Arguably the most surprising bit of movie news dropped last week was the admission that Steven Soderbergh would be performing duties as the second-unit director for Gary Ross' "The Hunger Games." Even with the friendship that the two of them apparently share (The Playlist goes into details), it is a little unexpected for someone of Soderbergh's stature to agree to do second-unit work, on someone else's big-budget young-adult literature adaptation, no less. But that news is merely a segue into why the series is indeed far more important than we realize to the long-term health of the industry. The film, due to be released on March 23, 2012, is an adaptation of the first of three books detailing a futuristic wasteland where teenagers are forced to fight to the death on a reality TV show as a form of tribute to the society overlords. Yes, this is not unlike "Battle Royale," which is an absolutely terrific action film and social satire from Japan that basically has the same general premise (it's based on a book and a comic book, as well). Having said that, I'll give author Suzanne Collins the benefit of the doubt that she's never seen the 2000 release, as it's never been officially released in theaters or on DVD in America. But the film being released in March, which will theoretically spawn two sequels in the next several years, is indeed a vital and important one for reasons unrelated to its premise.
First and foremost, "The Hunger Games" is a new franchise that happens to have a female as its action lead. It is not a rebranding of a fairy tale, nor is it a female-targeted film revolving entirely around romance. Major franchises with female leads are an endangered species. The "Twilight" saga had that, as well, of course. And while we may disapprove of the choices that Bella Swan makes in regard to the men in her life, she sets her sights on Edward Cullen and pursues him with a single-minded determination that would be praised if she were looking for a buried treasure or fighting off terrorists (or taken for granted if she were a he). But other than "Twilight," "Underworld" and "Resident Evil," the franchise world for female-driven genre pictures is pretty much empty. Katniss Everdean, taking her little sister's place in a televised death match so that said sibling may live instead, is a step in the right direction. Simply by occupying a space usually reserved for ripped men or geeky boys, she is an important step in leveling the gender playing field in the realm of studio tentpoles.
Also of note is the fact that, so far, anyway, Lionsgate plans on releasing "The Hunger Games" the old-fashioned way: it will be released in several thousand screens presented in 2D, 35-mm film (or DLP prints). There will be no 3D conversion, nor even an IMAX upgrade (which, to be fair, I'd be less opposed to). Considering that Lionsgate has no other plausible ongoing franchises (unless they get smart and start churning out more of Michael Connelly's "Mickey Haller" legal thrillers), and the field for relatively original (i.e., not based on a well-known comic book or board game) franchises is pretty sparse after next year, Lionsgate is taking a chance. After the middling opening weekends of "X-Men: First Class" and "Cowboys and Aliens," going 2D is almost a risk in the current marketplace. If "The Hunger Games" really does end up approaching the levels of even the first "Twilight" film ($69-million opening, $192-million domestic finish), it will be yet more evidence that, as I always like to say, "It's the movie, stupid." So a win for "The Hunger Games" is a blow against needless 3D conversions.
But most importantly, "The Hunger Games" is just the sort of thing I was discussing a few weeks back. It is an original myth, taken from an original novel, with new characters that can appeal to the youth of today (and their parents, perhaps). It is not an adventure recycled from our childhoods. It is not a big-budget variation on a cartoon that we all watched in the 1980s. It is not a remake or reboot of a 1980s franchise that absolutely no one wanted a redo of ("Short Circuit"? Seriously?). It is not a comic book reboot created solely to retain the rights to a given character. It is something new, something at least somewhat different, and it is the start of what would be a new film mythology for the current generation.
In the 10 years since "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" and "The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring" debuted, there have been a number of attempts to mimic their success. The corpses are legion: "The Spiderwick Chronicles," "The Golden Compass," "The Dark Is Rising," "Eragon," "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief," etc. They all failed, sometimes spectacularly, where the boy who lived succeeded (I'll believe a sequel for the critical flop and commercial mediocrity that is "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" when I see it). "The Last Airbender" may get a sequel, but the stunningly low quality of the initial film may have mortally wounded the otherwise worthwhile franchise. "The Chronicles of Narnia" films keep hanging on via international muscle, but judging from the films, are there any memorable characters to be found outside maybe Aslan and the White Witch? The one franchise that actually succeeded financially and in the realm of creating new characters is the "Twilight" franchise. But it will be ending in a year's time, arguably a year behind schedule (because the final book was split into two films).
I have not read "The Hunger Games," and I probably will not, wanting to discover these characters at the movies for the first time. But the fan frenzy created by the casting of Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci... yes!), among others, seems to show a real affection not just for the narrative but for the characters involved. I see in these fans the same affection we share for Hermione Granger and Severus Snape. And, if I may comment on a franchise I have not yet read, that is exactly what this generation of kids, if not every generation of kids, needs: a series of iconic genre characters to call their own. "He-Man" and "She-Ra" were created for me. "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" was created for me. "Gargoyles" was created for me. That so much of our popular culture currently revolves around rehashes of what was intended for our generation ("Transformers," "ThunderKats," etc.), the generation before us ("Star Wars") and/or our parents ("Star Trek") as opposed to the current generation is what makes this newest would-be franchise so important.
The "Harry Potter" series was created for the current generation, which is why its success mattered. It created a whole mythology specifically for the generation that grew up reading those novels. For better or worse, the "Twilight" series accomplished the same thing, to a relative scale. Now that the "Harry Potter" series is at an end and the "Twilight" saga has just over a year left, there will soon be a gaping hole in the world of big-screen mythology. "The Hunger Games," partially by default (the barren wasteland of recycled nostalgia), partially due to the free publicity that comes with being the called "the next big thing," and partially because of its alleged quality, has a shot at being the next great new myth on the silver screen. Right from the start, people have taken to calling "The Hunger Games" "the next 'Twilight'" (purely because it features a female lead, I'd imagine), as if it were a backhanded compliment. But kids need modern cinematic folklore. They needed "Star Wars" and "Indiana Jones" in the 1980s, and they needed "Harry Potter" and "Twilight" in the 2000s. "The Hunger Games" may not be for you or for me. It's a modern myth, written in the present and intended to be enjoyed and cherished by the children growing up right now. It's written today, for the kids of today. And that's why it matters.