By Marc S. Sanders
Some of the worst atrocities in history have often spawned some of the greatest stories. I’d expect it would at least leave us feeling melancholy, but I hope it shapes a future that learns from humanity’s worst offenses. That’s what came to mind as I watched the film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian best-selling novel The Hunger Games.
In what was once a supposed North America, the continent is now called Panem and it is divided into twelve districts, with each specializing in some means of living. Districts 1 and 2 are the upper-class wealthy. Districts 11 and 12 are the starving destitute. To maintain a semblance of order, President Snow (a chillingly older Donald Sutherland) oversees the nation’s Annual Hunger Games where a boy and a girl from each district is selected to compete in a dangerous competition of being the last one to outlive their competitors. May The Odds Be Ever In Your Favor! In the 74th edition, expert hunting archer Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence in her most celebrated role) volunteers herself from District 12 to spare her younger sister from danger and selection. She is paired up with the District 12 boy, Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson).
Like any sporting competition, Collins’ story takes time to hype up the event. The youths are fashioned up in the most glamourous adornments and interviewed for television by Caesar Flickerman portrayed by a delicious, yet unsung Stanley Tucci in bright blue hair and sparkly suits, doing his best Griffin, Carson, Letterman, Leno, and O’Brien. With every white molar revealed in Tucci’s broad smile, he appears even more sinister in the purpose he serves for the Games, Panem, and President Snow.
Jennifer Lawrence gives a faithful portrayal to the Katniss character found in the pages of Collins’ series of young adult novels. A new hero has been conceived – the rebel who stands along other well knowns like Luke Skywalker, Robin Hood and Harry Potter. Katniss is not looking to be a savior but with influence from a prior Hunger Games champion (Woody Harrelson, doing his drunken best) and a calm, but humble fashion designer (Lenny Kravitz) she finds herself elevated towards a promising future. Katniss Everdeen inherits the moniker known as “The Girl On Fire” with a three finger salute and a somber three note battle cry harmony.
I’ve likened the setting of The Hunger Games to the Holocaust and the early twentieth century European Nazi occupation. (It seems more apparent in the next film, Catching Fire.) If I had to compare the real-life period to this fictional one, then they are not anywhere close. Yet, Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross’ film depict hardship and oppression from a ruling upper class gleefully using their young for savage sport entertainment, while being forced to dwell in concentration camps with no permission to escape or run free, lest they suffer terrible punishments for themselves or those they care most about.
The Hunger Games values the themes of sacrifice while some characters inadvertently become heroes for a people against a domineering force. It’s fantasy. It’s adventurous. It’s sprinkled with romanticism for Katniss and the triangle she’s pitted within for her care of Peeta but also her loving affections for another District 12 resident named Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Frankly, the romance angle is a little weak in the films and books. Ultimately though, it is harsh for the young characters in the story, which is why my wife refuses to invest her time. I empathize with her position. However, I find the story inspiring. It’s also a hell of a thriller.
As a film, Gary Ross assembled a strong and alive production of gaudy, bright colors within the capital against morose grays found in District 12. The clash of the two settings is no more apparent than when squeaky Effie Trinkett in her garishly loud facial makeup and wardrobes arrives in District 12 to host the Reaping, also known as the selection of the child contestants. So many actors in this cast are memorable. An unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks is no exception. As Effie, her personality that publicly represents a hesitant Katniss and Peeta is deliberately inappropriate and further demonstrates how demonically twisted the mentality of The Hunger Games truly is.
When it is time to finally arrive at the manufactured arena where the contestants will do battle to the death, Gary Ross effectively incorporates the inventive surprises offered by Collins’ source material. Some competitors are brutal in their combative skills, but environmentally speaking the forest like jungle is dangerous as well. Especially notable is a hive of stinging tracker jackers that’ll leave the viewers shaken.
Suzanne Collins’ first installment of her series persists in leaving its ending completely questionable. Will all these children, some of them who are noble and good, actually die? Could a good soul like Katniss follow through with what the Games demand of her like killing Peeta for example? I appreciate the imagination that went into the ending, leaving a subsequent tale to be told beyond this film.
My one complaint is common in action films. Gary Ross does really well with the edits and filming of his movie. However, one of the last scenes develops into a hand-to-hand combat moment taking place in darkness with very shaky camera work and uneven grunts, punches, and kicks. I abhor when filmmakers go this route. It’s lazy work. I can’t tell who is hitting who or where. I’m just supposed to accept the final struggle that the hero is having with the bad guy and feel a sense of urgency and suspense as they supposedly cast a harsh blow to their enemy and fall over. I might as well close my eyes during moments like this because it’s all just blurry streaks in midnight blackness with sound editing filtered into the sequence. This tiring approach happens so often in movies, and it becomes a let down for me time and again. I love a well-made, thought-provoking thriller but the filmmaker hacks it all up near the end and it looks like he’s got to meet a deadline for the final print to get out to the theaters.
There’s much to discuss and think about in The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins’ idea stemmed from how television viewers soaked up the drama found in reality tv shows like Survivor and Big Brother. It’s not so much the fate of the contestants that we care about, but how do they serve the producer’s crafted storylines. Even American Idol steers the drama of the kids who get their shot at Hollywood fame. The Super Bowl will position a star player like Tom Brady as a focus with questions of whether this is his final season, and how the championship games affect his marriage and family. Does he get along with his coach? None of this has anything to do with the points on the board. Is all of this about the games, or is it about those tasked with playing the games, and for whose benefit of control, wealth, and power? In this fantasy film, do the people of Panem cry at the drama spurned from the horrifying death of a child they got to know from Caesar’s colorful interviews, or are they in despair at the loss of another young life? Whether it is real or fictional, is the drama of these gladiator games and competitions focused in the right direction?
The cast and production team under Gary Ross have put together an effective dystopian and bleak future reliant upon what the world focuses on more than anything beyond who they truly love or what they stand for. The Hunger Games might seem inconceivable, but it is frighteningly relatable.