The best science fiction always tells us something about the world in which we live. It reflects the hopes and fears of the modern age, whether consciously or otherwise. The best science fiction is an extrapolation of present concerns, taken to an extreme for the purposes of entertainment and commentary. The Hunger Games is science fiction in that tradition.
Income equality is unheard of in the world of Panem, a post-apocalyptic amalgamation of Districts in the ruins of the western United States, run by a totalitarian central government. In the Capital the people live in luxury, free to pursue silly fashion trends and ludicrous hairstyles. They have flying machines and maglev bullet trains, advanced entertainment technology and plenty of food. In the outlying Districts things are very different. People live poor, hardscrabble lives, toiling in the fields and working in dangerous mines. The food and materials they harvest get sent to the Capital while they are left on the brink of starvation. While the Capital denizens wear bright, flashy clothes the people of the outlying Districts dress drably, like migrant workers in the Great Depression. Should the Joad family pass through District 12, nobody would blink twice.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12. She’s 16 and dirt poor. Her father was killed in a mining accident and her mother has since become an emotional cripple, leaving Katniss to take care of the family - especially her 12 year old sister Primrose. She does this by sneaking beyond the boundaries of desolate District 12 into the lush forest, where she illegally hunts game. Sometimes she’s joined by Gale, the blandly handsome local blacksmith. Together they dream of running away from Panem, but they don’t feel like there’s anywhere for them to go.
As if life in the Districts wasn’t bad enough, every year the government holds a nationally televised death sport called The Hunger Games. Each District sends two Tributes - young people between the ages of 12 and 18 - to fight to the death for the amusement of the people of the Capital. The Hunger Games are a control mechanism for the government, put into place 74 years ago after the Districts engaged in an uprising. When the fragile Primrose is randomly chosen as a Tribute, Katniss steps up as a volunteer to save her sister’s life.
Jennifer Lawrence is magnificent as Katniss, and director Gary Ross is brilliant in the way he gives her plenty of room to use nuance and subtlety to create her character. In fact that subtlety threw me off for a little while, as I expected The Hunger Games to be more like Twilight - a big, broad soap where Katniss is torn between Gale and Peeta, her fellow Tribute from District 12 who has always had a crush on her. But that isn’t what Katniss’ story is about at all, and it seems like she isn’t terribly interested in either of the boys.
For Katniss the journey is about discovering how much of herself she can give away for survival. As a hunter, she is well trained for the brutal Hunger Games. But the games are rigged, and playing to the unseen audience is as important as killing opponents on the field. There are sponsors out in the world, who will give aid to players they like, and the game masters will fuck with the playing field to create drama. Katniss has to learn to play to that audience, to give them the show they want, in order to get the support she needs. The film doesn’t play this out as a big, obvious thing - Katniss never gives a speech about it - but by the end everything hinges on it.
On some level this is an examination of how we all live in the modern world. How much of ourselves are we willing to compromise to get ahead, to keep going? For Jennifer Lawrence this probably rings even truer, as it’s essentially her struggle as a serious young actress. She definitely has the chops, but the Hollywood game isn’t about who’s best. There are still Maxim layouts and stupid chat shows to be done. I imagine that Lawrence’s Oscar experience, where she did the hard work in Winter’s Bone but then had to be trotted out in pretty dresses at vapid Academy parties, came in handy during the scenes in Hunger Games where Katniss is trying to wow the audience on a talk show.
That talk show host, Ceasar Flickerman, is played by Stanley Tucci, wearing a ridiculous blue wig and grotesque, enormous chompers in his mouth. He’s the first person we see in the movie; Ross opts to open the movie deep inside the flamboyance of the Capital, giving us a look at Caesar’s show as he interviews Hunger Games designer Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley, in an immacutely silly beard. By the way, everything in this has Roman names - Suzanne Collins’ original novel leans heavily on the bread and circuses metaphor, I suppose). The film’s design is brave, with everybody in the Capital wearing outfits that scream ‘goofy vision of the future,’ but Ross treats it all so straight and so matter of fact that we accept it. That’s the importance of starting with this scene and not playing it for laughs; this isn’t a Verhoeven version of a futuristic TV show, with extreme satire. The clothes and hair are strange, but everything is played very, very straight and there’s little Caesar does that Ryan Seacrest doesn’t already do.
