The Hunger Games
Depending on your personal perspective the phenomena status of this picture is either a massive surprise or a set in stone sure thing: if you look at the core concept as an allegorical science-fiction story centred around a fascist political systems socially sanctioned slaughter of children then it seems like something only the occasional Harlan Ellison fan ever have handled, but when you think about it as an action packed modern re-make of the gladiatorial games starring sexy teens then it’s success starts to make a little more sense; we are after all known for our insatiable appetite for both as the box-office numbers will attest. The distinction between these two tones would have been the biggest choice made when execs were determining just what kind of movie this would be and thus their choice of Gary Ross as its director cements The Hunger Games within the former field. For those who were fans of the books or are fond of good filmmaking this was the right choice, but for those expecting empty excitement – those who are here to see the Hunger Games and not The Hunger Games – it will be a fatal flaw in the film, one evident right from its beginning.
The film opens very strangely – even ignoring the bizarre beat of interview that we are initially shown – with Ross not only forgoing the familiar “hot open” action scene but replacing it with something emotional and feminine instead; the first sequence is of two sisters singing in what appears to be a small rural town, their relationship the focus. From there we are given an ultra realistic look inside the life of the town, one that is admittedly shot in shaky cam but for reasons of realism not rigging for effects, it’s almost documentary-esque. This early hour evokes Lawrence’s breakout film, Winter’s Bone and the distinct depiction that District Twelve is given – that of the ultimate backwater – borrows heavily from that films Ozarks region in terms of establishing its people and place. In other words it’s absolutely not what Michael Bay would have done in his Megan Fox lead version and it’s surely enough to send droves of MTV-addled audiences walking out and this is exactly why I loved it. The film puts the work in and the suits are wonderful, especially when juxtaposed with the ulterior utopian cityscape of the capital that comes soon after (though no, there’s no action in the scenes set there either).
If the “The Hunger Games” is not a film about action, then it is a film about perspective; this shift in scenery is there to highlight the themes at the films core – yes, unlike most movies with this kind of budget the film has themes – and without the work put in back on the outer rim of Panam none of it would mean anything. The most obvious of those themes is that of class division, the discrepancy between the diets of the Capitol and those second class citizens of the district is dire; in one place a roll is seen as the food of royalty while in the other Danishes sit and go stale on the chance of some passer-by wanting a snack. If this seems a little on the nose, well that’s because it is. All page to screen adaptations attempt to abridge sections and skim over non-essential characters, sub-plots or other such minutia and this movie is no different; though for all the depth and richness that the world loses with each of these cuts and trims, the words of the author underneath gain that much in clarity. The facade removed from atop the foundation, rather than the other way around as it is in most cases where the movie ends up nought but an empty shell of its progenitor narrative.
Of course the real meat of the movie comes in the form of the titular Hunger Games themselves, though not in the way that one might expect. Critics, cineastes and cultural icons (down here at least) David and Margaret tore this film to threads on their show, faulting it primarily for its shoddy action: the aforementioned shaky cam, the chaotic cutting during combat and the general lack of cohesion during the chase scenes were all among their claims of filmic crime; at one stage they even wondered whether or not modern filmmakers had lost the ability to properly craft a blockbuster. The latter statement is of course ludicrous in the long term but understandable given the short, while the others are all objectively true but utterly beside the point. It seems as if they came into the film expecting that Michael Bay treatment and refused to see it as anything else besides, judging it by a set of standards that it had no stake in succeeding by. Yes the action is poor for all those reasons mentioned: it is unpleasant, chaotic and utterly unsatisfying but then that’s kind of the point. Ross has said it himself ” If I made a glossy, slick, kind of overproduced piece of entertainment then I’m not doing a movie about the Hunger Games at that point…I’m basically staging the [them]”. After all this is an anti-action movie, it’s not about to glorify the stuff
Yes, you could argue that a true “anti-action” film would be pacifistic, feature a body count of zero and the body of a Kate Hudson or now Katherine Heigl, that to make an anti-action film based around the pagentising of manslaughter is an absurd hypocrisy and you too would be objectively right but perspectivally wrong. There is a scene deep in the movie where the two leads bunker down in a secluded cave, recouping from the prior ruckus, and here the story spells out its response to such an accusation. Katniss, our protagonist, doesn’t really have feelings for her fellow competitor Peeta but it is the image of them as lovers that is keeping them alive, romance sells we are told, and so she puts it on, shows the people what they want to see, a romance blossoming amongst the blood. This kind of display is also exactly what we want to see and likely what drew the series so many of its fans; yes, you could call it hypocritical to criticize an audience’s wants whilst offering fan-service, but you could also call it satire. Showing something at its most extreme in order to show you its flaws is one of the key methods of logical debate and that’s exactly The Hunger Games is doing. It’s full of moments that make you hate the idea of people getting off on this, then reveals that this is exactly what you too have been watching, that you too are tuned in to the games, that you too are sitting in a Capital, and that you too have ridiculous hair (probably).
The Hunger Games is a scathing social commentary that just so happens to take the form of something that people are currently pleased by. The book managed to balance these two factors flawlessly but here the Dionysian rules supreme and so those more akin to Apollo will be bitterly disappointed; the rest of us though, we get to partake in a fascinating ride and learn a little about ourselves in the process. Education and entertainment people! Is it the deepest of insights or greatest of imaginings? No, but while it is higher-art than many give it credit for the film is also for a younger bracket than this review may suggest; The Hunger Games is something of a “My First Metaphor” and so while it may not give the young boys enough to re-enact on the playground or the young girls enough to swoon over it will give the young thinkers much more to mull over than any other movie addressed at them and that is a great thing these days me thinks; we need more brain over brawn in our blockbusters.