FYI: This post may contain spoilers.
I am always fascinated by the issues that arise from books and novels reaching a certain level of attention within the popular culture. The recent release of The Hunger Games is a prime example. Some of the discussions can be rather fruitful, such its depiction of a well-round, strong female figure. I may be one of the worst poster-children for feminism, but even I won’t deny the novelty of this. There are some that are far less positive. Yet, even they serve to bring to light stereotypes and prejudices that are often suppressed within “polite” society. I think the one that I have found the most curious is the debate on the appropriateness of allowing young people to see a film that depicts not just violence, but violence to children by children. Every individual is different. Some young people may be particularly sensitive or not mature enough to handle such subjects, and that is for each parent to decide. However, to say indiscriminately that it is inappropriate for younger individuals is a little absurd. There is something hypocritical about the argument for protecting the innocence of our children that is very frustrating. If you are terribly concerned about your child’s fragile innocence, you should also avoid the evening news, any one of the dozens of police procedural shows on television, and you may want to reconsider letting them out of the house at all.
Based on the first novel in Suzanne Collins’ popular trilogy, The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian society in which every year one boy and one girl from each of the country’s twelve districts are sent to the Capital to participate in an elaborate reality television show which concludes when there is on Tribute left standing. In order to spare her younger sister Prim from certain death, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to be the female representative from District 12, a mining region whose people slave to get by on a meager living. Katniss’ male counterpart is Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), a baker’s son who has secretly harbored feelings for Katniss. The two travel to the Capital with their mentor (Woody Harrelson) and consultant (Elizabeth Banks) who are meant to help prepare them for the physical, mental and theatrical challenges of the games. But Katniss’ attitude and abilities begin to draw attention, and prove that she is not only a threat to win these games but also undermine the very fabric of this broken society.
To call these games anything less than barbaric would be an understatement. Like Athenian children carted off to the Minotaur, these Tributes are a reminder to the districts that they are a conquered people, forever under the boot of an oppressive government. A good dystopian novel hinges not on its ability to create a society that is so disturbingly different to its audience that they are relieved they don’t live there, but one that is so eerily familiar that they are disturbed at the direction their own is headed. While acknowledging that a dystopian society is by its nature an extreme case scenario, with our society’s increasing insensitivity towards violence and permissibility of what we will put on television, are these games really that much of a stretch for the imagination? I think that is why I find the argument about not allowing younger audiences to watch this so distressing. The film demonstrates a respect for life even in midst of carnage that is lacking from most adult films. Each death is given its due, whether friend or enemy, and for this the film should be commended. It could have taken the easy way out and shown less, but then I think it would have be guilty of contributing to our insensitivity rather than challenging it.
The Hunger Games is less often approached as a dystopian novel as it is a Young Adult novel. Which is unfortunate in that so many people stigmatize YA fiction as being less than worthy of serious discussion, and because people have been clumping it together with other contemporary, popular YA fiction. I am primarily referring here to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight books. Temporarily ignoring the fact that The Hunger Games is simply a better written novel than Twilight, the two books have almost nothing in common. Both have female protagonists who have two potential suitors, but that is as close as these two stories get. You could not get two more different characters than Katniss and Bella, and that they are in the same conversation is almost absurd. One of the things about the two suitor storyline that both this film and book play upon is an audience’s expectations of romance. After Peeta declares his feelings for Katniss in his pre-games interview, she shoves him against a wall, accusing him of sabotaging her by making her look weak. It is Haymitch who defends Peeta by saying that he has actually helped her cause by making her look desirable. Katniss and Peeta are forced to participate in a charade as the star-crossed lovers because it is what people want to see. The actual feelings of Katniss, Peeta, as well as Gale are far more complicated than mere attraction or stereotypical forbidden romance. The audience within the novel does not get to appreciate this; for them it simply adds to the tragedy of this year’s drama. It is a brilliant example of the narrative’s critique of the audience as being complicit in this perverse ritual.
As to the film’s realization of Collins’ text, I would largely call it a success. The Theseus of this tale is its heroine Katniss, and Jennifer Lawrence does an incredible job in bringing this character to life. It provides further evidence that her Oscar-nominated performance from The Winter’s Bone was no fluke, and she truly is one of the most promising young actresses in Hollywood. However, because the film was so well done, its failings became more glaring to me. To start with, the editing and camera work in the opening scene when Katniss is moving through the forest is so jarring it is almost nauseating. I can understand its use during the melee that begins the actual games but here it is unnecessary and renders the images incomprehensible. My other trouble with the film was its costume design. I liked what was done with the clothing in District 12 and those of the Tributes; however, I had a very negative reaction to the actual citizens of the Capital. Undeniably, the Capital should exude wealth and decadence, to the point of lacking actual taste, but what I saw on the screen was cheap costume, in the Halloween sense of the word, which did not seem consistent with the rest of the world of the film. In my mind, the weakest link in the ensemble was Josh Hutcherson as Peeta. When I learned he had been cast in the role, I thought he was an odd choice and his performance did nothing to assuage my concerns. Lawrence’s Katniss, literally and figuratively, towers over him. While Katniss is a strong personality and Lawrence an equally strong actress, it is unfortunate that the producers of the film did not find someone more capable of rising to her level.
On the whole it is an incredibly good film, which bodes well for the future of this budding new franchise.