Lionsgate and “The Hunger Games”
The up and coming studio takes a chance on a screen adaptation of the biggest young adult literary hit since Twilight.
The Hunger Games trailer hit the Internet last week, sparking media coverage and interest from all sorts of mainstream outlets who may or may not want to turn leading lady and up-and-coming actress Jennifer Lawrence into a super-duper megastarlet. The trailer has received predictably positive, buzzworthy reviews, and has been called “impressive” and “not disappointing”. Most interesting, however, is studio Lionsgate’s instrumental part in all of this. The Indie-Studio-That-Could Lionsgate, perhaps most known for its role in bringing Saw (and II, and III, and IV, ad nauseam) to the big screen, has been distributing more and more high-profile films as of late, most notably surprising standout Warrior and the Matthew McConaughey vehicle The Lincoln Lawyer. With a budget exceeding $100 million, “Hunger Games” is Lionsgate’s biggest and most ambitious film to date; the movie will need to be a box office smash to break even. Will the gamble pay off?
For the uninitiated, the Hunger Games trilogy follows the story of teenager Katniss Everdeen as she navigates the dystopic world of Panem, a North American nation comprised of twelve districts united under one government. Every year, each district submits a “tribute” in the form of one teenage boy and girl who fight to the death, Battle Royale-style, on TV for the enjoyment of the nation (or, more specifically, for the enjoyment of the Capitol city, who does not submit tributes). Given Hunger Games’ original target audience of pubescent teenage girls, the story inevitably becomes fraught with romantic tension and drama as Katniss attempts to survive the chaos and death that engulfs her.
You’d have thought that a story such as this was made for the silver screen, and you’d be partially right—Stephen King mentions the inevitable movie adaptation of the novel in one of the first reviews published. However, as past examples show, translating young adult literature to the screen successfully is easier said than done. The trailer seems to capture the dark style of the book well, although it may be extremely confusing for those not familiar with the plotline of the novel, as it explains little of the world that Katniss and her cohorts inhabit. Additionally, little is seen of nearly-unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks or Woody Harrelson, the film’s only prominent veteran actors who will almost surely need to serve as the glue that holds the narrative together. Although Jennifer Lawrence has gained significant momentum with her positively received performance in Like Crazy, costars Liam Hemsworth and Josh Hutcherson have a long way to go to prove that they are actual actors and not just mere eye candy. Strong performances from these two male leads will keep their Katniss love triangle believable and Hunger Games from becoming Twilight-copycat schlock.
Perhaps the most important cog in this newbie-laden ensemble is director Gary Ross. Although his writing credits are substantial, including an Oscar-nominated screenplay for Big, his directing credits are few and far between, with average yet somehow Oscar-nominated Seabiscuit serving as his last film of any relevance. Although trailers are generally poor indicators of a film’s eventual quality, the editing in Hunger Games’ leaves something to be desired as it jumps back and forth in a somewhat inexplicably haphazard series of expository shots and dialogue that do little to illustrate the world of Panem for the viewer who has no idea what the original book is about. As demonstrated in Seabiscuit, Ross certainly has an eye for visuals and color, but he will need more than eye-popping panache to make the story of Hunger Games work. Ross must make this world feel organic and believable; he appears to have his work cut out for him.
All of this leads us back to Lionsgate, the film’s financial backer. With a budget of over $100 million, dwarfing Warrior’s $25 million budget and coming in only slightly above Conan the Barbarian’s $90 million (Conan flopped, grossing $48 million, in case you were wondering), Hunger Games is the film that will either make or break Lionsgate in 2011. Considering the extensive marketing and hype campaign that Lionsgate has already launched, it is easy to see this film’s budget ballooning to $150 million. If every owner of the 2.9 million copies in print and the 1 million electronic versions of the novel distributed through eReaders purchased a ticket to the film, the studio would gross approximately $39 million (cue snarky Zuckerberg comment). Hunger Games is absolutely going to have to garner mainstream approval outside of its diehard fanatics in order to stand as a financial success, and with the trilogy’s second part already in the works, it is crucial that Ross produces a quality film with broad appeal.
Ultimately, the film’s ability to attract a diverse audience, and not how well it does with those who already know and love the book, will determine whether or not Hunger Games is successful, either critically or financially. Spunky Lionsgate is rolling the dice that Katniss Everdeen is Harry Potter’s heir apparent and that Hunger Games turns into a Twilight-esque tentpole franchise; in this endeavor, may the odds be ever in their favor.