. I volunteer as tribute.

MONDELLO: Volunteering to be slaughtered, great TV moment, right? Captured on lots of screens so you won't miss that point. In the novel, it's easy to forget about the TV cameras because 16-year-old Katniss is the narrator. And when she plunges into the arena, you plunge in with her. That's a level of engagement most filmmakers would - pardon the expression - kill for. But film director Gary Ross wants a different sort of audience buy-in. He keeps cutting to a blue-haired TV host named Caesar...


STANLEY TUCCI: (as Caesar Flickerman) Katniss Everdeen, the girl on fire.

MONDELLO: emphasize what you might call a celebrity-TV-on-steroids creepiness. This is, after all, kids killing kids as entertainment - "American Idol" with knives - and once the games begin...


MONDELLO: ...the movie audience is as guilty of being entertained as the folks in the capitol.


LIAM HEMSWORTH: (as Gale Hawthorne) They just want a good show. That's all they want.

LAWRENCE: (as Katniss Everdeen) There's 24 of us, Gale, and only one comes out.

MONDELLO: The film's biggest asset is Jennifer Lawrence, who makes Katniss just as tough and smart as the last coal miner's daughter she played, in "Winter's Bone," where she was also protecting younger siblings. If you're older than the film's target audience, that won't be the only outside reference that will occur to you. There's the dressing-up-to-be-selected-to-die scene from the short story "The Lottery," "The Wizard of Oz" meets "Dr. Seuss" hair and fashions of the capital city, the plot that mirrors the Japanese teen-flick "Battle Royale" and lots of fall-of-Rome references, including the name of the country itself - Panem, which sounds like a shortening of Pan American, but is actually from the Latin for bread and circuses - panem et circenses. In fact, when Katniss was being coached for her first TV interview...


LAWRENCE: (as Katniss Everdeen) So you're here to make me look pretty?

LENNY KRAVITZ: (as Cinna) I'm here to help you make an impression.

MONDELLO: It even occurred to me that there was a "Pygmalion" thing going on with her makeover. Not because she's humming "The Rain in Spain" while being dressed to kill, but because "The Hunger Games" is such a relentless aggregator of pop culture references you figure the connection must have occurred to someone. The movie doesn't actually have a lot to say about the social issues it brings up. And its literalness did make me question things I hadn't while reading the book - like a society with hovercraft and digitally created carnivores is still this dependent on coal?

But its pacing is brisk, the stakes as high as stakes get and the leading lady engaging enough that the box office odds, at least, will be ever in its favor. I'm Bob Mondello.

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