Suzanne Collins says she got the idea for The Hunger Games while sleepily flicking channels between some reality-show game and footage of the invasion of Iraq until the images began to blur in her mind. What’s bracing about Gary Ross’ film of the first book in Collins’ wildly popular young-adult trilogy is that the topicality of the story’s origins still comes across. When was the last Hollywood science-fiction action blockbuster that felt like actual ideas about the world we live in were at stake?
The Hunger Games is set in a postapocalyptic dystopian world of Panem, a nation composed of a dozen districts, of greatly disparate wealth and status, governed by the totalitarian power of the Capitol, a fabulously wealthy and decadent district that oppresses the other districts in various ways, the most appalling of which is the Hunger Games, an annual death match pitting 12 boys and 12 girls chosen by lottery from the various districts against one another, with a single survivor acclaimed the victor.
This yearly event, televised for the whole nation, is both a means of intimidation and state-sponsored terrorism and also a dehumanizing form of mass entertainment. There’s also an economic-oppression angle: Poor citizens can barter for food and other necessities by increasing the number of times their names go into the pool for the lottery. Thus, the rich are sheltered, and the poor are disproportionately at risk.
The name Panem alludes to the Latin phrase panem et circenses (bread and circuses), the Roman satirist Juvenal’s bitter phrase for the lowest-common-denominator aspirations of a docile, bloodless population that had abdicated their duties and no longer aspired to active civic involvement.
Ancient Rome, with its gladiatorial circuses, is obviously alluded to by Collins’ premise, as well as character names like Cato and Claudius among the residents of the wealthier districts. Residents of the poorer districts generally have botanical names, like Collins’ heroine, Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), and her sister, Primrose (the similarly botanically named Willow Shields). Christian names are almost completely absent, which makes sense, because in no culture with any lingering Christian influence could something quite as barbaric as the Hunger Games exist. Where Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), Katniss’ companion for much of her adventures, got his handle, I wouldn’t venture to guess. I know his father is a baker, but, come on, that’s corny.
Katniss is a soul sister to Lawrence’s breakout role Ree Dolly in Winter’s Bone: an impoverished, self-reliant child of the rural mountains of the Upland South (Katniss is from Appalachia, Ree from the Ozarks), with a dead father, a functionally absent mother and the responsibility of caring for a younger sister (Ree also had a younger brother). Both are even hunters who skin and eat squirrels. And both inhabit a barbarous culture that may snuff them out and not think twice, although in Katniss’ case it could happen on national television.
The Hunger Games contrasts Katniss’ hardscrabble life in District 12 with the frivolity and decadence of the Capitol, a gleaming alabaster city teeming with inhabitants flaunting miles and miles of hair and frippery in colors and configurations Nature never intended. Among the most flamboyant of these are Effie Trinket (a very funny Elizabeth Banks), a painted and bedizened refugee from the Potter-verse who represents the Games in District 12, and Caesar Flickerman (a disturbingly persuasive Stanley Tucci), an ingratiating media personality who interviews tributes and emcees the Games.
The film opens with an interview with new Head Gamemaster Seneca Crane (Wes Bentley in a Mephistophelean beard) reflecting thoughtfully on how the Games have “grown beyond” their punitive origins and “helped us to heal,” how they are the one thing that “brings us all together.”
While it’s impossible to imagine something like the Hunger Games in the world we know, if something like it were possible, this is precisely the sort of soothing, conciliatory rhetoric with which it would be rationalized. Consider the unifying rhetoric accompanying bipartisan support for ever greater expansions of unchecked executive power over the lives of citizens, up to and including power to indefinitely detain or even assassinate American citizens on American soil, secretly, with no judicial review or accountability of any kind, without convicting or even charging them with a crime, let alone entertaining any defense of innocence.
Good stuff. And yet … at some point in the story the allegory recedes, and there is a mad scramble of tributes for a stockpile of weapons and supplies. Within seconds, teenagers who just days earlier had been going about their business commence butchering one another with swords and throwing knives, while others, like Katniss, strategically make for the surrounding woods. Later we see temporary, strategic alliances of tributes in marauding bands laughing about the deaths of their rivals.
I’m about halfway through the book, I guess, and I’m troubled by all of this in the book, but more so in the movie. Ross films the initial bloodbath with as much restraint as possible, but it is what it is.
The Hunger Games doesn’t whitewash or glamorize the evil of the Games or of the forced participation of the tributes. It doesn’t depict Katniss killing anyone except in direct self-defense, which is good, though, if I recall correctly, her partner Peeta does and seems to express openness to doing so prior to the Games.
The material is disturbing, and should be. I’ve watched movies before about individuals taken prisoner and forced to engage in blood sport, such as Gladiator. What is the difference here?
Partly, I guess, it’s simply that the combatants are teenagers — and that Panem is culturally more proximate to our own world than ancient Rome. The Capitol is a futuristic freak show, but the architecture and clothes in District 12 would be at home in a rural American landscape in the early 20th century. Technology, from trains to television, looks like our world. It’s hard to accept the complete eradication of Christian moral sense, not to mention faith, from a world like this.
Another problem is that many of the tributes, particularly from the wealthier districts, eagerly embrace the barbarism of the Games, not in a ruthless struggle for survival, but because they think it’s honorable or even just fun. Even in pagan Rome gladiators were generally equivalent to slaves (often criminals or prisoners of war) or little better. Very occasionally citizens and even emperors voluntarily fought in the arena, though to do so carried a risk of stigma and loss of status. The idea of wealthy tributes regularly volunteering, not for an evenly matched contest, but for a 1-in-24 chance of survival, is hard to square with human nature.
Even before the rise of Christian opposition to blood sports, Roman approval was not universal. For instance, Seneca wrote to his friend Lucilius advising him to avoid the games, which he said disposed the viewer to “greater cruelty and less humanity.” Where is the ambivalence in the Capitol? Well, I guess there’s Katniss’ stylist Cinna. That’s something.
This basic issue is further complicated by two moments toward the end, both involving the heroine. (Spoiler warning.) In one scene, she puts an arrow into a horribly dying opponent to ease his passing. There is also a suicide-pact theme that is more problematic in the film than I understand to be the case in the book, where it appears to be more apparent than actual.
Certainly there are praiseworthy themes along with the problematic. In addition to being perhaps the most engaging action-movie protagonist in recent years, Katniss is a selfless heroine who courageously risks her life to protect others, including Peeta and a young combatant named Rue, not to mention her sister Primrose. In a touching sequence, Katniss honors a fallen competitor by arraying her body with flowers, in the spirit of the seventh corporal work of mercy. Others also act in noble and selfless ways.
Am I glad I saw The Hunger Games? Yes. But I’m not eager to see it again. It’s a well-made film with a lot of nice touches, from the way little Primrose pathetically tucks in her shirttail in a moment of excruciating duress to Katniss slightly fumbling a grand gesture during a scoring event by forgetting to return her bow to its place. There’s much to admire about the overarching premise, and there are some clever conceits in the course of the Games. I like a speech from Peeta about being willing to die if he can somehow remain himself and not let the gamemasters make him into something he isn’t.
I’m not sure whether my misgivings about the violence means that the violence is a problem or just that viewers ought to have misgivings about it. Either way, if they don’t, I don’t think that’s a good sign.
Steven D. Greydanus is the Register’s film critic.
Content Advisory: Teenagers butchering each other, obviously. Lots of intense, explicit violence. Could be fine for mature teens and adults.