Let me begin by addressing the two biggest criticisms I've heard about THE HUNGER GAMES. First, it's a ripoff of BATTLE ROYALE. Second, it spends too much on the pageantry of the games, and glosses over the whole 'kids killing kids' part.
By the way, if you take these two criticisms together, they add up to 'It's a BATTLE ROYALE ripoff that is too different from BATTLE ROYALE.'
So lets take the first one. I love BATTLE ROYALE, and certainly the concept is very, very similar. But I hadn't actually seen it since shortly after it first came out in 2000, so I dug up my old DVD and watched it again. And on further review...no. THE HUNGER games is different enough to not be a ripoff. That actually pains me to write this, because it would be so easy to write a scathing 'nothing but a ripoff!!!!' review. Now I have to do more work, like explaining the key ways they're different. But let's start first with how they're the same: kids are forced to kill kids for the entertainment of the general population and to keep society in line somehow. Now, the idea of killing as public entertainment goes at least back to gladiators in the Roman Coliseum (and Rome is pretty heavily referenced in THE HUNGER GAMES, not so much in BATTLE ROYALE.) As far as movies about people killing each other for televised entertainment, that goes at least as far back as THE 10TH VICTIM in 1965, and probably further. Also, I should mention SERIES 7: THE CONTENDERS which came out the year after BATTLE ROYALE and really played up the reality show angle.
So how is BATTLE ROYALE different? First of all, in the reason they set up the game and the rules of the game. In THE HUNGER GAMES, there was an uprising that was put down 74 years ago. As part of the treaty that ended the uprising, every year each of the 12 districts must put up two people--one male, one female--between the ages of 12 and 18 as "tribute." These tributes fight to the death in the titular Hunger Games. In BATTLE ROYALE, at the end of the millennium society broke down and the adults passed the Battle Royale act out of fear of the children. Each year, one high school class is chosen by a random lottery and forced to fight to the death. So in BATTLE ROYALE, every combatant knows each other, they've been classmates for some time. In THE HUNGER GAMES, the tributes are mostly strangers, unless a pair from the same district new each other previously. THE HUNGER GAMES is about how fear, a little hope, and mostly crass entertainment keeps the populace in line. BATTLE ROYALE is about out-of-control Japanese kids, and the adults who fear them. Also, very importantly, BATTLE ROYALE does not take place too long after the Battle Royale act. It's not specified exactly how long ago the act was passed, but we are told "the millennium" is when society broke down. Presumably, the millennium is year 2000, and the technology in the movie is not advanced at all from that time, so it seems logical to say we're still in the first few years of the act (it's not the first Battle Royale, as there is footage of the previous year's winner.) In THE HUNGER GAMES, they repeatedly talk about the 74th annual games, and I'll have more to say about that later. The important bit is, there are enough differences, particularly in the main point of the movie, that THE HUNGER GAMES is not a rip off.
As for the second criticism, that it focuses on the pageantry over the kids killing kids...well, I suppose that's kind of fair. It's true, there's a lot of ridiculous pageantry there. But that is intentional and it makes you think about how the populace cares more about their entertainment than the lose of human life. It's kind of the point of the movie. So if you want a different movie that has more kids killing kids, well...just watch BATTLE ROYALE. Or better yet, make your own damn movie.
Now, on to my criticisms. I will start by saying it's a pretty consistently entertaining, exciting story, and it's well made. I enjoyed it quite a lot most of the time I was watching it, and of course I was rooting for Katniss the whole time. I also must admit I've never read the books and so I don't know how faithful the adaptation is, or if many of my nagging doubts are covered in the book. Now on to those nagging doubts: I don't believe this society, not one bit. And what's really bugging me is that it's the 74th annual games. Societies aren't so stagnant that they still have the same single entertainment event 74 years later, particularly when that event was thought up as a punishment for traitors. Consider 74 years ago in America--we were still 3 years away from fighting a World War against two nations who are now two of our closest allies. In the intervening years, one of those countries split into two and then reintegrated. 74 years ago Russia was part of a Soviet Union that doesn't exist anymore. China was not yet communist 74 years ago, neither was Cuba. A lot of things happen in 74 years, and generally each generation wants to believe they are more civilized than their predecessors. Certainly someone would have pointed out by now that they are punishing children who were born between 56 and 62 years after the uprising, and maybe they should find something less lethal to do.
For that matter, if all the tributes are 12-18 years old, what do they do with 19 year-olds? Is the presumption that once they're 19 they've had all the life and fight beaten out of them and they'll automatically be compliant drones? Once you're 19, you know longer care about making the world a better place? This would make more sense if this were the 7th Hunger Games instead of 74th, and it was 13-30 year-olds in the competition. By 30, if you've survived, I can believe most often the fight has been beaten out of you.
And finally, why do they refer to what happened 74 years ago as an "uprising?" That's a term that engenders sympathy for the uprisers. Call them terrorists, or rebels...heck even call it a civil war, just not something that's positive spin for the people you've conquered. It all puzzled me quite a bit. I'm neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, but I got the sense that whoever envisioned this universe has no grasp of how societies or human psychology works. But again, maybe it's all handled better in the books. Given all that, I'm kind of surprised how much I enjoyed the movie without buying into its central premise.
Running Time: 142 minutes
My Total Minutes: 275,601