Skip to main content

Why 'Hunger' soared; 'Carter' bombed

By Gene Seymour, Special to CNN
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Tue March 27, 2012
Moviegoers wait in line for the opening of
Moviegoers wait in line for the opening of "The Hunger Games," March 22 at the Ziegfeld Theatre in New York.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Gene Seymour: "Hunger Games," "John Carter" exist to make money, appeal to masses
  • But "Hunger's" returns went through the roof, he writes, "Carter's" fell through the floor
  • Wildly expensive "Carter" seems old, he says, while "Hunger Games" is of the moment
  • Seymour hopes young audiences are aware of Hollywood's hype manipulation

Editor's note: Gene Seymour has written about movies, music and culture for The New York Times, Newsday, Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post.

(CNN) -- Pure products of Hollywood, "The Hunger Games" and "John Carter" were conceived, designed, stretched and pre-tested with one purpose: to lighten billfolds while satisfying mass appetites.

These two movies seemed especially intent on seizing the wavering attention spans of young people with premises deeply rooted in science-fiction -- or, as some genre lovers might prefer to call it, speculative phantasmagoria.

Same goals, different results. Drastically. Different. Results.

Hunger Games, in case you hadn't heard by now, has exceeded advance expectations by reaping $155 million in its first three days of nationwide release. That's the third-highest opening tally in box-office history, just beneath the $158.4 million drawn from 2008's Batman sequel, "The Dark Knight," and not too far removed from the $169.2 million made last summer by "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II."

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour

Those latter two features were sequels, while "Hunger Games" is just the first installment of what will almost certainly be a trilogy of films made from Suzanne Collins' phenomenally popular trilogy of books. The stories are set in a dystopian future in which a totalitarian society forces teenagers to engage in globally televised ritual murder. This means that "Hunger Games" made the biggest, fattest opening-weekend nut of any movie that wasn't a sequel or spin-off.

Meanwhile, after two weeks in the Great American Multiplex, "John Carter" continues to tumble in what many believe is a downward spiral of similarly unprecedented dimension.

Critic, iReporters review 'Hunger Games'
'Hunger Games' actors reveal fave foods
Disney's box office disaster

Disney's lavish, $250 million adaptation of the swords-on-Mars fantasy novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs brought in $5 million, increasing its overall box office to $62.3 million -- roughly half of which was made in its own opening weekend. Those using the word "epic" to classify "John Carter" now use it to describe its estimated $200 million shortfall.

"John Carter," for whatever it's worth, isn't quite as dismal a movie as it is a moneymaker. Thirty, even 20 years ago, it might have been exotic enough to be taken for pop-cultural innovation. Now it comes across as a lumbering, good-natured oaf who happened to stumble into the marketplace at the wrong time. On the other hand, "The Hunger Games," with its reality-TV-on-toxic-drugs premise, is so very much "of its time" that it's tempting to think much of its imagined future has already arrived. (Do you feel a draft? I do.)

Meanwhile, those who approach "John Carter" with foreknowledge of its box-office crash-and-burn might be surprised to see how charming it can be at times, especially when its eponymous Civil War veteran-turned-rhino-riding superhero (Taylor Kitsch) is adjusting his previously Earth-bound muscles to Martian gravity. In its heedlessly bombastic manner, the movie is faithful to its origins as a rip-snorting romantic fantasy much like Burroughs' far more famous stories featuring Tarzan. If the producers were more willing to let Andrew Stanton direct the movie as the garish, live-action comic strip it was meant to be, it might have connected, though not necessarily for a home run.

But even the decision to call the movie "John Carter," instead of "John Carter of Mars" or even "A Princess of Mars," the actual title of Burroughs' first installment of the Carter opus, is emblematic of an over-cautiousness that dampens every sequence and set-piece. The whole movie feels worked-over, second-guessed, whipped to a thickness that hobbles the movie's momentum. It's as if "John Carter" wants you to see every single one of those aforementioned millions of dollars up on the screen. And who besides an accountant would care?

