The Hunger Games satisfies appetite for adventure, provides a dark look at a possible future
Not since Harry Potter and the Twilight franchises has a movie adaptation been more anticipated and publicized than Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Adapted from the bestselling book series and presenting an impressive cast of both newcomers and Hollywood legends, the film opened to packed theaters on March 23.
When I first heard about The Hunger Games, I was a bit wary of the series. First and foremost, the prospect of kids killing each other for sport is obviously a bit jarring. On top of that, the fashion and romance aspects seemed a bit tween-ish for my tastes. But since it was so popular, I felt I had to give it a chance. I’m glad I did.
The story presents many of the ideas we’ve seen before, but the genre-savvy characters make Panem and the Hunger Games feel unique. Admittedly, while reading, I found some of the Capitol scenes to be kiddy in nature and certain sociological aspects of Panem to be a bit thinly-imagined. That said, every story has its medium, and for Collins’ trilogy, that medium seems to be film.
The tone of the film is quite bleak. Collins presents a post-apocalyptic North America ravaged by warfare, climate change and a resulting shortage of food and resources.
Dystopia isn’t a new concept; it seems like the idea has existed just as long as humankind’s propensity to nit-pick and be unhappy with our various systems of government. Most dystopian societies serve as a commentary for why big government and capitalism are inherently evil (and commentators championing both sides of the spectrum have already attempted to use the young adult series to serve their own agendas).
Though Panem seems to be a mélange of Big Brother, super capitalism and the Roman Republic, making for a bizarre neo-feudalism.
The film focuses on a 16-year old girl, Katniss Everdeen, played by Winter’s Bone’s Jennifer Lawrence. She and her sister, Primrose, known as “Prim,” live with their widowed mother in District 12, one of Panem’s smallest and most impoverished fiefs. Set in current-day Appalachia, District 12 is a rugged coal-mining town, where Katniss supports her family by slipping through an inactive electric fence daily to hunt with Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth), The Hunger Games’ equivalent of Twilight’s Jacob Black.
As an opening sequence relays, the 13 districts of Panem rebelled against their Capitol and the resulting loss destroyed District 13 and forced each remaining district to pay tribute by providing one male and one female adolescent to compete in the spectacle with only one surviving victor.
Each district holds a public, lottery-style “Reaping” to select the representatives, though in outlying districts like 10 through 12, being reaped is effectively a death-sentence. This fact sparks an emotionally courageous moment in which Katniss volunteers to take Prim’s place when the dainty 12-year old’s name is called.
The next name drawn is that of the baker’s son, Peeta Mellark, a dry, yet compelling young man played by Josh Hutcherson.
After a brief farewell with Gale and her family, Katniss is carted off to a futuristic bullet train where she and Peeta meet their mentor, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), a previous victor whose sarcasm is almost as pungent as his alcohol-laden breath. It is Haymitch’s responsibility to train the two tributes, as well as to gain sponsors when the Games begin. By the time they reach the Capitol, however, it’s evident that Haymitch and Katniss aren’t exactly friends.
The Capitol is an immense, lavish city, thanks to the magic of CGI, the only time it’s truly apparent during the entire film, and what ensues after their arrival is a confusing whirlwind of pageantry, introducing us to John Madden’s more sleazy, flamboyant counterpart, Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci), Head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and the series’ villain, President Snow (Donald Sutherland). We also meet Katniss’ stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), who gives her an edge by literally lighting her on fire.
Two weeks later, Katniss is shipped off to the arena with the 23 other tributes, including vicious, trained killers known as “Careers,” led by Cato (Alexander Ludwig), the boy from District 2. The final countdown to the games is filled with suspense and emotion as Katniss and Panem prepare for the ensuing bloodbath.
Gary Ross and his cast put on a beautifully polished show; Lawrence’s Katniss shined, and Hutcherson essentially milked everything he could out of Peeta, a character who, in print, had little personality. The chemistry between Sutherland and Bentley, as well as Lawrence and her entire supporting cast, is amazing, and newcomer Amandla Stenberg is fantastic as the 12-year old from District 11, Rue.
Die-hard fans of the series might find themselves a little upset with the exclusion of certain backstories, but in the end, it’s really for the best.
Some of the scenes I had the hardest time reading were my favorite when they came to life on screen. The actual gore is minimal, but when we see it, it’s actually quite emotionally powerful. The fact that the film is also told without narration from Katniss allows us as an audience to be privy to some deep conversations between Snow and Crane as the Games progress.
My only regret is that this twist didn’t allow for more footage of other tributes. Between some amazing cinematography, there’s also lots of shaky, irritating wide-outs of Lawrence running, building up to, well nothing.
While it may have a few faults, I think it’s worth taking the time to commend Ross and Lionsgate for making a film that manages to be both a blockbuster and a thought-provoking social commentary.
As Sutherland’s President Snow explains, hope is the only thing stronger than fear. Everyone who’s ever had to write a paper responding to 1984, Brave New World or The Giver has essentially memorized and accepted this fact. What makes the nation of Panem quite unique in the realm of dystopian tropes and idioms, however, is the fact that the antagonistic governing body recognizes it.
Ironically, these similarities are most evident by the end, when we have come to judge the barbaric people of the Capitol through Katniss’ eyes—only to realize that we, ourselves, have paid to watch the Games.
We can see a bit of ourselves in Panem, a country ruled by fear and brutality, yet driven by hope.