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Suzanne Collins shares that she got the idea for The Hunger Games while sleepily skipping channels between some reality-show game and footage of the invasion of Iraq until the images started to blur in her mind.
What’s bracing about Gary Ross’s film of the first book in Collins’ wildly popular young-adult trilogy is that the topicality of the story’s origins still comes across. When was the last Hollywood sci-fi action blockbuster that felt like real ideas about the world we live in were in danger?
The Hunger Games full movie is set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world of Panem, a country comprised of a dozen districts, of greatly disparate wealth and status, ruled by the totalitarian power of the Capitol, a stunningly wealthy and decadent district that oppresses the other districts in many ways, the cruelest of which is The Hunger Games 2012, an annual death match pitting 12 boys and 12 girls chosen randomly from the many districts against one another, with a single survivor acclaimed the victor.
This annual event, televised for the entire nation, is both a means of intimidation and state-sponsored terrorism and also a dehumanizing form of mass entertainment. There’s also an economic-oppression angle: Poor citizens can barter for food and other necessities by increasing the number of times their names go into the pool for the lottery. Thus, the rich are sheltered, and the poor are disproportionately at risk.
The name Panem comes the Latin phrase “panem et circenses” (bread and circuses), the Roman satirist Juvenal’s bitter phrase for the lowest-common-denominator aspirations of a docile, bloodless population that had abdicated their work and no longer cherished to active civic involvement.
Ancient Rome, with its gladiatorial circuses, is obviously alluded to by Collins’ premise, as well as character names like Cato and Claudius among the residents of the wealthier districts. People of the less wealthy districts generally have botanical names, like Collins’ heroine, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), and her sister, Primrose (the similarly botanically known as Willow Shields). Christian names are almost completely absent, which makes sense, because in no culture with any lingering Christian influence could something quite as barbaric as The Hunger Games exist. Where Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’s partner for much of her journeys, got his handle, I wouldn’t venture to guess. I know his father is a baker, but, come on, that’s corny.
Katniss is a soul sister to J-Law’s breakout role Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone: a poor, self-reliant child of the rural mountains of the Upland South (Katniss comes from Appalachia whereas Ree is from the Ozarks), with a dead father, a functionally absent mother and the responsibility of taking care of a younger sister (Ree also had a younger brother). Both are even hunters who hunt and chew down squirrels. And both inhabit a barbarous culture that may snuff them out and not think twice, although in Katniss’s case it could happen on national television.
The Hunger Games full movie distinguishes Katniss’s hardscrabble life in District 12 with the frivolity and decadence of the Capitol of Panem, a glorious alabaster city teeming with inhabitants flaunting miles and miles of hair and frippery in colors and configurations Nature never intended. Among the most flamboyant of these find Effie Trinket (a hilarious Elizabeth Banks), a painted and bedizened refugee from the Potterverse who represents The Hunger Games full movie in District 12, and Caesar Flickerman (a disturbingly convincing Stanley Tucci), an ingratiating media personality who interviews tributes and emcees the Games.
The movie kicks off with an interview with new Head Gamemaster, Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley in a Mephistophelean crafted beard) showing thoughtfully on how the Games have “grown beyond” their punitive origins and “helped us heal,” how they are the only thing that “brings us all together.”
While it’s hard to picture something like The Hunger Games 2012 movie in the world we know, if something like it were possible, this is exactly the kind of soothing, conciliatory rhetoric with which it would be rationalized. Consider the unifying rhetoric accompanying bipartisan support for ever bigger expansions of unchecked executive power over the lives of residents, up to and including power to indefinitely detain or even assassinate American citizens on American soil, discretely, with no judicial review or accountability of any sort, without convicting or even charging them with a crime, let alone entertaining any defense of innocence.
Good stuff. And yet … at some point in the story the allegory recedes, and there is a mad scramble of tributes for a stockpile of weapons and supplies. Within seconds, youngsters who just days earlier had been going about their business start butchering each other with swords and throwing knives, while others, like Katniss, strategically race through the surrounding woods. Later we see temporary, strategic alliances of tributes in marauding bands laughing about the deaths of their rivals.
I’m about halfway through the novel, I think, and I’m troubled by all of this on the pages, but more so in the film. Ross films the initial bloodbath with as much restraint as possible, but it is what it is.
The picture doesn’t whitewash or glamorize the evil of The Hunger Games movie or of the forced participation of the children. It doesn’t show Katniss killing anyone except in direct self-defense, which is good, though, if I remember correctly, her partner Peeta does and appears to express openness to doing so prior to the Games.
The material is disturbing, and should be. I’ve watched films before about individuals held prisoner and forced to take part in blood sport, Gladiator for instance. What is the difference here?
Partly, I guess, it’s simply that the participants are teenagers — and that Panem is culturally more proximate to our own world than ancient Rome. The Capitol is a futuristic freak show, but the architecture and outfits in District 12 would be at home in a rural American landscape in the early 20th century. Technology, from trains to TV, looks like our world. It’s hard to accept the entire eradication of Christian moral sense, not to mention faith, from a world like this.
Another issue is that many of the tributes, especially from the wealthier districts, eagerly embrace the barbarism of the Games, not in a ruthless struggle for survival, but because they believe it’s honorable or even just entertaining. Even in pagan Rome gladiators were generally equivalent to slaves (often criminals or prisoners of war) or little better. Very occasionally citizens and even emperors voluntarily fought in the arena, though to do so carried a risk of stigma and loss of status. The idea of wealthy tributes regularly volunteering, not for an evenly matched contest, but for a 1-in-24 chance of survival, is hard to square with human nature.
Even before the rise of Christian opposition to blood sports, Roman approval was not universal. For example, Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius advising him to avoid the games, which he said disposed the audience to “greater cruelty and less humanity.” Where is the ambivalence in the Capitol? Well, I guess there’s Katniss’s stylist Cenna. That’s something.
This basic issue is further complicated by two moments toward the end, both involving the heroine. (Spoiler warning.) In one scene, she puts an arrow into a horribly dying opponent to ease his passing. There is also a suicide-pact theme that is more problematic in the film than I understand to be the case in the book, where it appears to be more apparent than actual.
Certainly there are praiseworthy themes along with the problematic. In addition to being perhaps the most engaging action-movie protagonist in recent years, Katniss is a selfless heroine who courageously risks her life to protect others, including Peeta and a young combatant named Rue, not to mention her sister Primrose. In a touching sequence, Katniss honors a fallen competitor by arraying her body with flowers, in the spirit of the seventh corporal work of mercy. Others also act in noble and selfless ways.
Am I glad I saw The Hunger Games full movie? Yes. But I’m not eager to see it again. It’s a well-made film with a lot of nice touches, from the way little Primrose pathetically tucks in her shirttail in a moment of excruciating duress to Katniss slightly fumbling a grand gesture during a scoring event by forgetting to return her bow to its place. There’s much to admire about the overarching premise, and there are some clever conceits in the course of the Games. I like a speech from Peeta about being willing to die if he can somehow remain himself and not let the gamemasters make him into something he isn’t.
I’m not sure whether my misgivings about the violence means that the violence is a problem or just that viewers ought to have misgivings about it. Either way, if they don’t, I don’t think that’s a good sign.