The budget of "Hunger Games" is an estimated -- and, as with the movie itself, relatively modest -- $100 million. There are flashy things to see in Gary Ross' movie, from the chompers on Stanley Tucci's unctuous host to the pyrotechnic dress worn by the story's otherwise ice-cool heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence). But the movie's adapters, including Suzanne Collins herself, know that the basic story elements have already worked their mojo on their target audience; even those who haven't read the books likely were drawn by curiosity. Whatever special effects were marshaled on the movie's behalf didn't seem as important as how Kat would wriggle or shoot her way out of trouble.

Those wishing "Hunger Games" had more tragic dimension or made its audience more explicitly feel the sting of its carnage have a point. But the movie wasn't made for them. It was made for the millions of young readers who, for whatever reason, share Kat's smoldering resentment of the status quo.

I'd like to think that as these young adults of all ages buy their tickets to this speculative phantasmagoria, they retain some suspicion, however vague, that the hype masters who made them flock to the multiplexes on cue over the weekend exert a not-altogether-benign influence over their lives.

If that's so, and I'm not really all that hopeful, it may become harder over time to hurl big, bloated carnivals at them to lighten their wallets. Even if they're good-natured, slovenly lugs like "John Carter."

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Gene Seymour.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 5:01 PM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
Paul Callan says the grand jury is the right process to use to decide if charges should be brought against the police officer
updated 12:19 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Theresa Brown says the Ebola crisis brought nurses into the national conversation on health care. They need to stay there.
updated 6:35 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Patrick Hornbeck says don't buy the hype: The arguments the Vatican used in its interim report would have virtually guaranteed that same-sex couples remained second class citizens
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Paul Begala says Iowa's U.S. Senate candidate, Joni Ernst, told NRA she has right to use gun to defend herself--even from the government. But shooting at officials is not what the Founders had in mind
updated 6:08 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
John Sutter: Why are we so surprised the head of a major international corporation learned another language?
updated 5:54 PM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Jason Johnson says Ferguson isn't a downtrodden community rising up against the white oppressor, but it is looking for justice
updated 12:21 PM EDT, Fri October 24, 2014
Sally Kohn says a video of little girls dressed as princesses using the F-word very loudly to condemn sexism is provocative. But is it exploitative?
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Timothy Stanley says Lewinsky is shamelessly playing the victim in her affair with Bill Clinton, humiliating Hillary Clinton again and aiding her critics
updated 10:14 AM EDT, Thu October 23, 2014
Imagine being rescued from modern slavery, only to be charged with a crime, writes John Sutter
updated 12:00 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Tidal flooding used to be a relatively rare occurrence along the East Coast. Not anymore, write Melanie Fitzpatrick and Erika Spanger-Siegfried.
updated 7:35 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Carol Costello says activists, writers, politicians have begun discussing their abortions. But will that new approach make a difference on an old battleground?
updated 9:12 AM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Sigrid Fry-Revere says the National Organ Transplant Act has caused more Americans to die waiting for an organ than died in both World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq
updated 2:51 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Crystal Wright says racist remarks like those made by black Republican actress Stacey Dash do nothing to get blacks to join the GOP
updated 6:07 PM EDT, Tue October 21, 2014
Mel Robbins says by telling her story, Monica Lewinsky offers a lesson in confronting humiliating mistakes while keeping her head held high
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Cornell Belcher says the story of the "tea party wave" in 2010 was bogus; it was an election determined by ebbing Democratic turnout
updated 4:12 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Les Abend says pilots want protocols, preparation and checklists for all contingencies; at the moment, controlling a deadly disease is out of their comfort zone
updated 11:36 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
David Weinberger says an online controversy that snowballed from a misogynist attack by gamers into a culture war is a preview of the way news is handled in a world of hashtag-fueled scandal
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Julian Zelizer says Paul Krugman makes some good points in his defense of President Obama but is premature in calling him one of the most successful presidents.
updated 10:21 PM EDT, Sun October 19, 2014
