Posted on Tuesday, April 17th, 2012 at 1:57 pm
Author: Feature Writer
Gc contributor: Barbara Labinger
Fans of Suzanne Collins’ dark teen trilogy as well as newcomers to the series should find the film of The Hunger Games satisfying. It’s a gripping story, well-told. Four weeks after its release, box office numbers testify to the movie’s power. It’s less clear how much of Games’ biting political message is getting digested, but its overwhelming popularity suggests that at the least, the tale is extraordinarily timely.
In the future dystopia of Panem, a decadent Capitol wields oppressive control over twelve laboring districts scattered throughout what used to be the United States. The Games are mere entertainment for the bored Capitol sybarites; unlike the twelve districts, they do not risk their children in the lottery for the annual arena battle. The lone victor brings glory, or at least a year’s worth of bread, back to their district. The other twenty-three contenders return to their families in a box.
If this sounds like a cross between a “reality” game show and wartime horror, it’s because that’s exactly what Collins intended. The author, flipping channels between a pop competition and coverage of the war in Iraq, was struck by the unnerving similarity between the two spectacles.
Much of Hunger Games’ ire is aimed at the greedy, power-hungry few, and the socioeconomic injustice that they inflict on the majority. The widening gap between the uber-rich and everyone else has not been news to many for a long time, of course; but the book, written before the crash of ’08 and the subsequent rise of the Occupy movement, now seems prescient of the current zeitgeist, as many have noted.
The screenplay for Hunger Games, co-written by director Gary Ross and Collins herself (replacing an earlier draft by Volcano screenwriter Billy Ray), hews close to the tautly plotted first novel. Ross brings the book’s sharp sociopolitical commentary to the big screen mostly intact.
One could criticize that the satirical message of the film is weakened by the medium. If the moneyed, powerful and spectacle-loving Capitol is the 1%, so are the forces that make The Hunger Games a pop phenomenon. As one might expect in this era of self-referential meta-commentary, savvy minds not only anticipated this irony but make winking use of it to market the movie. At the official website, a gallery of “Capitol Couture” includes real (and presumably saleable) items by contemporary haute fashion designers.
The layers of irony become dizzying: one of the most emphatic criticisms that the movie enables what it claims to condemn, the blurring of reality and entertainment, comes from Fox News. Keith Ablow, Fox’s in-house pop psychologist, frets:
The Hunger Games…is an entertainment product of complete fiction and great potency, given its intense level of fantasy and violence. As such, it only conveys young people closer to “expressing” in a virtual format their powerful and primitive instincts… There really isn’t any risk that a nation anytime soon will choose to broadcast a murder competition between teens. So no one who sees the film is really going to come out of it intent on short-circuiting a cabal designed to prey upon the young via reality TV. Almost no one will emerge from a theater swearing off shows like the Keeping Up With the Kardashians, or Jersey Shore…
Ablow’s notion that Hunger Games primarily targets the harmful influence of reality programs on impressionable teens is so far off the mark that one suspects disingenuousness. Obviously, it’s unlikely that shows like Survivor will go literal any time soon. It is not the purveyors of entertainment made to look like reality that Hunger Games decries so much as those who turn actual war into entertainment. As an employee of one of the most blatantly cynical media marketers of war-as-video-game, Ablow understandably misses this nuance.
As for the accusation of gratuitous, pornographic violence: if anything, the filmed version of Hunger Games is less “sexy” with typical Hollywood thrills than the books, not to mention an infinite number of other movies with a PG-13 rating. Most of the action sequences are barely action by Hollywood standards at all, more semi-coherent blurs with the odd flash of knife or blood. More than a tasteful (and MPAA-aimed) muting of the violence, this directorial choice turns the usual voyeur’s perspective into something much closer to the experience of someone inside the fight. When the screen does finally show a full frontal death-by-spear, it’s genuinely horrific, all the more so because it’s one of the most vulnerable characters.
Much of the entire movie seems filtered through the perspective of someone in a more or less constant state of traumatic shock. The cinematography is heavy on extreme close-ups and other oddly distorted angles. Light seems too bright, sounds too far away or close. The camera jitters at odd moments. A hallucination sequence only jacks up the overall surreal quality by several degrees; the exposition it reveals is both couched in the symbolic language of nightmare and depictive of real nightmarish events in the heroine’s short and difficult life.
For life is hard in District 12, where starvation is a constant threat, hunting for sustenance illegal. Fathers die in coal mining accidents, and mothers sink into paralyzing depression with no treatment, safety net or support. And every year, the knowledge that two of their number will be sacrificed, two families will lose a child, and all will be helpless to do anything but watch them die on television while fatuous commentators prattle.
