Hunger Games succeeds, despite watered down anti-violence message

Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games.

Who woulda thunk it? If, in spite of the departure of the inimitable Syd M last summer, you’re still reading the film reviews in Alm@nac, then you know by now that I’m a total wuss when it comes to gore and guts. I simply do not do chainsaw-wielding serial-killer flicks or brain-eating zombie movies. I’m normally the first in line to decry the ramping-up of gratuitous violence in contemporary cinema. But when it came to The Hunger Games, I had to step out of character.

For my money, I don’t think that the movie is violent enough. It dilutes the dystopian message of the books – which, as you doubtless know by now, posit a post-global-warming totalitarian America called Panem, in which each of 12 Districts is punished for a past rebellion by being forced by the oppressive Capitol to send one male and one female teenaged Tribute each year, à la Theseus and the Minotaur, to fight to the death on live reality TV. It’s a premise meant by author Suzanne Collins to be very disturbing – not to pander to the bloodlust or jadedness of contemporary audiences, but to prod them to think seriously about certain baleful trends in our own culture. The violence in the story is not gratuitous in the least, but its central theme. And there are times and places when contemplation of the nature of violence – and of what happens when people try to fight violence with more violence – is entirely appropriate.

But in quest of a PG-13 rating, director Gary Ross pulls his punches too much, the camera showing the upraised weapon but constantly averting its eye on the downstroke. Compounding the problem is the fact that the movie devotes barely a heartbeat of screentime to establishing shots of most of the 24 Tributes. You’ve got plenty of time with your male and female leads, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence, essentially reprising her character from Winter’s Bone) and Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson, The Kids Are All Right), representing the coal-mining region called District 12. You get a flash or two of the youngest and seemingly most vulnerable Tribute, Rue (Amandla Stenberg), from the orchards of District 11: just enough to see that she’s not without a certain resourcefulness and stealth.

Next, you see a lot of cocky posing and sadistic smirking by the Career Tributes from Districts 1 and 2, who have spent most of their childhoods training for the Games. Onscreen, the Careers are the designated Bad Guys in a story whose greatest strength lies in the fact that it’s not ultimately about Good-Guys-versus-Bad-Guys. The rest of the Tributes are ciphers, glimpsed only for a moment before they’re sent out to do battle (or try to hide). The result is that the core horror of this cautionary tale – a society so depraved that it forces innocent children to kill other innocent children as public spectacle – gets a bit lost in the sauce of the goofy costumes and bizarre hairstyles and makeup of the decadent populace of the Capitol (seemingly inspired by the antennalike hats that were all over the news after last year’s British royal wedding). With few exceptions, we’re not engaged enough with the characters to feel these senseless deaths they way we should. Thus the movie teeters on the brink of becoming a mere adventure story about kids playing paintball in the woods.

The contrast between the desperate poverty of the downtrodden residents of the Districts and the luxury and excess enjoyed by the Eloi-like Capitol citizens is a fairly obvious metaphor for the ever-widening gap between rich and poor in our own society, so I was sorry to see it trivialized at all in the movie version. Although most viewers seem to have no trouble identifying the Capitol people with the one percent and the people of the Districts with the 99 percent, I’ve already read comments online by right-wingers who insist that the Capitol is really a metaphor for Big Government. It will be interesting indeed, given the cultural tidal wave of The Hunger Games’ financial success, to watch how both sides in the presidential race try to appropriate its lessons.

Another aspect of the Hunger Games books that resonates profoundly with our current zeitgeist is the subject of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the way in which its victims can be tossed on the trash heap by unheeding governments once their cannon-fodder potential has been used up. That theme becomes critical in the second volume, Catching Fire, when our heroes need to develop alliances with several psychologically damaged winners of past years’ Games. But by the end of the first movie, that message doesn’t quite hit home – and it will need to.

One of the joys of the series is the discovery that some of the secondary characters whom we are inclined to dislike upon first meeting turn out to have considerable unsuspected depth and nuance. Their true natures are disguised as a function of survival in a harsh game that doesn’t end when one walks out of the Arena alive. The only past Games winner whom we meet in the first book is Haymitch, assigned to serve as Katniss and Peeta’s mentor, who has medicated his own nightmares by becoming an alcoholic. It’s only when the rather surly Katniss shows signs of spunk that might just mean that she has a chance of surviving the Games that Haymitch pulls himself together and suddenly becomes a valuable and knowledgeable ally.

Woody Harrelson is excellent in this role; it’s a shame that we don’t spend more time with him, but his every gesture has an economy that speaks volumes. The moment when he holds his hand over his liquor glass to refuse a refill, while never missing a beat in his newly animated pep talk with his protégés, tells us that everything is about to change. The team from District 12 suddenly has cause for hope.

Hope – as the only weapon stronger than fear – is also a theme in the new speeches that Donald Sutherland supposedly wrote for his depiction of the vile President Snow. He adds needed gravitas to a character who, in the books, is a bit too one-dimensionally slimy for my tastes. In the hands of this very experienced actor, he comes off as a snob whose top priority is simply not to relinquish any power, which I find somewhat more digestible than a cardboard incarnation of Eeee-villl.

As the repository of that hope, Katniss, the Mockingjay who comes to symbolize a “way out of no way” for the oppressed masses, is of course the key to the success or failure of the whole project, and Lawrence is well up to the task. It’s not an easy challenge, since her acting – mostly nonverbal – has to carry the weight of the first-person inner monologue that is so appealingly propulsive to the narrative of the books. Some important stuff does get lost, and in the sequels she will need to project even more of the keen, sometimes Machiavellian intelligence – the chess-player’s ability to analyze, strategize and predict consequences several moves into the future – that keeps Katniss alive. Readers will recall a crucial scene late in the final volume involving a vote, where only Haymitch groks what Katniss is doing and why, that will utterly baffle viewers if the actress and the director don’t get it exactly right. By then, we may hope, Jennifer Lawrence will have her character thoroughly in hand.

Most of the rest of the cast is also fine, notably Hutcherson’s low-key charmer Peeta, Stanley Tucci’s smarmy, blue-bouffanted emcee Caesar Flickerman and Lenny Kravitz’s strong, calming presence as Katniss’ stylist Cinna. Liam Hemsworth doesn’t spend enough time onscreen as Katniss’ hunting buddy back home to add much fuel to the tween Team Gale/Team Peeta “shippers,” which is fine by me; the love triangle is significant to this tale only insofar as it hands yet another weapon to the Capitol.

I can’t wrap up without mentioning the excessive use of handheld cameras in The Hunger Games – especially in the first act, where I suppose that it’s meant to convey the grittiness of rural Appalachian poverty in District 12. It’s mostly annoying, and I hope that the sequels will let it go. That being said, along with all my other quibbles, it’s not a half-bad movie and captures enough of the essence of the book to go on with. See it, and then while you’re waiting for the next installment, make sure that you do read the books, if you haven’t already – and use them to spark some thoughtful discussions with the Young Adult population in your life.

 

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