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The Hunger Games

March 26, 2012
The Hunger Games

This weekend, The Hunger Games opened and blew the doors off of its competition, setting the third-highest opening weekend ever. It’s an impressive feat for any movie, but even more for one featuring a female lead in an action-oriented role. The film owes much of its success to its source: a series of young-adult novels featuring a smart, strong, capable, and yet recognizably human teenage girl who does much more than sit around mooning over her perfect, sparkly boyfriend. And yet it fails to stand apart from the novels; while the movie is a worthy companion piece to the books, on its own it’s merely a straightforward action movie. Still, it’s a relatively tight action movie with a solid female lead, and it deserves no small amount of praise on those counts alone.

Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a sixteen-year-old girl living in District 12 of Panem — the dystopian future of the United States. District 12 is in what we would call Appalachia; the economy revolves around mining coal for use in the Capitol, which region exploits the twelve districts in punishment for an old rebellion. Under the terms of the treaty, each district is required to offer up a boy and a girl, each between the ages of twelve and eighteen, as Tributes to compete in a fight to the death called the Hunger Games.

Katniss has also taken the responsibility of feeding her mother and younger sister, Prim. She poaches in the forest outside the district’s boundaries — as her father taught her to before his death in a mining accident — and she puts her name into the lottery for the Games multiple times to secure extra rations of oil and grain. And so when Prim’s name is drawn the very first time she’s eligible it’s understandable, though still a surprise, when Katniss volunteers to take her place.

Katniss travels to the Capitol along with her fellow District 12 Tribute, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), the one surviving District 12 winner, Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), and the Capitol’s liaison, Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). The Games, we learn, are a brutal equivalent of our reality shows — Survivor made disturbingly literal — and so she is assigned to a “stylist”, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), to help her make an impression on potential fans and sponsors before she’s dumped into an unknown wilderness with her fellow Tributes, who range from near-professional “careers” like Cato and Clove (Alexander Ludwig and Isabelle Fuhrman) from the well-off District 2 to the frail, young Rue (Amandla Stenberg) from District 11.

Suzanne Collins’ novel relies heavily on Katniss’ internal narrative, which she, fellow adapter Billy Ray, and director Gary Ross had to work around to bring the story to the screen. To do this, they expand the role of emcee Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) and commentator Claudius Templesmith (Toby Jones), head Gamemaker Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley), and President Snow (Donald Sutherland), albeit in line with their characters in later novels. The color commentary presents a particularly smooth way to present factual info-dumps, while Snow’s conversations with Seneca give some insight into the intent of the Games.

But while this provides an avenue to present the facts of Panem — in some ways smoother than Collins’ own often-clunky world-building — it falls short in presenting the sociology. We learn what people do, but not really why they do it. In particular, we miss out on one of the aspects of the novel I was most impressed with: Katniss’ reasoning. The facts of what she does in the arena are far less interesting than her thoughts as she does them; she goes looking for Peeta in a particular place because she saw him wounded near there; her mind races as she tries to determine why Haymitch isn’t sending her water, and she is able to work out the answer. Her survival depends not only on her ability to determine what lies in the landscape around her, but what lies in the minds of others — both her fellow Tributes and those of people outside the arena. And we, as observers, don’t know what’s going on outside any more than she does. This veil is pierced when the movie keeps cutting out to show what’s happening rather than have Katniss work it out.

Also gone is most of the story before the Reaping in District 12, which was particularly heavy with internal monologue, as well as much of the training before the Games begin. But along with this goes much of the opportunity to see Jennifer Lawrence as the prematurely-tough-yet-protective caretaker that we know — from her role in Winter’s Bone — she can hit out of the park. More seriously, it cuts out the other of my favorite aspects of the novel: Collins’ deft treatment of structural inequalities. When Katniss has her personal audience with the Gamemakers they aren’t paying much attention, but we miss the fact that they are distracted because she’s the last of their meetings in a very long day; we know that Katniss and Peeta depend on Haymitch, but we miss the fact that wealthier Districts have more and better support; we know that Katniss has had to raise her risks to support her family, but we miss the fact that even others in her own district don’t have to take the same chances. All these and more play into the important idea that even with nobody actively discriminating against them, the system is structured in such a way that Tributes from District 12 have inherent disadvantages to overcome. Collins’ novel communicates this fact effectively without being heavy-handed with the metaphor, and it’s all but absent from the film.

And so without Katniss’ internal monologue some of the best aspects of the novel are lost. The action proceeds from event to event with little motivation, feeling sometimes dragged forward by the need to keep up with the original storyline. Still, at least there are no non sequiturs — the facts are massaged in such a way that each turn at least makes sense, though it may not be clear why it’s happening. As an illustration of the novel, The Hunger Games is excellent, and the solid supporting cast bring it to life admirably. But it falters when it comes to telling a story on its own.

Worth It: yes, but it will help immensely to have read the novel beforehand.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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5 Comments leave one →
  1. Hunt permalink
    September 16, 2012 01:29

    Saw this last night on DVD. I found the teen schmaltz a little distracting, i.e. the almost innate teenage desire to be publicly special in some kind of secret or forbidden way is starting to get a little old, which is not to say it is going to relent in any time soon, so long as it sells. The desire to have magical or supernatural powers, flaming bodies, dresses, or something else seems to be endless. If tomorrow you or I set to work on even a crappy novel giving some outcast group of high schoolers some taboo quality, there’s a fair chance that in five years we’d be multi-millionaires. And then there’s the recurring theme of either dead or submissively weak parents, which I’m convinced is secret desire that every teen holds dear in their heart, to be that one kid who stands outside normal society. And what could be further removed from normal society than to be either dead or undead? At its heart, I’m sure that’s what the whole Goth culture was/is about.

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