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Perspective: The Hunger Games and other teen movies

There are thirteen incomplete sentences on the first two pages of "The Hunger Games," the young-adult novel that inspired the film of the same name, which itself has inspired enough people to head to their local movie theaters to break a few box-office records recently. I counted - the sentence fragments, not the box-office numbers.

I don't accuse the book's author, Suzanne Collins, of not knowing about subjects and predicates; obviously, she's trying to affect the sort of blunt, misfortune-hardened voice that might belong to a tough teenager like her protagonist, and doubtless she's also decided to keep things short because short is easier to read. Still, thirteen is a number to reckon with, and even after one page, the gimmick seems tired and the prose tin-eared.

I quit reading before I'd learned the heroine's name.

Fortunately, the movie adaptation of "The Hunger Games," which I saw last week, quickly imparts this information: her name is Katniss Everdeen, and she's played by Jennifer Lawrence (doing a slightly glamorized retake on her "Winter's Bone" character) in the film, which may be all you need to experience to know the lameness of this unavoidable phenomenon.

The story takes place in a dystopian future in which, every year, 24 adolescents are to chosen to take part in a televised fight-to-the-death inside a "Truman Show"-like arena. At the end of the show, only one kid will remain: it's kind of like Nickelodeon's "GUTS," only with more actual guts being spilled.

Katniss hails from the hardscrabble coal country of District 12, and like every young heroine with True Grit, she has a dead father - though she also has a living little sister, whose role is first to reveal stony Katniss's tender side and then (because Katniss has to take care of her) to give her a higher purpose than all the other Hunger Games participants, who presumably just want to survive this ordeal so they can head back to the mall.
The scenes leading up to the big event are engaging enough, with colorful appearances by Stanley Tucci and Elizabeth Banks, but when the film switches to action-mode, it fails almost completely - which is to say that the film itself, considering the paltry treatment it gives to its Serious Themes (the voyeurism of reality TV, the senselessness of war, class, government oppression), is a failure.

Its cowardice is appalling: after putting its protagonist in a gruesome situation, it spends its running time contriving ways for her not to have to do anything gruesome.

For Katniss to win the contest, 23 other people have to die, yet (no spoiler) she manages to survive without committing any act that might be considered objectionable by even the most moralistic parent. A bow-and-arrow expert, she encounters situations in which, cloaked by trees, she could easily dispatch her rivals, yet she chooses to enact milder strategies, like blowing up their food supplies - making sure, of course, that no one is harmed in the explosion. Never does she have to kill anyone who hasn't directly threatened her or a friend; never does she kill anyone remotely sympathetic. Even in the movie's opening scene, when Katniss is hunting for food, she's conveniently interrupted just before she can shoot a deer - someone must have feared that the young audience would have "Bambi" flashbacks.

This is a family-friendly "Die Hard," and if that premise sounds ridiculous to you, it is. Everything's a cliché, yet nothing makes sense.

In the Hunger Games, as in every Hollywood high school, there exists an absurdly sadistic clique of mocking preppies, who strut about with the sole purpose of being jerks - only, here, instead of making a cruel bet that one of them can turn Katniss into a prom queen, they wield knives and chase her up a tree, where she's left defenseless. Yet, rather than shooting her down, they decide, very logically, simply to wait there on the ground till she starves to death - so, a few weeks, maybe? (Katniss is saved by a black girl named Rue: there are two black characters in the Games, and you know as soon as you see them that their roles will be to save Katniss's life and then, promptly, to die.)

You might argue that, given my (technical) adulthood, I had no business watching "The Hunger Games" in the first place - except that adults are buying tickets for it in droves. And in the wake of its across-the-board success both in print and on screen, commentators have been wringing their hands a little: why are all of the most successful entertainments of our time geared toward kids? Why do even grownups prefer the young-adult genre?

Indeed, the three most successful movies of 2011 were all teen fare: "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2," "Transformers: Dark of the Moon," and "Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides." And 2010's top grossers were completely family-friendly: "Toy Story 3," "Alice in Wonderland," and "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1." Meanwhile, the most prominent authors of our time are, arguably, J.K. Rowling, Stephanie Meyer, and Suzanne Collins. When did we lose the appetite for mature entertainment, for grown-up art?

The answer: I dunno, probably at the moment when Hollywood studios and publishing companies realized that teenagers have more disposable cash and free time than anyone else.

What I will say, though, is that the ability to care about art at all is, in my view, dependent on one's ability to remain a teenager forever - it's the ability to get caught up in stuff that doesn't actually matter in the practical way that going to work or taking out the trash does.

Hormonal youngsters, who concoct intense emotional dramas from lives composed of video games and soccer practice, are best at this.

Artists themselves usually are stuck somewhere in adolescence; real grownups become businessmen or scientists. To me, "Crime and Punishment" is no less a teen novel than "Twilight" or "The Hunger Games." It just happens to be a good one.

Tagged: Gen Y, Hunger Games