The Hunger Games

Soft-pedaled dystopia
★★★
☆
Released: 
2012
Director: 
Gary Ross
Starring: 
Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks
The Setup: 
24 kids have to battle to the death for a government-sponsored reality show.
Discussion: 

So I was all dismissive of whatever new teen blockbuster this was going to be until I found out the premise: that 24 kids must battle each other to the death as part of a state-sponsored gladiatorial amusement and social control method. Then a friend of mine lent me the book, a quick and involving read, and I was fully on board with the hype. And here it is--how is it?

The movie follows the novel very closely, only dropping several pungent details, while expertly appropriating the tone, which we'll come back to. Katniss Everdeen lives in a poor district (the country has been divided into 12 districts), where social control is exerted through limitations of food. She goes out into the woods and hunts for food, establishing at the start that she has survival skills and a familiarity with the wilderness that will give her an edge later. Her village looks dust bowl in a way that has been compared to Dorothea Lange's photographs of the depression, which is another way of saying it's so aestheticized it's hard to sense that these people are really starving. But it could be that, culture-wise, poverty has been so aestheticized anyway that when you see shacks you don't think "poor," you think "shabby chic." It also doesn't help that Jennifer Lawrence looks to be the radiant, well-fed picture of robust health.

So there's a lottery wherein one male and one female are selected to compete in the games, which are presented as a fun event by the organizers, and met with steely silence by the families forced to participate. Katniss' young sister is selected, and she volunteers to take her place. She and a young man she barely knows, Peeta, go off to training. The they experience a wealthy life that is new to them, and are taught that being appealing, making friends and putting on a good show are key to survival. The juxtaposition of the horrifying nature of the event with the chipper, reality-show presentation of it is there, but never explicitly formed into a statement. The most effective line of dialogue comes at the end, after the arduous battle to the end, when someone sums up the whole thing as "it's a TV show."

So there's training, both physical and media/appearance-wise, and finally the kids are thrown into the games. There is an initial bloodbath, when we first notice that director Gary Ross has taken the strategy of showing quick, blurry close-ups that convey violence without actually showing anything, as a way of preserving the film's PG-13 rating (and provenance as a young adult novel). As it continues, the loss of Katniss' internal dialogue, which made up the entirety of the novel, is sorely felt, as we are left out of her strategy behind her actions, and only see her plans enacted and are left to piece together why later. This removes a bit of the satisfaction, as it is gratifying to see her making shrewd plans, then bringing them off. From there, if you've read the novel, you can see that almost everything is there, just missing several of the pungent details and Katniss' revealing thoughts about them.

So one of the interesting things about the novel is the way it sets all of this out with a very low-level of commentary, which I was unsure about, but finally decided was fairly brilliant. Without making big, underscored points about totalitarian governments and barbaric public spectacle, or social control via media, or the desensitizing of people to atrocities by turning them all into reality-themed entertainment, the novel kind of leaves the reader to make all these connections, which, ultimately, is how such a harsh book could fly under the radar as a young adult publishing sensation. What parents think of young adult literature having come to this from mean-girl narratives about self-esteem or, previously, rescued horses that become jumping champions is curious to me. But ultimately I guess erring on the side of subtlety is the smarter strategy, and the book and film no doubt would have achieved far less popularity had it actually called out its points.

Also brilliantly handled is the way the novel is structured so that Katniss can participate in this battle to the death while still remaining an admirable heroine. She kills very few people directly, and usually only after they have killed a good character. Otherwise she is witness as others kill, or employs indirect strategies like dropping a wasp's nest on the unsuspecting, so that she never becomes a killer herself, but remains a victim caught up in circumstance. Not to mention that only she, Peeta, and a young girl Rue are developed characters at all, and the rest are just faceless killers.

The movie recreates the tone of the novel with skill, which means simply presenting the events while soft-pedaling the implications of what it all means, what it's saying. Thing is, in the novel, you had Katniss' voice to fill in several of the blanks, and prompt thought about what is happening. Here, you kind of have to remind yourself that what you're watching is horrifying. The age of the actors (and the youth of actors in all films lately) make it hard to sense that these really are children sent out to kill each other. And the aforementioned aetheticizing of poverty makes it hard to feel that we're talking about starvation here. So you kind of watch this fun, engaging adventure about a girl meeting a challenge (and falling in LOVE!) and have very little sense of the brutality and horror of what it's all about. I'm still a bit on the fence over whether that is a flaw, or brilliant. Nevertheless, despite the perception that the film is a slavish recreation of the book, the novels packs such a greater punch that, of the two, that's the essential one.

By the way, we are to understand that both the novel and film are unofficial remakes / rip-offs of the Japanese novel, Manga and film Battle Royale, which I have not yet seen, but which is apparently vicious and violent and political in ways this one isn't at all. But that's the thing... if this one were more violent and political it would be buried, if it was released at all, so that's the basis of my deciding that maybe the low-commentary version we have here is perhaps genius.

So the novel is kind of amazingly audacious in terms of the vicious commentary it manages to work into a young adult novel sensation, and is definitely worth reading, if only to keep up with the state of the culture and the comment going on here. The movie is a worthy adaptation, and comes pretty close, and is fairly satisfying... while also a bit perplexing.

Should you watch it: 

It's not bad, of most interest to fans and those interest in keeping up with the zeigeist.