I have never read a page of Suzanne Collins The Hunger Games trilogy, so I am not going to even bother to see whether or not fans of the book will be satisfied with the details that were left in the book. What I can do, however, is see why the film is the most anticipated thing since certain major religious events, and will probably do more to stimulate the economy than the current administration’s economic policies. But is it any good?
First, before I get too far, I will make a promise right now – no where in this review will I mention of Battle Royale. Those are two different films with two very different goals. Yes, they have the same basic premise (a group of teenagers are forced to murder each other by an oppressive government) but they should not be compared to each other any more than Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter should be compared to each other.
Back to my original question – is The Hunger Games any good? Yes, it is. The spectacle of the film is great, and the scenes in the Capitol (in which everyone is dressed as though Emilie Autumn was their fashion designer) are some of the most memorable depictions of a dystopian society ever. It reminded me a lot of Julie Taymor’s depiction of a Roman empire that lasted into the modern era in Titus. All of the people in the film seem to be familiar with the source book and appear genuinely excited to be writing, directing, and starring in a movie based on The Hunger Games. The angels smile on creative people who actual care about what they are doing, rather than the people who direct big adaptations for the money (looking at you, Chris Columbus).
But…and I have already discussed this with someone, who thought I was raving mad…the pay off of the actual Hunger Games and their commentary on our society is not as great as it could have been.
For those of you who were unable to put together the clues from the trailer (or, if you are like me, you have not read the books), the film takes place in some sort of post apocalyptic future, in which North America has turned into a nation called Panem. The government of this nation, in order to keep the people in line (and to demonstrate that Juvenal’s concept of “bread and circuses” is still relevant), holds an event known as “The Hunger Games” each year. This event has each of the twelve districts surrounding Panem choosing a boy and a girl to fight to the death in a huge arena. A girl from District 12 named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) begs to participate in the games after her younger sister is selected – Katniss wants to replace her and thus save her sister’s life. She goes to the Capitol, and is wined and dined by the media and mentored by a drunk named Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and becomes friends with another boy from District 12 named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). But then she goes into the actual games and is drawn into the brutal kill or be killed ceremony.
There is a lot that I adored about The Hunger Games, particularly the hints of the society that is to come. Yes, it is true, that the film does not try to explain how society got to that point. But why would it? The inhabitants are used to it. And frankly, the class parallels (each of the Districts specialize in producing one thing, such as coal, and most are incredibly poor) can be interpreted in a myriad of ways – from a Marxist criticism of holding down the producers to a more Hayekian approach about the “road to serfdom.” You are free to take away anything you want, and that’s how art should work.
As I said above, I particularly enjoyed each and every one of the scenes in the Capitol, with its odd, rich citizens (some of whom have children that beat each other with plastic swords) to the emphasis on total pageantry. Yes, a woman lighting her dress on fire is gaudy, but that is the same sort of style that we see. I’ve always wondered how models felt, starving themselves to fit in this year’s fashion, knowing that it will kill them. The Hunger Games manages, somehow, to address this. Everything about the way the society was set up had a very Huxley feel about it, from the manufactured workers to the vapid upper class obsessed with pleasure.
I could mention how great Jennifer Lawrence (among my favorite young actresses) is in the film, and how Gary Ross’ attention to detail (including putting a few things from the books that only fans would get – or so I was told) is. They all care about the material and feel that there is something profound in the work that needs to be said to as many people as possible. The depiction of the society Panem made me agree, and at the very least, made the Hunger Games feel organic, rather than some distraction. In other words, it was easy to see why the people would tolerate it. But…
Well, I’ll go ahead and get to the part that will have people yelling at me, screaming at me, and other wise calling for my death. Well, before I do, I want to say one more thing – the whole idea behind the titular games is a great one – keeping the masses in check and the rich entertained with a violent spectacle involving the death of children. But the film’s treatment of the same focuses on one at the expense of the other. No where, really, do the audiences get the feel of what a terrible show the broadcast of the Hunger Games must be like.
Look at it this way. The average episode of American Idol is wrought with melodrama and terrible jokes at the expense of the contestants’ psyche. The titular games take it that much further, but I never really saw how the masses react actually watching the slaughter. Nowhere does it show people taking bets on the kids, cheering at a graphic death, or otherwise reacting at all. It hints that some of those things take place, but I feel that the film would have truly been perfect if such a scene were present. Mostly, when we see people watching the games, they’re merely standing around, watching the televised proceedings with an absolutely emotionless look. People in our society really do get into these sorts of shows. That’s why American Idol used to have higher vote counts than presidential elections. Why not show that in this world, rather than just hint at it? It would have made the obsession with violence that much clearer and more horrifying.
Could you imagine if, during the initial scene with the kids killing each other (spoilers be damned. Kids will die in this movie), some smart alec MC kept saying about how “that had to hurt” or a viewing party was cheering? We would think they were mad – but that’s the point. But the emcees who are there mostly just act as Greek chorus, explaining what is happening, and the viewers are frozen stiff. When the film focuses on the hunt for the kids and how brutal they can be, the film works – but it was missing that extra level that would have made it that much more effective.
Perhaps it’s explained better in the book, and really, that is the only flaw I found with the execution of The Hunger Games. But that’s still a pretty big flaw, considering the shallow obsession with reality TV was meant to be a major point of the work. Still, it’s not enough to kill it, because the cast and director is sparing nothing in their telling of the story. OK, maybe it’s not quite as smart as they think it is, but I still prefer when creative people go for broke and try their hardest to convince me otherwise. And the creators of The Hunger Games almost succeed.