Conservatives can't bash and slash government and then suddenly act surprised if government isn't there when we need it, writes Sally Kohn
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed October 22, 2014
ISIS is looking to take over a good chunk of the Middle East -- if not the entire Muslim world, write Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider.
updated 9:00 AM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
The world's response to Ebola is its own sort of tragedy, writes John Sutter
updated 4:33 PM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Hidden away in Russian orphanages are thousands of children with disabilities who aren't orphans, whose harmful treatment has long been hidden from public view, writes Andrea Mazzarino
updated 1:22 PM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
When you hear "trick or treat" this year, think "nudge," writes John Bare
updated 12:42 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
The more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls have become pawns in a larger drama, writes Richard Joseph.
updated 9:45 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
Peggy Drexler said Amal Alamuddin was accused of buying into the patriarchy when she changed her name to Clooney. But that was her choice.
updated 4:43 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Ford Vox says the CDC's Thomas Frieden is a good man with a stellar resume who has shown he lacks the unique talents and vision needed to confront the Ebola crisis
updated 4:58 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
How can such a numerically small force as ISIS take control of vast swathes of Syria and Iraq?
updated 9:42 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
How big a threat do foreign fighters in Syria and Iraq pose to the West? It's a question that has been much on the mind of policymakers and commentators.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Fri October 17, 2014
More than a quarter-million American women served honorably in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. Now they are home, we have an obligation to help them transition back to civilian life.
updated 4:27 PM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
Paul Begala says Rick Scott's deeply weird refusal to begin a debate because rival Charlie Crist had a fan under his podium spells disaster for the Florida governor--delighting Crist
updated 12:07 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
The longer we wait to engage on Ebola, the more limited our options will become, says Marco Rubio.
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Democratic candidates who run from President Obama in red states where he is unpopular are making a big mistake, says Donna Brazile
updated 12:29 AM EDT, Thu October 16, 2014
At some 7 billion people, the world can sometimes seem like a crowded place. But if the latest estimates are to be believed, then in less than a century it is going to feel even more so -- about 50% more crowded, says Evan Fraser
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Mon October 20, 2014
Paul Callan says the Ebola situation is pointing up the need for better leadership
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Nurses are the unsung heroes of the Ebola outbreak. Yet, there are troubling signs we're failing them, says John Sutter
updated 1:00 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Dean Obeidallah says it's a mistake to give up a business name you've invested energy in, just because of a new terrorist group
updated 7:01 PM EDT, Wed October 15, 2014
Fear of Ebola is contagious, writes Mel Robbins; but it's time to put the disease in perspective
updated 1:44 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Oliver Kershaw says that if Big Tobacco is given monopoly of e-cigarette products, public health will suffer.
updated 9:35 AM EDT, Sat October 18, 2014
Stop thinking your job will make you happy.
updated 10:08 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says it's time to deal with another scandal involving the Secret Service — one that leads directly into the White House.
updated 7:25 AM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Americans who choose to fight for militant groups or support them are young and likely to be active in jihadist social media, says Peter Bergen
updated 9:03 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Stephanie Coontz says 11 years ago only one state allowed same sex marriage. Soon, some 60% of Americans will live where gays can marry. How did attitudes change so quickly?
updated 4:04 PM EDT, Tue October 14, 2014
Legalizing assisted suicide seems acceptable when focusing on individuals. But such laws would put many at risk of immense harm, writes Marilyn Golden.
updated 9:07 AM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the issues are huge, but both parties are wrestling with problems that alienate voters
updated 6:50 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
Mel Robbins says the town's school chief was right to cancel the season, but that's just the beginning of what needs to be done
updated 11:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
He didn't discover that the world was round, David Perry writes. So what did he do?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT