In the four years since Suzanne Collins’ novel came out, The Hunger Games, and it’s subsequent books in the trilogy, have almost single-handedly saved the brick and mortar stores like Barnes and Noble from extinction. Whether that’s a good or bad thing, I’ll leave that to you to decide. But there’s no denying that Collins has tapped into the same market that made the Twilight series so popular with teenage girls. However, The Hunger Games avoids the trap of Twilight by wisely not spotlighting a heroine whose most notable character trait is being depressed that her boyfriend is somewhat unreachable. Turning the “girl mooning over guy” storyline on its head, Collins has created a protagonist who is part Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Ree Dolly — Jennifer Lawrence’s character in Winter’s Bone. What I mean is that the lead character, Katniss Everdeen (as played by Jennifer Lawrence), is the kind of girl who’s strong, resourceful, mostly fearless, knows her way around a bow and arrow, but is strongly devoted to her family –which makes guys moon over her.
The film (like the book) is set in a future where a country in North America has been separated into 12 districts after a long war. In order to “keep the colonies in line,” the epicenter of power of this country (known as Panem), requires each district to send two children between the ages of 12-18 to The Capitol for the annual Hunger Games spectacle. These games are what you get from a society who take reality TV far beyond what we have today — but use it for much of the same ends.
Just as reality TV appeals to the Freudian Id, the powers that be in Panem know that people need the spectacle of violence and competition for similar reasons. But they up the stakes by making the kids from these districts fight each other to the death on live TV. But before the games begin, the kids have to go through a process whereby they are chosen at random, shipped off to The Capitol, and trained for two weeks in the art of survival and killing another human — all for the pleasure of the upper classes, and to remind the lower classes the violence that awaits if they try and rebel against this oppressive system.
The film does a good job showing the grotesque opulence of The Capitol with the extreme poverty of District 12 — where Katniss comes from. But the depiction of each society is not so cartoonish as to only see “white hat and black hats” in this narrative. Rather, it’s clear there are many in The Capitol who would like to see the Hunger Games end, but are pained and powerless to stop it. Case in point are Haymitch Abernathy (played by Woody Herrelson), and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) who would clearly like to see the system change, and see a potential agent of that change in Katniss. Both Haymitch and Cinna are assigned to Katniss (and her fellow District 12 resident, Peeta) to groom them for the game. Through the process of getting Katniss and Peeta ready to battle others in an arena, we see this “sport” (like most sports) are about catharsis, gambling, a celebration of excess, and an event to alleviate the boredom of the wealthy. The goal of the game is simple: the last person alive wins. But to get to that point the game masters and the sponsors can alter the rules, assist the “tributes,” (i.e., the kids in the game) and handicap them to make the game more exciting when the tributes aren’t achieving the desired effect for the society at large.
As I was watching the film, it reminded me a of conflation of TV shows and movies that have a similar narrative — albiet without the “death on live TV” element. In other words, The Hunger Games is structurally what you get when you combine the controlled environment of The Truman Show, the gamesmanship of Survivor, and the “I wanna be a celebrity” of American Idol. I’m sure Collins –who contributed to the screenplay — is trying to highlight the way in which societies create spectacles to either mask the harshness of war (as we have in the U.S. since 2001), or, in the case of the book and the film, the way governments and a willing media maintain power over a population with fear and violence.
After all the hype and anticipation surrounding the film, did it live up to what it promised? The short answer is yes. The longer answer is that since I hadn’t read the book, nor knew of the plot, I went in without any preconceptions — wanting only to experience the film on its own merits. What I came away with was an action-packed film with sympathetic characters who had more depth than characters in this genre usually do. Jennifer Lawrence had a tough role to bring to life. Her portrayal of Katniss had to be strong, yet not so strong that masked any kind of human emotion someone in that situation would exhibit. Lawrence was able to achieve that balance and show that despite all the temptations that were thrown at Katniss (i.e., good food, celebrity, elaborate accommodations) she held on to what she knew to be important: surviving so she could one day reunite with her family and provide the kind of emotional support they needed.
So if you’re in the mood for a thoughtful action film, The Hunger Games will satisfy your craving.