The Hunger Games (2012) ***
Check it out— I’m reviewing a big-deal pop-culture phenomenon movie while it’s still a big-deal pop-culture phenomenon! It’s been— what? About nine years since the last time I did that? I must admit, however, that I’m going about it somewhat half-assedly, since I’ve never read any of the books from which The Hunger Games derives. It’s snobbish of me, I suppose, but I can’t quite bring myself to join the club of adults becoming devotees of fiction written for thirteen-year-olds. Still, I’m a sucker for post-apocalyptic dystopias, and Hunger Games creator Suzanne Collins has reputedly dreamed up one of the suckier futures in recent memory. That’s enough to draw me out to see the film version, however skeptical I might be of its print antecedent. And now that I have seen the movie, I’m starting to think I might give the novels a try after all, even if only in the hope of answering some of the 50,000 questions that The Hunger Games blows by in its rush to become the world’s deadliest preppies-vs.-lowlifes summer camp movie.
The setup here consists of about three parts Battle Royale, two parts The Running Man, and one part The Long Walk (the other Stephen-King-as-Richard-Bachman dystopia about people participating in a sadistic public contest that offers fraudulent hope of escape from poverty and exploitation). In the moderately far-flung future— something on the order of 150 years from now, perhaps— the North American continent is occupied by a single, vast state known as Panem. I gather that we’re supposed to interpret the name as a corruption of “Pan-America,” but it also conveniently echoes “panem et circenses,” the old Imperial Roman formula for placating the masses while systematically stripping away their accustomed rights and liberties. The irony there is that bread is precisely what the government of Panem doesn’t give the vast majority of its citizens. While the people of the capital enjoy all the comforts one would wish the 22nd century to offer, those of the twelve outlying administrative districts toil in subsistence-level privation, all of their surplus produce confiscated to support the lavish lifestyle of the parasite aristocracy. Nor is that the only form of tribute that the capital exacts from the districts. Every year, each district must select one boy and one girl of approximately what we would consider high school age to participate in a bloodsport competition known as the Hunger Games; apparently it’s a punishment of sorts for a series of rebellions that occurred about three or four generations back. These two-dozen kids are taken to the capital, entertained in high style for a week or so, and trained all the while to use whatever talents they possess both to survive and to kill. Then they’re sent to an arena somewhere between The Truman Show’s panoptic village and the holodecks on the starship Enterprise for a free-for-all battle to the death. The ritual slaughter is broadcast live all over Panem, but how the audience relates to the spectacle seems to be a matter of class standing. In the capital, the Hunger Games are an enormous lark, with the citizens not just rooting for and betting on their favorite contestants, but sponsoring them directly with small but vital donations like matches or medicine. In the districts, though, the Hunger Games are serious business. After all, those are their children out there.
Anyway, it is the year of the 74th Hunger Games, and in the coal country of District 12, thirteen-ish Primrose Everdeen (Willow Shields) is becoming eligible as tribute for the first time. Different districts have different selection systems, but in District 12, Hunger Games contestants are chosen by means of a complicated lottery. To give you some idea of how complicated, consider that Primrose, as a freshman so to speak, will have but a single lot with her name on it in the bin when the next pair of tributes are picked, but her older neighbor, Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth, of Knowing and Triangle), has 42 lots in play this year. Of course, now that we’ve established that Prim’s odds in this year’s Hunger Games drawing are more favorable than Gale’s, it’s pretty much inevitable that she gets picked, and he doesn’t. Getting chosen as tribute is a bum deal for anybody, really, but for Primrose— small, weak, timid, and unskilled— it’s a straight-up death sentence. Fortunately, she has her big sister, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), looking out for her. The Everdeen family is destitute even by District 12 standards, because the man of the house was killed in a mine explosion some years ago. I have to assume that Mom (Paula Malcomson, from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence and The Green Mile) does something productive (it hardly seems likely that Panem goes in for things like widows’ pensions or survivors’ benefits), but by every indication, Katniss, expert archer and tracker that she is, has become the family’s main breadwinner (squirrel-winner, pigeon-winner— whatever). Long accustomed to being the responsible one— the planner, the provider, the protector— Katniss now stands up for her sister one last time in the only way that she can, volunteering to go to the capital in Prim’s place.
If Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks, from Slither and The Uninvited), the Hunger Games representative for District 12, is to be believed, this is the first time there’s ever been a volunteer from the coalfields. District 12 has also sent only one winner in living memory, but “luckily” for Katniss and her male counterpart, Peeta Mellark (John Hutcherson, of Detention and Journey to the Center of the Earth), Haymitch Abernathy (Zombieland’s Woody Harrelson) is still around to mentor them during their training period. That was in no way a foregone conclusion, I hasten to emphasize, since Abernathy is such an out-of-control drunk these days that he really could drop dead of cirrhosis or alcohol poisoning at any minute. Thus the ironic quotes a moment ago— I’m not at all sure that advice from this guy is something I’d particularly want in Katniss and Peeta’s position. It’s interesting, though, the kind of advice that Abernathy offers. He’s almost dismissive of tactics and strategy as the kids imagine those concepts, focusing his talks less on how to defeat the other contestants than on how to put on a good show for those puffed-up bastards in the capital audience. The teens get more of the same from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz— yes, really), the stylist in charge of creating stage and screen personas for the District 12 tributes. Cinna further seems genuinely to want Katniss or Peeta (but mainly Katniss) to win, and he goes several extra miles to make his charges look as impressive as possible on TV. The two men’s efforts succeed beyond even their highest hopes, and by the time the tributes are sent to the arena, Katniss has become the dark-horse favorite of this year’s contest, while Peeta’s on-air confession to Hunger Games master of ceremonies Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci, from Monkey Shines and The Core) that he has long harbored an unrequited crush on his soon-to-be rival is the event’s biggest trumped-up drama.
All that emphasis on showmanship is the first indication that the Hunger Games are about more than slaking the bloodlust of the decadent capital citizenry, or being gratuitously shitty to the descendants of former rebels. Confirmation of higher stakes and grander agendas comes when President Snow (Donald Sutherland, of An American Haunting and Buffy the Vampire Slayer), the dictator of Panem, calls in Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, from Soul Survivors and The Tomb), overseer of the games, to discuss how things are shaping up. Snow, it appears, is actually troubled by Katniss Everdeen. The reason the districts receive their annual morale crotch-kick in the form of a game, with a winner and a victory ceremony and presumably a prize of some kind (although the movie remains weirdly silent about that last part), is so that the battered, oppressed proles will have something to hope for as well as something to fear. That minute possibility of a hometown kid returning alive with whatever boon a victor receives over 23 dead bodies leaves just enough room for imagining that maybe things can get better, that maybe the regime isn’t such a cruel master after all. Without that, the masses would become desperate, and desperate people are dangerous. The thing is, hopeful people are dangerous, too, and the Hunger Games have always been carefully orchestrated to provide only the flimsiest basis for optimism, and none at all for inspiration. This Everdeen girl, though… She’s tough, she’s smart, she’s brave, she takes absolutely no shit, and worst of all, she’s popular. The crowd loves her, the sponsors love her, the Hunger Games staffers love her— hell, even Crane loves her. What happens when she gets into the arena, and starts showing her true mettle? Specifically, what if the crowd outside the capital loves her, too? What if, when they see Katniss toughly, smartly, and bravely taking absolutely no shit, they get it into their heads that they could do the same? Now maybe Snow is just being a worrywart. Maybe Katniss will freeze up when she faces real danger for the first time, or maybe she’ll turn out to be no match for the kids from Districts 1 and 2, where the tributes are always volunteers, trained for years in special academies tailored specifically to the requirements of the Hunger Games. But if not— well, Crane sees the problem, right? Whatever happens, Snow wants to be certain that Katniss becomes neither a hero nor a martyr. When all the hacking, shooting, and booby-trapping is done, Snow expects her to be just another dead hillbilly, and Crane isn’t going to like the result if he fails to deliver that outcome.
