To the survivalist in me, The Hunger Games is singing my song. My love of stories such as Robinson Crusoe and The Road and fascination with video games so brutal that they’re more about survival than empowerment makes this a story that I can enjoy and fantasize over on that basic level. At the same time, as a media savvy consumer, I also recognize that The Hunger Games as a little bit of the old self-reflexive media commentary.
However, I still have a hard time coming to terms with the premise of the film. A future civilization gathering together 24 children from the twelve outlying poor districts and pitting them in a battle to the death with only one survivor for glory and wealth for their district in the name of “peace” doesn’t make sense. When you’ve got 12-year-old kids being taken by force to be slaughtered, you’d think there would be some kind of large outcry or even riots and revolt. Even while the poor districts seem to be horrified by the process, they certainly aren’t making much of a fuss about it.
It makes the emotional premise of the film a little bit hard to buy. When her young sister comes up in the drawing, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) volunteers to take her place in the games. On a basic human level, it’s easy to identify with her desire to protect her young sister from the situation, but it all comes across as forced circumstance, a heavy contrivance of fictional storytelling instead of a well-realized world where the conflict arises naturally.
It makes for an interesting moral tension: how much are you willing to sacrifice your own protection and well-being for another person? And while it’s admirable that The Hunger Games is willing to pose such a dilemma in a story aimed at young teens, the mechanisms for exploring that question feel too forced. Essentially, I have the same problem with The Hunger Games as I do with the novel Ender’s Game, which is that the whole game segment feels like a cheap tool to create conflicts in order to explore themes that the storyteller couldn’t find an organic way to explore.
It’s as if Suzanne Collins, the writer of The Hunger Games, had a cool idea for what would be an awesome video game, but instead decided to make it into a story. And games don’t work well as linear, narrative stories. Just look at almost every video game movie ever made. This quickly becomes apparent when the games start and the audience is asked to track the progress of 24 individual characters.
Besides the fact that it’s a daunting task for the medium of film given that only four or five of the characters in the game are established beforehand, the insistence of following Katniss’ perspective the entire time makes it near impossible to track or remember who’s allied with whom, how many people are still in the game and where everyone is in relation to one another. In a novel, this could work because the reader would have time to stop and make mental notes, but when the audience is only given brief flash of the fallen, it makes the games confusing.
Also, early on in the training, someone makes the point that most people who die in The Hunger Games aren’t killed by other players; they die of starvation, dehydration, infection or other natural causes. Except, when the game start, it’s an all-out bloodbath and the few remaining survivors have to slowly pick each other off. Only one player in the entire game dies of natural causes.
There are also recurring moments where Katniss insists on stopping and surveying a scene when she should be running. Yes, it makes for dramatic moments and since the film must follow Katniss, it needs her to stop to show the audience these moments. However, it also makes for a lot of circumstances where she should be dead, because she’s still and exposed, and a still target is an easy target.
Part of my nitpicking with the artifice of the game in The Hunger Games is because a lot of the survival and morality it’s trying to explore works better in an actual game. The video game modification Day Z, a zombie survival multiplayer game, is quite similar to The Hunger Games. Fifty players are thrown into a game together and must scrounge for resources and form tenuous alliances in order to survive against a zombies as well as other players who may kill them to loot their corpse in order to better insure their own survival.
The game places players in interesting moral dilemmas. When one stumbles across another human player, they can identify themselves and salute to signal they aren’t hostile, but they also risk exposing themselves to someone who might kill them. They could also just kill the person on sight, but run the risk of alerting other players as well as nearby zombies.
This presents the moral conundrum similar to the one Katniss faces, but in a much more compelling environment because there’s the potential for co-existence. Some players are eager to make friends, willing to give up some of their resources to other players in order to have company. Other players kill everyone they see on sight, seeking to gather as much for themselves and lone wolf it. And sometimes groups of these people form into bandit packs that go around killing and robbing other players.
This creates for many tense moments when encountering anyone. Is this a person I can trust? Will they shoot me as soon as I turn my back? Could they be leading me into a trap? Should I offer them something? Do we just go our separate ways or should we join forces? If you’re in a group, it can lead to these interesting debates when you begin arguing over whether or not you should kill someone. The Hunger Games teases such a quandary of moral depth, but its insistence on one survivor often overrides the moral dilemmas into a matter of simple survival.
