Why 'The Hunger Games' Has a Shot at the Best-Picture Oscar

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Well-reviewed, weighty, and commercially successful, the film could take advantage of a rule change caused by The Dark Knight's snub four years ago.

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Jennifer Lawrence announces Academy Awards nominations on Jan. 24, 2012. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)

It's fitting that Jennifer Lawrence, the stoic Katniss Everdeen in Hollywood's latest book-to-movie blockbuster The Hunger Games, was chosen to announce the 2012 Academy Award nominations in January. The star, already an Oscar nominee for her breakout performance in the 2010 indie Winter's Bone, may find herself back at the 2013 ceremony supporting her new film.

Lawrence's movie, an adaptation of Suzanne Collins's best-selling novel, bears much in common with another zeitgeist-seizing young-adult-novel-turned-record-smashing-film: Last year's Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2. Set in the dystopian country of Panem, the harrowing Hunger Games follows 16-year-old Katniss as she is drafted to fight 23 other teenagers to the death in a terrifying government-sponsored reality TV competition. Like that final Harry Potter film, The Hunger Games is a noteworthy for its uncommon willingness to show brutality and deal with mortality, especially in relation to its young characters. Both efforts are based on hugely popular novels but managed to leap to the big screen while escaping the wrath of many of their most passionate fans.

More than that, The Hunger Games echoes The Deathly Hallows in that it is shamelessly, but also masterfully, populist. Both movies pandered to their massive fan bases with cheesy one-liners meant to mine hoots and hollers from the packed theaters ("You call that a kiss?" is right up there with "Not my daughter, you bitch!") and both sanitized the book's violence with camera trickery in order to achieve a PG-13 rating. Yet both movies were also well structured, smartly acted, emotionally affecting, and more exhilarating than any recent robo-space-transformer-pirate movie propping up Hollywood's bottom line. After The Deathly Hallows earned rapturous reviews for being the rare popcorn flick with all of the aforementioned attributes, there was a perfectly legitimate movement to get the movie a Best-Picture Oscar nod. Expect a similar campaign to be launched in support of The Hunger Games once awards season rolls around. Does it stand a better chance than Harry Potter at landing it? The odds are, as the movie's characters would put it, ever in its favor.

It's a crowd-pleaser with something to say. And the Academy loves saying something.

In addition to love letters from top critics like the Daily News's Joe Neumaier—"exciting and thought-provoking in a way that few adventure dramas ever are"—the film currently has a stellar 85 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That metric is already higher than four films that managed Best Picture nods earlier this year: Tree of Life (84), War Horse (78), The Help (76), and Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (48). It also is prime material for Best Picture-comparable nods from several other organization, many of which serve as reliable barometers of Academy taste. The Hunger Games cast—past Oscar nominees Lawrence, Stanley Tucci, and Woody Harrelson; two-time Golden Globe winner Donald Sutherland; and well-liked journeymen Elizabeth Banks and Wes Bentley—is tailor-made for the SAG Ensemble Awards. It's also the kind of film the Producer's Guild loves to nominate for its big award: Well-reviewed moneymakers like Bridesmaids, The Town , and Star Trek have walked away with that prize.

The Hunger Games may also be the best test yet of whether the Academy's much-debated The Dark Knight rule change actually works. The Best-Picture category was expanded in 2010 from five to 10 nominees following backlash to the omission of The Dark Knight—considered by many not only the best movie of its year, but one of the best of its decade—from the 2009 race. The idea was that more nomination slots would open the door for the populist, money-making fare that the Academy had been overlooking in favor of arthouse offerings. Since then, many Oscarologists—myself included—have been guilty of using that logic to gripe about box-office stars like Bridesmaids, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, or Harry Potter getting snubbed for Best Picture. But none of those movies were akin to The Dark Knight in the way that The Hunger Games is. Both films are not only startlingly somber twists on the standard blockbuster, but offer resonant commentary about society, particularly government control and corruption. They are crowd-pleasers with something to say. And the Academy loves saying something.

Conventional wisdom dictates that movies that are released this early in the year, that are this financially successful, and that are this geared towards a younger demographic, are doomed at the Oscars. That's not exactly the case. Oscar guru Dave Karger points out in his argument that the award season track-record is actually not so terrible for films released in March: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Erin Brockovich, Pretty Woman, and Fargo were embraced by the Academy (and all, like Hunger Games featured or were led by strong female characters). A film's box office popularity has also, in some cases, actually helped put it on Oscar's radar, leading to Best Picture nods for films for underdogs like District 9, The Blind Side, and, most recently, The Help.

More than any other young adult offering before it, The Hunger Games also deals seriously with issues of life, death, and corruption—more Academy-friendly themes than boy wizards and wand battles. And though Harry Potter was snubbed, there is a silver lining to this past year's Best Picture slate. The atypically kid-friendly Hugo made it in, indicating that when younger-skewing films deal with Oscar-baiting themes (in its case, art preservation and nostalgia), the Academy is willing to reward them.

At the very least, Lawrence especially should from here-on-out remain part of the Oscar conversation for the intensity and gravitas she brought to Katniss Everdeen. Much like Rooney Mara in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, she portrayed a dynamic character ferociously protected by a book series' fans—and delivered a performance that didn't just do the part justice, but shattered expectations. Lenny Kravitz's calming stylist-turned-life-coach Cinna has one of The Hunger Games most memorable lines, telling Katniss, "I'm not allowed to bet, but if I could, I'd bet on you." If he were to lay down Capitol money on Hollywood's biggest night, I'd venture he'd wisely put it on The Hunger Games, too.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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