The Hunger Games
Director : Gary Ross
Screenplay : Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins and Billy Ray (based on the novel by Suzanne Collins)
MPAA Rating : PG-13
Year of Release : 2012
Stars : Jennifer Lawrence (Katniss Everdeen), Josh Hutcherson (Peeta Mellark), Liam Hemsworth (Gale Hawthorne), Woody Harrelson (Haymitch Abernathy), Elizabeth Banks (Effie Trinket), Lenny Kravitz (Cinna), Stanley Tucci (Caesar Flickerman), Donald Sutherland (President Snow), Wes Bentley (Seneca Crane), Toby Jones (Claudius Templesmith), Alexander Ludwig (Cato), Isabelle Fuhrman (Clove), Amandla Stenberg (Rue), Willow Shields (Primrose Everdeen)
You can immediately see why Jennifer Lawrence was cast as Katniss Everdeen, the stoic, hardy 16-year-old heroine of The Hunger Games. Lawrence’s Oscar-nominated break-out performance was playing Ree Dolly, the resilient and determined teenage daughter of a missing meth dealer in Winter’s Bone (2010), and in The Hunger Games she is essentially playing the same character: a poor, hardscrabble girl from the outskirts of rural nowhere, except now it’s set 300 years in the future. Lawrence brings to the pulpy material a sense of weight and gravity that few young actresses could muster; she has a flinty strength that enhances, rather than belies, her soft features, and it makes Katniss a completely believable protagonist.
Based on the best-selling 2008 novel by Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games takes place in Panem, a North American country that has replaced the United States (in the book, it is specified that climate change and ensuing wars are to blame, but the film leaves the reasons for the dissolution of the good ol’ U.S. of A ambiguous). Panem is divided into 12 districts, each of which is fenced off from the other and each of which contributes to the maintenance of the Capitol, a sprawling, technologically sophisticated metropolis populated by the wealthy and the powerful. Seventy-five years earlier several districts had rebelled against the Capitol, and as a result the government now forces each district to offer up two “Tributes” between the ages of 12 and 18—one boy and one girl—to compete in the annual Hunger Games, where they are released into a controlled environment out of which only one may emerge alive.
The contestants are chosen by random lottery called “The Reaping” and then whisked away to the Capitol for two weeks of intensive training and media scrutiny before they are set loose to kill and be killed, all of which is broadcast live and is all but compulsory viewing for the nation. Katniss becomes the female representative for her poor, coal-mining district (it looks a lot like Appalachia) when she volunteers to take the place of her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), who she has nurtured since her father’s death and her mother’s subsequent emotional vacancy. The other contestant from her district is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a shy baker’s son who admits during an interview that he has a crush on Katniss, which means that they are cast as star-crossed lovers, despite the fact that Katniss, until the games at least, has no interest in him. They are both mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a former contestant and survivor who clearly detests the games and all that they stand for, but has no choice but to play along. He recognizes in Katniss a potential winner, not just because of her superb bow-hunting skills and knowledge of nature, but because of her sheer determination.
Futuristic duel-to-the-death scenarios are nothing new to the science fiction genre, and their consistent presence in films as varied as Roger Corman’s Death Race 2000 (1975) and Kinji Fukasaku’s Battle Royale (2000) suggest a fundamental fear that society is going to revert to a more savage past, a past we feel we’ve transcended. Those sniffing for allegory in The Hunger Games will find plenty to gnaw on here, although the film is so ideologically vague that it easily fits into dire warnings of both unchecked governmental power (score one for the Right!) and unchecked private wealth and privilege (score one for the Left!). Donald Sutherland’s cagey President Snow certainly seems like a chilly stand-in for conservative indifference to the plight of the downtrodden (his speech dismissing the allure of underdogs is chilling), although the manner in which the districts are depicted as working for the “common good” that only benefits a storied elite suggests the typical failure of communist states. Whether the film is a conservative or liberal cautionary tale is really up to the individual viewer (it could play as an interesting litmus test for which ideological goggles you use to watch pop culture), although it clearly castigates the fundamental inhumanity of the system into which Katniss and the others are thrown.
At one point Peeta says that he doesn’t want to be changed, that is, he wants to stay human. Every aspect of the Hunger Games is designed to dehumanize the Tributes—to essentially turn them into game pawns for the audience’s bemusement. The decadent elites who live in the Capitol are depicted as self-dehumanizing, having embraced a lifestyle of grotesque pageantry and materialistic overkill that leaves no room for empathy or even decency; they dress in absurd fashions that recall the Victorian era crossed with ’80s New Wave excess, and the production design brings to mind the camp depravity of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange (1971). Stanley Tucci’s blue-haired, square-toothed master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman is a media darling who interviews the contestants as if they were facing a beauty pageant, rather than certain annihilation. Even more perverse is Elizabeth Banks’s trilling PR agent Effie Trinket, who treats the Games with all the gravitas of a birthday party. In order to compete, the contestants must be recast in the image of the wealthy and powerful via extensive make-overs that ironically dehumanize them further by turning their unique personal qualities into easily digestible signifiers that are no more meaningful than different colors on athletic uniforms. The fact that the contestants are children, some so young they have barely entered puberty, makes it all the more horrifying.
This is where the film gets into tricky territory. Like Collins’s novel, the film is aimed primarily at an adolescent audience, which means that director Gary Ross (who co-scripted with Collins and Billy Ray) is in the position of potentially having to pull some punches in depicting the ghastly scenario in order to bring it in under the marketable PG-13 umbrella. To his credit, Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) does an excellent job of conveying the horrors of children killing children without having to get explicitly graphic. The best moment in The Hunger Games—the point that truly captures the abject dread its characters face—is when the games first begin. The 24 boys and girls are lifted up through underground portals onto pedestals in the middle of a field. At a distance in front of them is a pile of weapons and supplies, and they must wait for a countdown to complete before they can leap off their pedestals and either run for the supplies or run for their lives. The tension is palpable, and Ross enhances the intensity by dropping out almost all sound as the contestants make their breaks, with many of them meeting a quick and grisly end as the stronger, better trained contestants get to the weapons first and hack them to death. It’s a truly horrifying scenario, and it sticks with you for the rest of the film, even when the violence is left entirely off-screen.
Copyright ©2012 James Kendrick
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