In Panem, as in the non-fictional world, it is mostly not the sons and daughters of the rich and powerful who are conscripted into these deadly games, but the poor and disenfranchised, often already bearing traumatic scars. The ones on the front line, and their loved ones and communities, are, by and large, not the ones who cannot tell the difference between the fantasy of violence and its reality; and they are not the audience for whom the spectacle is intended. They are all still required to help maintain the Capitol’s fantasy narrative, however, one way or another.
The fiction that all are equally complicit in this best of all possible worlds is vital to the survival of a Capitol-like system. Early in the film’s exposition, head Games designer Seneca Crane (a snidely whiplashed Wes Bentley) tells media star Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, unctuous and sinister) that the Hunger Games are “healing for us.” The crowning horror of the Hunger Games is the ghastly good cheer imposed on the districts; as though as they, like the oblivious, frivolous Capitol, must experience the annual slaughter as nothing more than a thrilling competition, even a celebration. Pink-wigged Effie Trinket, the quintessential Capitolista (Elizabeth Banks, fabulous by every definition) attempts to work the grim-faced District 12 crowd as though leading a pep rally.
The 24 Games contestants are treated to a week of unaccustomed luxury before the battle, nominally in order to train, really in order to attract wealthy Capitol sponsors who can send life-saving help in the arena. They are assigned personal stylists who make them glamorous for live televised interviews with Flickerman, who gives each “tribute” three minutes in the glittering spotlight. Like any good game show host, he praises, banters, trades quips, and offers encouragement to each and every “tribute.” Less than twelve hours later, about half of them will already be dead in the initial bloodbath.
The wealthier districts, who can feed and train their children well, unlike District 12, do often bring a victor home. To the victor go real spoils beyond mere survival: lifelong comfort if not actual wealth, extra food for their entire district, even a sort of celebrity status in the Capitol. Accordingly, there are always some who play along with real enthusiasm. These tributes, called “Careers” by the others, form a predatory pack in the early stages of the Games. They are ruthlessly pragmatic, even gleeful, in hunting down the weakest; yet the alliance requires denial of the inevitable. “Twelve down, eleven to go!” a Career celebrates, and his packmates all take up the cheer like a sports team. There is even the suggestion of a budding romance between two Careers, shortly before one goes to a nasty death at the hands of Katniss, the unwilling hero protagonist. It’s self-defense, but there’s no triumph in it.
Ancient gladiators are the most obvious inspiration here: if there weren’t already enough blatant tipoffs to the Roman parallels, the most warrior-like Careers have names like Cato and Brutus. There is another myth that may be more pertinent, though, particularly to U.S. audiences. The Hunger Games in many respects resemble the American Dream in the early 21st century. Horatio Alger is increasingly twisted into American Idol, but it’s still the same basic plot: the odds may seem against you, but if you have the right stuff and play by the rules, you, little individual, can transcend your humble beginnings, be rewarded by the system, and live happily ever after. The stakes grow ever higher, and the odds grow ever steeper. The winner takes it all, but any one can be a winner: this is what “opportunity” means. That, and the insistence that everyone, regardless of their starting advantages or lack thereof, has an equal chance at beating the competition.
“May the odds be ever with you,” goes the Panem greeting; yes, with each and every one. Realistically, the odds in this set-up can’t be with everyone, or in fact with the vast majority: only 1 out of 24 can win, and losing literally means death. The solution seems so obvious in the abstract: band together, refuse to play. In reality, and in Panem, it’s never that simple or easy. Cooperation is much more difficult than competition, at least when you’re not used to it. And besides, the game is rigged. Opting out entirely, despite Gale and Katniss’ fantasies of running off to live in the woods, isn’t a realistic option for most people, if any. In a system as authoritarian and oppressive as Panem’s, the only real hope for change lies in revolution.
President Snow (Donald Sutherland, appropriately chilly and forbidding), apparently the only one pro-Capitol character who completely understands how the system works, explains to Seneca Crane (a conversation not explicit in the book):
“Why do we have a winner? Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine—as long as it’s contained. Contain it.”
The spark Snow refers to is Katniss Everdeen herself. Dressed in flames by her sympathetic stylist Cinna (an understated Lenny Kravitz), she quickly becomes an unwitting symbol of hope for the downtrodden District citizens. As a plucky upstart who might finally win a Game for perpetual underdog District Twelve, her fiery spirit suits the Capitol fine: that’s good television, and just enough hope to stoke the system’s engines. As a young woman who expresses too much overt loathing for the Capitol’s cruelty, too much solidarity with the weak, too much grief for her fallen competitors, she’s dangerous. That kind of passion can touch off barely-repressed rage, enough to spark a revolution, and indeed we see the beginnings of one before the film is over.