Another film starring Jennifer Lawrence, Winter’s Bone, is a much more interesting exploration of survival, a story of a young woman who attempts to work her way through a ring of extended family crime and conspiracy to discover the whereabouts of her father who put up the family house for bail. If she can’t discover her father, she, her siblings and her mother will be ejected from their own home.
Here, a similar question is explored of how far one is one willing to risk one’s own safety and well-being for others, but without a heavy artifice of forced fiction to explore that question. It arises naturally out of the absence of the father and the impending threat of one’s last place of solace being taken away. To be optimistic, I could see Catching Fire heading in this direction.
And as much as I’ve been nitpicking The Hunger Games for its failings as a survival story, from the perspective of a self-reflexive commentary on media and entertainment, the film displays a lot of admirable attributes. The section leading up to the games is the section I found the most interesting because it explored questions and ideas about the nature of mass media entertainment.
The film levels a heavy critique of Hollywood. The rich people of the kingdom who construct and hold the Hunger Games are fake and flamboyant. Dressed in ridiculous clothes and demonstrating outrageous hairstyles, everyone is screaming for attention and presenting a person so heavily layered in garb and makeup, there’s little genuine or real left to them.
The games themselves also display how entertainment seeks to exploit and prey on the misfortune of others. In this case, it’s in pitting people against each other to the death. While this certainly is an extreme, there are a number of reality and game shows that pit woefully unprepared people against each other in a spectacle to be enjoyed en-masse. In the world of The Hunger Games there is no line in-between entertainment and exploitation.
After a while, this comparison breaks down. Yes, it critiques people taking pleasure in a grizzly and dehumanizing display, but the critique of exploitation only goes so far. We’re not actually kidnapping people and putting them in front of cameras, but taking willing volunteers. Sure, some of the players in The Hunger Games do volunteer, but most of them do not, and all of them know there’s a strong chance that they will die.
Katniss as a character also faces one of the main issues of being in the spotlight of the media: the desire for a certain kind of individual. She’s a rugged, reserved person, not good with people and quick to lash out at those around her. The media wants a woman who is pretty, sentimental, docile and sweet. But these are not Katniss’ true attributes, or at least it’s the part that she reserves only for her sister.
The reason why this is so important is because a big part of the games is getting sponsors who will send in aid to players in times of need. If Katniss can’t play the game and make people like her first and foremost as a desirable woman, there’s a chance she won’t be able to make it in the games. Does she stay true to who she is and risk pushing away the very help she may desperately need later or does she put on a façade to get ahead?
Considering Katniss is a woman, this adds another layer about how sexist the entertainment industry is. In order to impress and attract people, she must sell her sexuality. It’s a phenomenon that mirrors Lawrence’s own rise to stardom. She started out as the gruff female lead, her breakout role a character similar to Katniss, but when she sought to make it into Hollywood, she had to do some sexy photo-shoots.
This led to her role as Mystique in X-Men: First Class, a character whose entire appeal was sexual. It’s telling that in order for Lawrence to even get the role of Katniss, she had to face the same dilemma as Katniss. In the case of Lawrence, she chose to display her sexuality in order to get ahead.
This gets to the heart of the tension of The Hunger Games commentary on entertainment. As an actual piece of mass media entertainment, one based on a best-selling series of novels and the second domestically best-selling film so far this year, it’s part of the very establishment of what it is trying to critique. This isn’t to say that it can’t level a meaningful critique, but that there’s a conflict of interests.
Take the actual hunger games. These are spectacles where young adults and children kill each other. Most of these deaths are shown on screen and are stylized in such a way that these deaths are visceral. There’s visible blood, a few grizzly depicted deaths, and often a sense of weight behind each death. While the film is quick to condemn these exploitations of violence in the name of entertainment, it is also quick to heighten and enhance these acts in order to make them align more with what people expect violence to be like in a movie.
I hesitate to call them spectacles because the film does a fantastic job of making a lot of the violence incoherent. The action is captured with a frantic shaky camera that makes The Bourne Ultimatum look like an act of serenity. I imagine some of this franticness is so the film can squeeze into the PG-13 rating, but it also seems to align it with the edgy movement of frantic, visceral action.
While I have a lot of issues with The Hunger Games, they’re issues I have because the film is trying to be more than just another quick and easy form of entertainment. There’s some thought behind it, not as much as there could be, but enough though to make this one of the most interesting blockbusters I’ve seen in theaters in quite some time. I still think it’s a film of two halves, the survival aspects better demonstrated in Winter’s Bone while the entertainment commentary is a lot more satisfying The Cabin in the Woods.
© 2012 James Blake Ewing