“May the odds be ever in your favor.” – official slogan of the Hunger Games
Perhaps because this is an election year and “The Hunger Games” is poised to be such a monumental hit, both the left and right have tried to claim the film as their own. The right has latched onto what it sees as a warning against government overreach, which they have argued (as recently as the health care debate) could result in rationing, as it does in the film. The left see shades of the Occupy movement in the story and have inferred a message about climate change.
So who has got it right? Is “The Hunger Games” the next “Fountainhead” or is it closer to a Michael Moore documentary?
By now, you have probably heard the set-up. The story is set in a dystopian future society, an America-like country called Panem. Decades prior, Panem was split into 12 districts, each of which serves the Capitol city, land of the few and home to the rich and powerful. Each district is enumerated according to the wealth of its citizenry, and our heroine, a teenager named Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in District 12, the most impoverished, although it is rich in the coal that the Capitol needs to sustain itself. The filmmakers go to visual extremes showing the contrast between the district, filmed in grays and browns that evoke the Great Depression, and the Capitol, which more closely resembles a day-glo acid trip.
As explained in the opening crawl, each district holds an annual event called The Reaping, in which one boy and one girl are chosen by lottery to represent the district in the Hunger Games, a winner-take-all battle to the death intended to entertain the district-dwellers, pit their loyalties against one another, and make them all forget how little they have. In other words, the games are an opiate of the masses.
Marxist quotations aside, it becomes clear early on that neither liberals nor conservatives can stake a claim on this film. “The Hunger Games” is hyper-political but non-partisan, and it offers a scathing and timelycritique of our political system without placing blame or taking sides with either party.
Yes, the inequality between rich and poor is the political force driving the story, but the filmmakers are careful not to promote or denounce any one economic theory. The games, we are told, have been going on for more than seventy years and are depicted not as an evil enacted by a totalitarian regime or the result of a laissez-faire economic policy but instead as an old tradition that, though obviously barbaric, is no longer questioned. In this way, there are no bad guys in the film; the system itself is the villain. And while the idea of a few fabulously rich citizens prospering at the expense of an entire nation of poor, working people may conjur up a leftist stereotype of the right, the filmmakers make sure that at least one jab is thrown at the current administration. In one crucial scene, President Snow (Donald Sutherland) explains the purpose of the games. If the goal is intimidation, he asks, why not just pick one person from each district and kill them? To give them “the only thing stronger than fear,” he answers: “hope.” It’s hard not to think that everyone in the audience is picturing the same person as these lines are uttered.
But back to the story: Katniss is older sister to the young girl picked to represent district 12, and she volunteers herself in her sister’s place. This scene, which uses silence to chilling effect, deftly echoes Shirley Jackson’s haunting short story, “The Lottery,” another tale that warns against unexamined traditions. After the selection ceremony, Katniss and her male counterpart, a boy named Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), get whisked to the Capitol, where they participate in a televised two-week training session that seems an amalgam of ESPN’s sports coverage and “American Idol.” The contestants are paraded in front of fans, and, just as in “Idol,” their skills are only half the game. As Katniss’s mentor and trainer, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), tells her, “You want to know how to stay alive? You get people to like you.” If Katniss makes a strong impression, she will earn corporate sponsors, who can help her during the games by sending her food, water, or medicine.
This first hour of the film is its strongest, when it holds up a funhouse mirror to our own society. It is hard not to read these training sequences as reflective of war. Suzanne Collins, author of the novel, herself described its origins as occurring one night when she was flipping between coverage of the War in Afghanistan and “American Idol” and made connections between the two. While it is hard to argue that reality shows make sending young Americans off to war more palatable (we have been doing so long before the advent of reality television), the more relevant connection between the two is that both war and reality shows objectify young people. Whether they are serving themselves or their country, they lose part of themselves to the struggle. The heart-breaking scenes at the Capitol, in which Katniss and Peeta tolerate but never quite embrace their own objectification at the hands of the government, are the ones that stayed with me after the lights came up.
The second half of the film takes place entirely within the “environment” created to hold the games, a wilderness of woods and prairie land that is controlled by the environment’s creator (Wes Bentley). The environment can be manipulated to an enormous degree and it reminded me of “The Truman Show,” another great film that miraculously avoided partisan subtext. Howver, once Katniss and the other competitors are released into the environment and the game begins, the film loses some of its luster.
Director Gary Ross has a way with thematically rich material (“Pleasantville,” “Seabiscuit”), but he does not know how to film action. The fight scenes are shot with a shaky camera that is too close to the action for the audience to tell what is really going on. Some of this may have been intentional; the close-ups largely spare the audience of the gore that is, I’m told, described so vividly in the book. But it also makes for a disorienting viewing experience. In the climactic scene, the camera pulls back to show all three characters for just a moment, and the perspective we are granted feels like a breath of fresh air.
Jennifer Lawrence holds the story together with a fine, under-stated performance, although she and her co-star seem to have been cast based only on their most recent successful roles. Lawrence played a wise-beyond-her-years teenager thrust into an adult role in 2010’s “Winter’s Bone,” and her characterization here is almost identical. She never over-acts and can garner sympathy without doing much on camera. When watching her, I am reminded of what Brando once said of acting: “Just because they say action doesn’t mean you have to do something.” Lawrence is beautiful and will surely be a star because she has a vapidity in her eyes that is easily mistakable for stoicism. I’m not sure if I mean that as a compliment or not, but it serves her well in this type of role. Hutcherson played a confused, sensitive teenager in “The Kids Are All Right,” and, similarly to Lawrence, he hits the same notes here.
Neither one of them exactly knocks it out of the park, but their performances are strong enough to carry what is still at its core a story for teenagers. Given the major political overtones, it’s easy to forget that the novel the film was based on essentially replaced the Twilight series as the book that every teenage girl must have. The film is much more than chicken soup for the misunderstood teenager, but it is that, too. It’s not hard to imagine a high school female sympathizing deeply with Katniss and her ability to navigate a cut-throat world that feels a lot like high school, with bullies, boys with crushes, and the rest of your life seemingly in the balance.
When you stand back and look at it, “The Hunger Games” achieves an incredible balance. The filmmakers have been able to tap so deeply into the high school experience while sustaining an incisive political subtext – all in the package of a huge event movie that will likely break box-office records. Thinking back, I can’t remember the last blockbuster that dealt so overtly in political themes. So what has happened to America’s youth that they inspire such a dark, serious movie?
Simply, they have become aware and engaged. President Obama, when running, engaged the youth of America more than any candidate since Kennedy, but this film intimates that the optimism he inspired has a dark underbelly. Perhaps “The Hunger Games” is the first disillusionment film for the Obama generation. Obama, who promised hope and change, may have ridden into the White House with a mandate as wide as any president since Reagan, but he has been unable to achieve the kind of institutional change that his most ardent young supporters were expecting, and in “The Hunger Games,” young people are starting to process what that means: they may tell you that the odds are in your favor, but we know that it’s the system that’s rigged.