Movies, like Jesus’ parables, are tricky tales to be told. Our tendency is always to identify with the protagonist, with the underdog, with the one in the story who is socially just and morally heroic. All too often though, it would be far more fitting for us to identify with the stories’ villains. We are the pharisee who passes by the broken and bedraggled man on the side of the road. We are the friends who party along with the prodigal and abandon him when his pockets are empty. In The Hunger Games, we are the strangly fashioned, garrulous folk who live in the capitol city and cheer young children to their all but certain deaths in a gladiatorial contest of our own design.
This battle royal to the death, the titular “Hunger Games,” was created to remind the working class citizens of some dystopian future country very much like America that they once rebelled against their rulers, and they should never dare to do so again. Each of the twelve districts annually offers up one of their sons and one of their daughters to a mortal fight for the amusement of the ruling class. The single surviving winner is granted fame and fortune and the chance to coach future would be champions when their turn comes. Katniss Everdeen becomes her district’s female tribute, and The Hunger Games is the story of her travail through the competition.
Compared to similar young adult fiction inspired movies, like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, The Hunger Games is pretty good. It is, first of all, very well acted, which is something that even the early Harry Potter films cannot boast, and it is a much better written movie than anything involving pubescent vampires in the Pacific Northwest. Jennifer Lawrence is excellent (as always) as Katniss, but it’s Woody Harrelson who turns in the most surprising performance as Katniss’s grizzled and yet compassionate coach, Haymitch Abernathy. I’ve read the source material, and Harrelson manages to imbue his character with more depth than I remember him having in the book.
Just as the pace of those films based on everyone’s favorite boy wizard seem to be breathlessly quick, so the plot of The Hunger Games seems harried. None of Katniss’ character revelations are left to linger for long before the next mano a mano battle begins. This pacing along with the constant use of handheld cameras and quick cuts lend the film an urgency that begins to wear after a while, but at 142 minutes, if the pacing had been slower, the movie would have been unbearably long. The filmmakers did manage to fit all the book’s main plot points into the movie though.
My one complaint with the film is that it all but completely cuts out my favorite character from the book and in doing so, undermines the story’s greatest social worth. Next to Katniss herself, the most important character in the book The Hunger Games is the ever-present audience, those tuned-in masses who revel in the deaths of these children, whose favor Katniss’ survival depends upon, and with whom we, the theatrical audience, ought most to identify.
If it is anything, the book The Hunger Games is an indictment against the “reality”-crazed television viewing public. Sure, we don’t demand programming like American Idol, Survivor, and all those Real Housewives to remind an underclass of a rebellion gone wrong, but we do cheer our temporary celebrities to their vainglorious, pitiable, self-defeating demises. And when they make fools of themselves, I dare say we take smug pleasure at their downfalls. We, the audience, are not Katniss. Snooki is Katniss. Clay Aiken is Katniss. We are the onlooking, ostentatious masses.
In all but completely cutting the viewers out of the games section of the movie, The Hunger Games alleviates the story’s most strained relationship – the relationship between Katniss and her “fans” – and robs the movie of its most pertinent social commentary. All we needed were a few shots of fancifully dressed capitol city denizens watching the games on their TVs and rejoicing when one child would slaughter another, and thinking theatrical audience members would have recognized their own complicitness in their own culture of violent competition, be that violence physical or otherwise. As it stands, the movie gives only a polite nod in the direction of true social commentary.
However, the movie does end on a particularly down note, and I hope we are being set up for an Empire Strikes Back kind of dark sequel in which Katniss and her society, and hopefully our society as well, has to wrestle with the ramifications of our hunger for such destructive social games.