Jennifer Lawrence inhabits Katniss with all the emotional range, intelligence, complexity and depth the character merits. Arguably more of an anti-hero than a straight hero, Katniss roughly follows the same path as Spartacus (and to a lesser extent, Theseus, both cited by Collins as inspirations). Having heroically saved her sister, once in the games, her initial goal is simply to survive. When fellow District 12 tribute Peeta haltingly expresses a wish to show the Capitol he’s more than a pawn in their games, even if he has to die, Katniss doesn’t want any part of it. She still nurses anger at her mother for having effectively abandoned her and her sister by lapsing into depression after her father’s death some years ago. She’s pragmatic, self-sufficient, suspicious, sarcastic, terse, blunt sometimes to the point of rude; a dispassionate killer when she needs to be; and completely devoid of sentiment for fluffy animals, including her sister’s beloved cat.
These are all traits conventionally considered much less desirable in a heroine than a hero. Ablow, driven to fresh depths of disapproval, predicts Hunger Games will cause “[f]emales [to] be further distanced from their traditional feminine characteristics.”
Debbie Schlussel is even more disgusted, declaring that Katniss’ superior strength and survival skills are neither believable nor what anyone really wants to see, (box office numbers notwithstanding), except for feminist “hags.”
Perhaps such traditionalists prefer a more passive female protagonist, one whose entire story hinges on which besotted boy she finally ends up with. True, Hunger Games has a love triangle too, but it’s only one part of the story. Also, nobody sparkles. At least, not naturally. (In the book, Cinna makes her a fabulous evening gown entirely of precious jewels. In the movie, the interview dress looks more like a high school prom gown than haute couture).
Hunger Games both embraces and subverts the stereotypical trappings of teen-girl drama in numerous ways. The makeover, the Cinderella element of dazzling luxury, the awkward loner’s sudden attainment of popularity, the budding romance: all are present, and none are entirely as they seem, for none of this is actually in service of Katniss’ budding womanhood. Rather, everything is loaded with political significance. Being pretty, likable, even desirable, are all tools to help Katniss survive, quite literally. (And yet, isn’t that what the girl game always has been about at heart?) She’s not particularly gifted in this realm of artifice. In fact, Peeta, while near useless at many of Katniss’ traditionally-coded “masculine” strengths—hunting, providing, fighting—is much savvier with social skills, charming and ingratiating himself with an ease Katniss never attains. (Or, as Schlussel would have it, “a crybaby, very weak, and an effeminate wimp with frosted hair, whose life is saved several times by the more masculine chick,” i.e. a clear travesty to everyone but those deluded feminists. Someone is desperately out of touch with teenage fangirldom. Unfortunately, while the characters of Gale and Peeta are complex and compelling, neither young actor brings much to their role beyond the obligatory eye candy).
The romance could be real, perhaps, in less contrived circumstances. At least as far as Katniss is concerned, in the arena, it’s just one more survival game to please the audience. The star-crossed young lovers story is typically depicted as rebellion in itself. Here, it turns out to be the safest spin Katniss and Peeta can put on their flouting of the Games’ rules. A conventionally appealing romance confines the spark to two crazy-in-love kids. The bigger sin is solidarity. The ultimate sin is exposing the Capitol’s weakness: the gamers can be gamed.
The Hunger Games’ real message might actually be more radical than it looks, despite its mainstream appeal, or perhaps even because of it: populism needs first of all to be popular. YA fandom is rapidly becoming a major hub for young activists, and The Hunger Games is particularly suited to bridge the gap between fandom and social justice. “Hunger Is Not a Game” partners fan clubs with Oxfam America:
Hunger is a systematic problem – the result of injustices and violence within the system – so to solve hunger we have to fix the system. But in the mean time, people are starving NOW. When Katniss was deep into the Games, she was sent a silver parachute with necessary supplies. Even though the silver parachute didn’t stop the games, it saved her life until she could lead the revolution against the system.”
“As we work with Oxfam America to fix our system of distributing food relief, we can also send silver parachutes to our communities. By planning food drives in our communities, we can help keep people in our communities from starving. We can help provide food banks and shelters with the supplies they need to keep the silver parachutes coming until we can fix the system.
Ready to get involved? Here are some ways you can help:…
Revolution? Maybe not. But, perhaps, a start.
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