'Hunger Games' feeds evolving pop appetites

  • Article by: JOHN RASH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 13, 2012 - 9:31 PM

Bestseller, box-office leader reflect changing commercial and cultural dynamics that are increasingly influencing both film and literature.

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Jennifer Lawrence portrays Katniss Everdeen in a scene from "The Hunger Games."

Photo: Murray Close, Associated Press

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When does a pop-culture trend transcend into a societal phenomenon? It's hard to tell with "The Hunger Games."

Was it the boffo box-office numbers, which surpassed $300 million in just three weeks? Or was it a different media metric -- the American Library Association's list of most frequently challenged books?

(Didn't stop Mitt Romney: His personal assistant revealed that his recently read "fun books" include "The Hunger Games" trilogy.)

Then again, it could be this cultural tally: Nameberry, a baby-naming website, predicted that "Rue," the name of a "Hunger Games" character, would become 2012's hot name.

But while "The Hunger Games" just burst upon some people's pop-culture consciousness, the phenomena really reflect evolving commercial and cultural dynamics that are influencing film and maybe even literature.

"The name of the game now is finding properties that have already existing pre-awareness," said former producer Joe Pichirallo, now chair of the undergraduate film and television program at New York University. "Because of the sharp costs, if you are marketing something from ground zero, you have a huge hill to climb."

But not "if you're starting to sell something that the audience already knows about in the form of a book, comic book, video game, or even a theme park ride like 'Pirates of the Caribbean.'"

And once it works? In Hollywood, imitation is the sincerest form of film flattery.

Multipicture franchises, often built on a presold concept, become presold sequels in their own right.

And yet alongside the comic-book blockbuster franchises ("Batman" is fourth-biggest all-time; "Avengers," "Spider-Man" and "Transformers" hold spots seven through nine), are works of young-adult literature, such as the eight "Harry Potter" films, which have grossed almost $2.4 billion.

And increasingly, as in the case of the four "Twilight" films (10th on the franchise list) and most likely "The Hunger Games" movies, heroines, not heroes, drive ticket sales.

"With Twilight and Hunger Games franchises, it's very clear that the industry has now figured out how to tap into the women and girl demographic," said Carol Donelan, associate professor of cinema and media studies at Carleton College. Donelan said Hollywood focuses films on "quadrants" divided by gender and generation.

Part of the shift toward young girls under 25 started with "Titanic," said Donelan, referring to the box-office king of the world that's just been re-released in 3D. "'Titanic' signals this real self-consciousness within the industry of, 'How do we make a film that will target men, women, boys and girls?'"

"Twilight" focused on female identity, subjectivity and desire, and "The Hunger Games" is "jumping on to that trend," Donelan said.

Whether other authors jump onto that trend remains to be seen. Few ever see books become films, and even fewer create franchises. Still, Donelan said, "There's always been that kind of symbiosis between various media industries."

Pichirallo agrees. But having adapted books into flicks, he added that it's not an exact science.

"There is a category of people who write books that are easily translatable," he said. "And there are very dense books that are not obvious adaptations. The structure and the format that works as a novel isn't the same format that works as a film."

In a relative rarity, "The Hunger Games" book, told in first person, and the film, told as straight narrative, complement each other. Most important, it's a great story.

"Whether it's superhero films, or chick flicks, or big male-oriented blockbuster franchises, really when push comes to shove, when you take off the surface details of all these stories, you bump against a very old-fashioned mode of storytelling: melodrama," said Donelan. "People seem to love it."

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John Rash is a Star Tribune writer and columnist.

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