The Hunger Games reminds me of Steven Soderbergh’s Solaris in a way— which is interesting, given that Soderbergh uncharacteristically did some second-unit work on this film. Both movies take a story just bursting with big questions to be answered and big issues to be examined, and ruthlessly boil it down to something very small and intimate and personal. Both movies tell those blinkered versions of their stories well, but they leave an aftertaste of disappointment over all the things they deliberately weren’t. There’s a fictional world sorely in need of building here, and the occasional hints that writer/director Gary Ross tosses our way demonstrate that he could have built it serviceably enough had he wished to. For example, when Katniss’s treatment of a girl about her sister’s age named Rue (Amandla Stenberg) affirms all of President Snow’s misgivings by provoking riots of solidarity in District 11 (from which the latter girl hails), Ross shows us very efficiently how the uprising is both touched off and brutally quashed. The far-too-infrequent cutaways to audiences in both the capital and the districts sketch out a depressingly familiar (if obviously exaggerated) picture of a culture that has traded liberty for mere license, of a people bought off from caring about their vanished or vanishing political power with radical social permissiveness for those who can afford to take advantage of it. One brief speech by Snow throws into sharp relief the centrality of the Hunger Games to Panem’s system of social control. But what you will not gain from this movie is any clear sense of how the world came to be this way, how a society that infantilizes the haves while wasting the potential of the have-nots so profligately manages to maintain so high a standard of living at the top end, or indeed how the Hunger Games are even supposed to function on an institutional level. Asinine as The Running Man was, it did at least remember to establish what prize was supposed to be awarded to winners of the titular contest!
The Hunger Games is more satisfying when it stays in the arena with Katniss (even though its determination to do just that is what keeps it from being satisfying on other fronts). The arena sequences are where The Hunger Games most starkly sets itself apart from Battle Royale. In that movie, most of the contestants who don’t get weeded out early are treated as protagonists in their own rights for at least a scene or two, although some obviously get more time in the spotlight than others. The focus of The Hunger Games, by contrast, is squarely on Katniss throughout, even after circumstances push her into alliance first with Rue and later with Peeta. Most of the other kids barely qualify as characters, and even the best developed of them are defined by a single, easily conveyed personality trait. Rue is the angelic child; Peeta, rather remarkably, is the damsel in distress; the tributes from Districts 1 and 2 are the “in it to win it” types familiar from a thousand underdog sports movies. Now all that sounds damningly simplistic, I’m sure, and it does create problems for the movie. Most seriously, it robs all but one death of any real impact, exacerbating the muffling effect of the PG-13 rating. (Mind you, a short ratings leash was inevitable in any case for an adaptation of a book aimed at readers just barely old enough to qualify for the Hunger Games themselves.) However, there’s an important sense in which that diminution of everybody who isn’t Katniss subliminally serves the movie’s purposes. The Hunger Games, at least as presented here, is her story. Not a story about her, not a story in which she participates, but her story. Katniss isn’t in the capital, or back home in District 12, or in any of the other places I’d have liked to see more of; she’s in the arena, and she’ll be stuck there until the contest is at an end. The people she encounters over the course of the Hunger Games, meanwhile, are complete strangers— and most of them are strangers whose lives are so incommensurable with hers that she can scarcely begin to understand them. If you look closely, you’ll see that there is a direct correlation in this movie between how well Ross allows us to know the characters and how well Katniss could get to know them. For that matter, there is a somewhat looser correlation between what we know about them and what Katniss does. The best example of the latter is probably the kids from Districts 1 and 2, who spend most of the film defined solely in terms of the threat they pose. That’s exactly how Katniss herself would define them, and it’s significant that some hint of their own viewpoint emerges only when the last of them has occasion to speak to her directly, as Seneca Crane’s endgame engulfs them both. What Ross has done here, in other words, is to simulate very closely the effects of a first-person narrative perspective in a medium that is fundamentally hostile to the creation of such effects. Outwardly, Ross’s direction looks workmanlike at best, and Jennifer Lawrence appears to be carrying the entire movie on her remarkably able back. In fact, however, he’s pulled off an extremely difficult trick, one which is worthy of admiration even if there were probably better uses to which the necessary effort and imagination could have been put in the context of this story.