Because my finger is always on the pulse of teenage literature I’m here to review the Hunger Games! That only just came out, right? No? It was over a year ago? oh…What’s Catching Fire? Maybe you should put it out then. OK, so maybe my finger isn’t entirely on the pulse of what the kids are watching these days. So I’m a little behind on getting to The Hunger Games. What did I think of it though? You don’t care? Oh… Well, it’s after the link. Would be nice if you at least read a little of the review.
Hunger Games is the story of Battle Royale but with pretty American people. Just getting that out the way early on. To be fair there’s more to it than that. In a nutshell, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) lives in a place called District 12 in a dystopian future where a are in the past had lead to a capitol state ruling over 12 smaller, and decidedly less well off districts, of which 12 is amongst the poorest. Every year an event called The Hunger Games is held by the Capitol wherein 24 youths between the age of 12 and 18 are randomly selected, one boy and one girl from each district, to fight to the death in a televised battle royale. Sorry, that was unavoidable. Anyway, the winning district gets food or something, maybe… I’m not actually sure. The winner will be famous I guess. I’m sure that means a lot to a teenager who’s just been forced to kill. What they win isn’t important, what is important is that the winner represents the slight bit of hope for a better life that the Capitol is willing to allow the 12 districts to have in order to keep them under their oppressive thumb.
It would be far too easy to just write this film off as a clone of Battle Royale, which I admit I kind of did at the start of that last paragraph… Suzanne Collins, the author of the Books The Hunger Games is based on, claims to have never heard of Battle Royale before turning in the books to her publisher. Never mind that the books have a quite unusual appendix in the back where she describes where her influences for story came from. Nah, that totally wasn’t added as damage control. Fact is this shares a few too many similarities for me to say there’s no way she didn’t know. The themes of a society in fear of it’s people, the use of children as a metaphor for corruption of youth by violent entertainment culture, the use of a video that presents the games as being something to aspire to be in, random weapons presented to the players as the battle begins. There’s just a bit too much. But, in The Hunger Games defence, it actually adds a number of themes that flesh out the idea Battle Royale presented.
Religion is a strong theme running through the film where the Capitol is utilising various controlling techniques over the 12 districts to keep them in check. The people in the Capitol are depicted to the outside world as being affluent and desirable, the message being that if you follow their rules and do as they say maybe your district could be that wealthy. The use of a small amount of hope as a carrot dangled in front of the starving people. Further to this Katniss is depicted by the story as being a defiant, symbol of rebellion for the people of the districts. She only pro-actively kills twice during the games, once in self defence and once out of mercy for an enemy. She performs an act of self-sacrifice to enter the games in place of her younger sister. Then there’s Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who is pretty much Jesus. He provides a loaf of bread for a starving Katniss in a flashback. He’s injured and recovers in a cave to emerge healed a few days later. He becomes the face of District 12 by embracing the people early on. All this without striking a single crucifix pose, which I’m really getting tired of seeing in action films recently.
Other themes spread throughout the film include the quite clear allegory of the 1% commanding 99% of the wealth with the Capitol and it’s subordinate districts, all of which provide for the Capitol. District 12 is a coal mining community, literally the fuel of the Capitols fires. Katniss herself represents a much more rounded and feminist view of a female character. It’s genuinely refreshing to see a female lead in a film that isn’t dependant on a male character, that stands up entirely for herself and, most importantly, is pro-active and never a damsel. The romance subplot between her and Peeta is instigated by him due to his held back affections for her, which she rejects, and it’s left a little open as to whether or not the romance they do display during the games themselves is real or for the camera.
I haven’t read the books (other then that little bit I saw in the back about Collins’ influences) so I have no idea where it is heading with the sequels. I assume that Katniss becomes a symbol of rebellion for the Districts to fight back. In one scene she displays sympathy and despair at the death of another younger entrant. Her sign of respect leads to a riot in that contestants home District. I assume that there would also be some help from within as Katniss has developed a friendship with her mentor Haymitch (Woody Harrelson) and her stylist, yes stylist, Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). They show a belief in her that is genuine and Haymitch is clearly troubled by The Hunger Games themselves. This could lead to an interesting arc of stories about a government being afraid of their people. Hopefully it does this without turning Katniss into a woman dependant on a male character to achieve her goals.
On a technical level the film conveys these themes fairly well, if somewhat blatantly. That said, it’s a hell of a lot more than most films aimed at teenagers even bother to think of conveying and as such I’d have to recommend it. But I have an issue with another technical aspect. I really dislike the way this film is shot and a few of the story elements. For a start even the most relaxed of scene is shot via hand-held cameras and what appears to be post production camera shake. This is distracting as feck. I’ve spoken about this before, the trend of using what directors keep erroneously calling a documentary style. It has to stop. This isn’t a documentary and most documentary cameramen would be offended that you’d suggest that they can’t hold a camera still. Shaking the camera reminds us, the viewer, that we are watching a film as we become conscious of each tiny movement it makes. This breaks immersion and damages the dramatic potential of the film. Also, I fear for the decline in tripod sales this trend must be creating.
When it comes to story issues I have to bring up the lack of focus on the trauma the act of killing would have on a teenager. Yes, there is a villainous group amongst the contestants who have been raised to compete. The antagonist characters should have no hesitation in their violence, that’s fair. But not once is the idea of a morally good character being forced to kill brought up. Katniss’ first direct kill is in self defence and at the same time another character she has bonded with is killed. This leave now room for her to react to what she has done. She cries a couple of scenes later but as the last event was a scene of her leaving flowers around a corpse and her raising her hand in respect to the district that had lost this crying is now a scene of grief for the child killed and not about her loss of innocence caused by her being forced to kill. You can’t just ignore that trauma. An earlier scene sees her dropping a hive of poisonous bees on the antagonist group, one of the girls dies from the stings. This wasn’t a direct kill by Katniss in the sense that she was looking to scare the group away, but she displays no trauma at causing this death, albeit indirectly.
The Hunger Games is, what I would call, a success of a film. It isn’t in the higher tiers of what a film can be by any sense, but it least tries and aspires to be great. So many films will fill their runtime with events and convoluted plot that they forget to try to convey themes and character. Hunger Games does both with competence, which easily puts it above the usual dross. I went into this expecting to be bored by a bloodless teen fiction that put way too much focus on romance and idealisation. Instead I got a well put together allegory for the degradation of entertainment and society and the dangerous effect this can have on a cultures’ acceptance of extremes of violence. It also had quite a bit of blood for a film that, in the US at least, is a PG-13. The version available most readily in the UK is that cut which is a 15 cert here. A very soft 15, but at least it’s not cut to hell. It has balls to depict the death of multiple children, something most films are terrified of. So, you could do a lot worse than watching The Hunger Games. You could also watch Battle Royale though, cos that film is superb.