The Hunger Games

Game so hard, Peacekeepers wanna kill me

jlawBased upon the first volume in Suzanne Collins’ young adult sci-fi trilogy, Gary Ross’ The Hunger Games is a quiet, understated survival/rebellion story carried by a badass female protagonist.  At the theatre, a friend and I were encircled within a clot of rambunctious adolescents of varying ages – the perfect environment in which to witness this spectacle.  I’m only kidding about half of that.

The Hunger Games book series is a diamond-in-the-rough amongst Y.A.: soundly-written (albeit in need of a better copy-editor), engaging, and headed by a confident female character, Katniss Everdeen (played in the movie by Best Actress nominee Jennifer Lawrence).  It’s the age-old tale of a dystopian future in which the Capitol, a government born from the Big Brother school of logic, has oppressed its people after a failed rebellion.  In order to remind the citizens that their government could crush them at any moment, the Capitol holds an annual fight to the death between twenty-four children (aged 12 to 18), two from each district.  Since its inception seventy-five years ago, the Hunger Games has become not only a horrifying tradition, but the country’s greatest form of entertainment, as the Capitol’s citizens excitedly bet on tributes and passively discuss their favorite killings.  This setup provides not only an effective entertainment for real-life readers and viewers, but an operative commentary on present-day reality TV and the fact that absolutely nothing can shock us anymore.  This commentary is hopefully thinly-veiled to the point that the intended audience can read into it.  How long will it be before kids are stabbing each other on ABC’s 10-11pm lineup?

Katniss volunteers to compete in the Hunger Games so that her twelve year-old sister, Prim (Willow Shields) will be spared.  She and the other tribute from her district, the sloppily-named Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) are mentored by Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only former winner of the Games from District 12, who has long since become an alcoholic and all-around misanthrope.  His reasons for mentoring the young tributes are never explored, though we can infer that this job position was more the Capitol’s choice than his.  Also appearing in the film are Elizabeth Banks as Effie Trinket, a glitzy Capitol flunky who collects the tributes from each district; Donald Sutherland as President Snow, the main antagonist of the series, who spends his time clipping rose bushes and brooding silently behind his villainous beard; Lenny Kravitz as Cinna, Katniss’ stylist and one of the only Capitol folks she can trust; Liam Hemsworth as Gale, Katniss’ dreamy childhood friend; Stanley Tucci as Caesar Flickerman, a talk show host who can work a crowd better than Oprah but who seems to truly sympathize with the tributes’ predicament; and Isabelle Furhman and Alexander Ludwig as Clove and Cato (respectively), two Career Tributes who train their entire lives for the Games and consider it a glorious opportunity.

The film wisely makes little use of music, relying on realistic sound effects to percuss quiet scenes in which young people are brutally murdered: this is not epic, glorified, Hollywood-glossed action filmmaking, and Ross displays an understanding of the material through these scenes.  You’re not supposed to cheer when a twelve year-old receives a spear through the chest, when a teenage girl of model beauty is swarmed by killer wasps, or when Katniss is forced to mercy kill a mortally-wounded enemy.  Every dead child is a victory for the Capitol and the evil President Snow, whose appearances are limited, but who promises to be a big problem for Katniss in the future, even after she leaves the arena.

The film’s best moments come in the form of Jennifer Lawrence’s solo scenes.  I was with her when she was treating her own burn wounds, crying at her failure to save a friend, throwing fits of frustration – and don’t confuse frustration with teen angst; this is not Twilight.  It’s not Harry Potter either – the coming war is much more real.  Lawrence’s Katniss is believable and sympathetic all the way through; through her experiences, most notably the death of her father, she has become a protector, both of her family and her friend (the appropriately homely and weak Peeta), and Lawrence plays this role resolutely.  The filmmakers make no attempt to sex her up, not even when the Capitol does, and while the book’s scenes of lone Katniss were far grittier, the PG-13 rating allows germane grit without frivolous gore.  As long as we can feel for Katniss, we can do without (most of) the bloodspray.

My biggest issue with movies based upon books is that while I try to hold them apart as starkly different mediums, I know what the key events are ahead of time, so instead of enjoying the film as an entity of its own, I find myself anticipating how the next scene will be adapted, which lines characters from the book will say, whether plot threads will be properly tied off.  In this case, the material is, for the most part, expertly handled, aside from a few book-to-film deviations and the relegating of certain important characters to background roles.  I couldn’t help feeling (and knowing) that Haymitch, Effie, Cinna, and the other tributes, specifically Clove, Cato, Rue, and Glimmer, all had more to offer in terms of character and had the life squeezed out of them in the painful transition from novel page to script page.

Since the film has been critically acclaimed, there is the natural backlash of the Moron Brigade, the latest claim being that The Hunger Games lifts material from the Japanese novel Battle Royale.  Let’s put this to rest right now.  I’ve read both, and the similarities literally stop at “young people forced to fight each other,” a convention used a thousand years (both in real life and fiction) before either story was written. Whether Collins was “aware” of Battle Royale is inapplicable at this point; she would have been better off saying “I’ve heard of it, but I deny ripping it off” instead of the knee-jerk reaction when accused of plagiarism (or most other offenses) – “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” which, when you’re in the public eye, you must stick to, lest you be called a liar later.

The Hunger Games, if anything less than original, can be classified as the unraveling of a new story from a familiar story environment. We’ve all heard that every-story-has-already-been-told rubbish. The list of stories involving the “arena” plot device (and device only, not plot as a whole) goes on forever – Series 7, The Most Dangerous Game, The Running Man, etc. If we want to say they’re all variations of the real-life Roman Coliseum, I’d be more willing to buy that, but to say the entire plot of The Hunger Games is a bold-faced ripoff of Battle Royale is, in my view, completely ludicrous and ignores a few important details – you know, like characters and the entire rest of the three-novel arc.

If The Hunger Games (the whole trilogy) should be remembered for anything, it’s a female protagonist in a male dominated dual-genre (Y.A. and sci-fi). When I have young women in my Comp classes telling me how empowered Katniss makes them feel, I’m more than willing to accept a bit of genre-sampling (which is ages away from plagiarism).

The Hunger Games (2012); written by Suzanne Collins; directed by Gary Ross; starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks.