Rather than dull the social commentary for mass consumption, Director Gary Ross sharpens the edge of the popular teen novel, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins in the screen adaptation that boasts $155 million domestic in its opening weekend. Those who watch The Hunger Games looking only for action, a compelling story and solid entertainment will not be disappointed. This is offered to the audience in spades. Though the film is rife with social commentary, it does not get heavy-handed. Instead it drives the story in ways more apparent in the film than in the book. Though die-hard fans of the popular book series will see this and other differences between the book and movie, none that radically change the storyline. Most will likely find them acceptable or even positive shifts.
The Hunger Games begins with a look at poverty in Collins’ dystopian future—the home of Katniss Everdeen (played by Jennifer Lawrence) in one of twelve poor districts that provide raw materials, goods and services for the politically dominant Capital population. The visuals of poverty do more to set up the contrast of poor and rich than the written word ever could and Ross takes full advantage. We witness Katniss hunting in off-limits woods. She’s skilled with a bow and uses these skills to help feed her family. Soon it is revealed that this is day of ‘reaping,’ when a boy and girl from each of the twelve districts is selected by drawing to compete in a competition to the death—the Hunger Games.
While district residents dread selection, those in the capital relish the Hunger Games for its spectacle, drama and entertainment. The sickening reality of entertainment at the death of children is held up consistently through the movie. When Katniss’ twelve year-old sister is selected for the Hunger Games, Katniss volunteers to compete instead. Here, again, director Ross takes advantage of film in a way that books fall short. At the selection of children for the Hunger Games, a representative of the capital announces them triumphantly, expecting applause. The revolt of the district’s silent response is aurally stunning while their faces silently scream for revolution. Katniss is soon whisked away to the Capitol with Peeta Mallark (played by Josh Hutcherson), a boy we later learn has had a crush on Katniss for years.
After training, interviews and various demonstrations, twenty-four children are placed in a futuristic, forested coliseum. Director Gary Ross, actors Jennifer Lawrence and Lenny Kravitz (who plays Cinna, Katniss’ stylist) do an incredible job conveying the fear felt by Katniss Everdeen before being thrust into the arena. I felt the fear and anticipation in my body—along with, I presume, the rest of the theater. After an excruciatingly exciting countdown, the children are thrust into the game and after each other.
The violence is shown in quick motion, with minimal blood and gore. It spares the audience from being overwhelmed until you think for two seconds about what is being portrayed. The knowledge that this is a depiction of children killing children was enough to make me shift uncomfortably in my seat. This, I’m sure, is a part of the filmmakers’ intent: to set the audience continually ill at ease.
The Hunger Games continually asks questions of its audience. The director offers especially poignant challenge after the death of one of Katniss’ allies. While rising up from the now lifeless body of her young friend, she looks accusingly through the camera to the audience as if to ask, ‘does this amuse you?’ Director Ross and author Collins challenge the ways we are entertained by violence while serving up plenty of portions. It became clear to me that if I were to truly listen to the message of the movie, I should stop watching. And yet I don’t…I can’t because I am held captive—revealing something about myself that I perhaps don’t want to see. The Hunger Games continually walks an interesting line—critiquing questionable norms in our society while simultaneously pandering to them. I believe that this irony is intentional—and brilliant.
Because it seems to foreign and absurd, the alien costumes and strange appearances of the capital residents and impressive technology helps us to identify with the district heroine, Katniss Everdean. She becomes the heroine that we all root for and with whom most audiences will identify. This, too, offers an ironic twist for wealthy audiences who are far more like capital residents than those of the district. In the course of the book and movie, I caught myself co-opting Katniss Everdean as if her story is my own. I’m honestly not sure if this is a good thing or not—but it seems like a very “capital” thing for me to do in the The Hunger Games world.
I stepped out of the movie theater at the North Park Mall, situated in the Highland Park neighborhood of Dallas—one of the wealthiest in the world. I’m surrounded by botoxed men and women, shoppers wearing outfits that cost hundreds or thousands of dollars. There are more blonde women than could be normal anywhere outside of Sweden. Makeup, expensive jewelry, plastic surgery and ignorance or indifference to the real plight fo the poor surround me. I am a member of a society reminiscent of the Capital in The Hunger Games. Not many movies encourage that level of reflection and realization. The Hunger Games is a must-see for anyone who wants to stay current on contemporary culture or speak to the questions raised by this well-executed movie.