The Hunger Games makes many of its political points very subtly. As Katniss and Peeta travel on a train to prepare to be murdered on TV their handler, the way over the top Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) cares more about the condition of her expensive mahogany table top than their coming deaths. The Tributes gawk as they leave behind the world of the 99% and discover how the 1% live. There’s some briefly explicit political talk from President Snow (a wonderfully menacing Donald Sutherland), but it all falls on deaf ears. As he explains to Seneca why it’s dangerous to have District 12 Tributes in the lead, Seneca can only focus on what would make a good game, not what makes for good political control. The system, designed to hold down the poor, is so ingrained that even those in charge of it have lost sight of its original intent. It’s like Network, where the channel executives serve the evil needs of Ned Beatty’s corporate overlord without really realizing it.
The first half of the film is before the Hunger Games, as Katniss prepares. Peeta, played by Josh Hutcherson, is a terrible player on the field but a much more natural ham for the crowd, and we get to see that happening. Lenny Kravitz is actually great as Cinna, Katniss’ style advisor. Woody Harrelson chews up the scenery a bit as Haymitch, a former District 12 Hunger Games winner who has been worn down into alcoholism by his new job - mentoring each year’s doomed batch of local Tributes. Elizabeth Banks brings surprising humanity to the clown-faced Effie; there’s a struggle within her to ignore the inhumanity happening around her.
And then come the Games. The biggest complaint many have about The Hunger Games before seeing it is that the concept rips off Battle Royale - which is sort of silly, since it isn’t like Battle Royale is wholly original, being a mash-up of The Running Man, Lord of the Flies and The Most Dangerous Game. Of course it’s impossible to ignore the fact that Battle Royale probably influenced some of how The Hunger Games plays out - especially the nightly roll call of the dead - but there’s one terrible truth I must give you right now about this film:
The Hunger Games is a better movie than Battle Royale. I say that having recently revisited Battle Royale on the big screen. While Battle Royale is bloodier and edgier than the PG-13 Hunger Games, Gary Ross’ movie is a better film. Our main characters are better drawn, the world is more complex and interesting and Ross’ (rating mandated) restraint actually lends greater impact to the film. Which movie would I rather pop in and watch for entertainment? Battle Royale for sure; Kinji Fukasaku’s film is deliriously entertaining. The Hunger Games feels like a richer experience.
On the subject of teen bloodshed: I am shocked that The Hunger Games secured a PG-13. The MPAA is notoriously squeamish about violence against children, and this film is nothing but. The opening battle of the Game, when all 24 contestants stand on an open field in front of a giant cornucopia loaded with weaponry, is a bloodbath. For almost two minutes Ross’ camera watches as children are stabbed, slashed, broken and shot. Blood splashes on the ground and drips from blades. That’s the biggest kill scene, with half the contestants left dead on the ground in minutes, but the deaths keep coming. Later a child pulls an arrow out of a sucking wound in her chest, another gets run through with a javelin. A vicious wasp attack leaves a beautiful girl swollen, deformed and dead.
Ross doesn’t treat this stuff as a cartoon. In fact he approaches the whole film with a deadly, underplayed seriousness. The Hunger Games bucks the modern trend by refusing to drench every scene in loud, obvious score. Ross isn’t relying on the composer’s crutch to tell us how to feel, something rare in even more ‘serious’ films these days. He does give in to the modern trend of shooting in a handheld, shakycam style; it’s pretty egregious in the opening but settles down a bit as the movie goes on. There is, frankly, still too much of it throughout.
The other restrained choice that Ross makes is to not show the Hunger Games through television broadcasts. I think it would have been very easy to present half the film as TV recaps or live airings as a way of adding some visual flair to a movie that is stuck largely in the forest for the second hour, but he avoids it. The audience is rarely ever seen - except for two scenes, one with emotional meaning and the other with political meaning - but they are very much felt.
The Hunger Games has problems. The film is too long, and it feels long. Peeta is a complete drag; while Hutcherson plays the two sides of the character - comfortable on camera, sure he’s going to die on the field - well, he can’t overcome Peeta’s essential uselessness. He exists only as an obstacle for Katniss to overcome. I’m not even sure why Gale is in this movie, except that he’s obviously important in later installments; I wish he had been given something - anything - to do in this one. The FX work isn't great, which is why it's nice that so much of the film is practical. And Ross ends the movie at the wrong moment, going literally seconds too long, losing a moment of great emotional impact.
But even with those problems The Hunger Games is largely a triumph of smart, brave, timely, heady science fiction that recalls the 60s and 70s era of big idea scifi. Lionsgate took a chance in hiring an old guy like Gary Ross and not going with a slick music video/commercial director and I think it paid off. Ross brings real filmmaking skill, and the subversion he planted in Pleasantville blooms large here. This isn’t Twilight meets Battle Royale, and in fact the romantic triangle I had heard about seems to not really exist in this movie. Am I Team Gale or Team Peeta? Neither, because Katniss is so kick-ass she doesn’t need either of these dweebs.